02 March 2010

An Africa Woman in Scots

I wouldn't exactly say I pride myself on my literary tastes but five years of higher education in literary study mean that what constitutes literature and good writing are the only things in life about which I possess a sterling sense of confidence and serene righteousness.

There are authors out there who are read in the tens of millions and who write very badly indeed and, abhorring snobbery of any kind, I have my guilty pleasures too. But my puff-pastry reading must be written by a good writer. Mystery books are my weak spot and that is probably the only reason I have read Alexander McCall Smith. Now that I think of it, I was sceptical by all the hoopla when the Detective Agency talk began and ASM was finally foisted upon me by some book group.

As Alexander McCall Smith once said, all crime writers (AMS's neighbour Ian Rankin for one) refuse to say they write crime fiction but in the case of AMS the case is easier made. The No. 1 Ladies Detective series is about Precious Ramotswe, a woman who happens to own a detective agency rather than being about crime.

I was a fan of the first book of the series and read the second but gave up on AMS until the Telegraph began to serialise Corduroy Mansions, the first book in a new fiction series which was followed up this year in the pages of the London paper with the excellent The Dog Who Came Out of the Cold.

The Corduroy Mansions series may not be a huge shift from the Mma Ramotswe books, and yet, when set in London, the Wodehousean qualities of ASM's fiction come to the surface. The Corduroy Mansions world is less rooted in a completely fantastic world like the one invented by Wodehouse, but the vacant headedness of the characters and the innocuously lurid situations they find themselves in definitely echo the author of the Jeeves books.

Both Wodehouse and perhaps to an even greater extent McCall Smith, as far as contemporary standards apply, are light hearted authors who also happen to be good stylists.

This month, AMS has decided to publish his latest Mma Ramotswe book in Scots titled Precious and the Puggies meaning Precious and the monkeys. Obviously, I don't know as much as I should because I had to be told that Scots and Gaelic Scot are two entirely different languages. According to wiki, Scots is "the Germanic language variety traditionally spoken in Lowland Scotland and parts of Ulster. It is sometimes called Lowland Scots to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic, the Celtic language variety spoken in the Highlands and Hebrides." Having heard but not read Scots, it seemed to me it wouldn't be too difficult to master, a bit like learning Middle English. I could be wrong.

The English version of Precious and the Puggies comes out next year but I will try to conquer the intricacies of amazon.co.uk and obtain the original version subito presto. No doubt the time AMS has spent in Africa contributed to his concern for languages at risk of being forgotten. "Every language has something to offer," ASM tells the Scotsman, "a different way of looking at the world, a stock of poetry and song. The disappearance of a language is like the silencing of some lovely bird." Alexander McCall Smith should be commended for using his multi-million readership in an effort to attract attention to the problem.

[Comrade Bingo's Alexander McCall Smith aStore]

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