You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Friday, 30 March 2012

Literary Review - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith

It was with great joy that I collected my copy of  The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith from the library and with great satisfaction that I devoured it, over two days, like a delicious block of chocolate.


The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the thirteenth installment in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I absolutely adore these books. They are right up there in my shortlist of best books ever.


When The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was published in 1998, it was a huge success. Everyone adored it, and no wonder, it was just gorgeous. I have been delighted with the steady stream of subsequent installments, though I noticed, as the years went on and more episodes were published, many of the people I knew who were captivated by the story in the beginning were starting to complain that they were 'getting a bit same-y.' But I am just thrilled to discover, with the release of each new episode, that it takes me right back to that same place that I love so much. It's true that the world inhabited by these characters changes little over time. I love that I come back to the same familiar places and landscapes, where traditions that stretch back further than the memory of a people are honoured and cherished. It's reassuring to be reminded that such a world exists. I don't think that I could ever get tired of these books. These are books I can sink myself into like a warm bath. The style of narrative is simple, so the reading is easy, but the experience it provides is profound and inspiring. These books are excellent reading during times that feel tough. They really give me a perspective on what is important in life.

Precious Ramotswe is the traditionally built proprietor of the eponymous detective agency, located in Gaborone, Botswana. She is a strong, independent, very kind and thoughtful woman. Through her loving, understanding eyes, we see every part of her world, from the vivid landscape and unbroken heat of the climate to the intricacies of human nature and the paradox of the beauty and the terror of nature. It is a world of endless skies over vast, rugged landscapes, of sun and rain and the sweet earth, of the scent of cattle, of the memories of ancestors, of complex history and simple morals, of the magic of food that grows from the earth and nourishes our bodies, of the stunning, awesome awareness of the fullness of life that comes of a mindful existence. This is not a fantastical, utopian world, by any means, there is tragedy in this world as well as joy, there are people who commit terrible deeds as well as those of great humanity. There is lament and regret and outrage and grief in this deeply human world.

She stopped. It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin.

- The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, p. 84.

Although issues such as religion, spirituality or deities are very rarely referred to directly in the text, I find the experience of reading these books to have a deeply spiritual quality. It's the sense of connection to, no, more than that, of immersion into and belonging with the natural world and the realities of the cycles of the seasons, and of life, and the celebration of the most fundamental human experiences that resonate so closely with my religious philosophies.

Amongst this stunning scene, Mma Ramotswe and her secretary/associate Mma Makutsi apply their canny instincts to helping their clientele, a diverse variety of characters, deal with the questions in their lives that are troubling them, from private matters of the heart to audacious acts of corporate or public fraud.


Last year, a televised version of the series appeared on our screens. Well, it was bound to happen, wasn't it. It seems that any book that gains even moderate success is made into a film or television series these days. Being a book-loving sort of a person, of course, I deplore this state of affairs. I almost always find a filmed version of a book I'd enjoyed to be disappointing, with few exceptions. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency television series was not one of those exceptions. It just had too many pieces from the books missing, and I feel their absence. There was one reason, however, that I had to be very glad that I got the opportunity to see this show - and that is, specifically, to hear the very particular manner of speech portrayed in the books spoken by local native speakers. 


I had always been quite taken by the distinctive manner of speech used by the Motswana characters. There is a simplistic manner in vocabulary choices that belies an honest, direct nature, and a melodic, earthy structure in the way sentences are put together. In particular I love the way that people who have died are referred to as 'being late,' as if they are still real people, and being late is just a natural state of being in the cycle of life. I very much appreciate the sensitivity that McCall Smith has, to be able to capture the nuances of the regional dialect and bring it to life in the words of fictional characters. I love to consider the flavour of these nuances as I read, but I had always been aware that I was missing out on a big part of the overall picture - I couldn't imagine just how these people sounded when they spoke. I wasn't sure of the accent, and of the styles of timing, pace and rhythm that turn coded words back into the living music of the speech of the people. So I got to hear how the people speak on the television show, and now, as I read the books, I can really imagine how their speech sounds. It's an enrichment that I am grateful for.


One thing I especially love about these ladies is that they really understand the importance of tea. Really. The teapot is a very important fixture at the offices of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. As it should be.


'You're right, Mma Ramotswe. It is a miracle. The miracle of the tea.'
'A good miracle, Mma Makutsi.'
'A very good miracle, Mma Ramotswe.'


- The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, p. 178.

1 comment:

  1. Never heard if these books, I hope they have it in our local library.

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