Monday, 16 September 2013

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

by Alexander McCall Smith

Unlike its sequels, Portuguese Irregular Verbs has no plot to speak of as it is a collection of more or less independent stories featuring the trio of German academics. Meet Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, the author of a seminal work on Portuguese irregular verbs, simply but majestically entitled Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and his two colleagues, Professor Dr Dr (honoris causa) Florianus Prinzel and Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer.

Ah, to be a philologist! To work in an (apparently spared by crisis) academic Institute and travel the world! In this book, von Igelfeld finds himself in Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and Goa (by special invitation of J.G.K.L. Singh of Chandighar, author of Dravidian Verb Shifts). I could swear that I have met him, or maybe his identical twin, a biologist, in all these places.

That evening, after he had taken a refreshing drink of mango juice on the main verandah, von Igelfeld ventured out onto the road outside the hotel. Within a few seconds he had been surrounded by several men in red tunics, who started to quarrel over him until a villainous-looking man with a moustache appeared to win the argument and led von Igelfeld over to his cycle-driven rickshaw.
‘I shall show you this fine town,’ he said to von Igelfeld as the philologist eased himself into the small, cracked leather seat. ‘What do you wish to see? The prison? The library? The grave of the last Portuguese governor?’
Von Igelfeld chose the library, which seemed the least disturbing of the options, and soon they were bowling down the road, overtaking pedestrians and slower rickshaws, the sinister rickshaw man ringing his bell energetically at every possible hazard.
The library was, of course, closed, but this did not deter the rickshaw man. Beckoning for von Igelfeld to follow him, he took him through the library gardens and walked up to the back door. Glancing about him, the rickshaw man took out a small bunch of implements, and started to try each in the lock. Von Igelfeld watched in amazement as his guide picked the lock; he knew he should have protested, but, faced with such effrontery, words completely failed him. Then, when the door swung open, equally passively he followed the rickshaw driver into the cool interior of the Goa State Library.
The building smelled of damp and mildew; the characteristic odour of books which have been allowed to rot.
‘Here we are,’ said the rickshaw man. ‘These books are very, very old, and contain a great deal of Portuguese knowledge. The Portuguese brought them and now they have gone away and left their books behind.’

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