The World according to Bertie

AlexanderMcCallSmith by Tim DuncanAs promised, here’s the blog post about an author who uses “location” in a far more sophisticated way than any other writer I know.

I adore Alexander McCall Smith’s style of light-as-a-feather writing, but wished he’d stop using German in his novels. Firstly, because it’s rather pretentious and secondly, because the man hasn’t the first notion of the German language and always gets it wrong…and to compound his error always neglects to ask a German speaker to correct the foreign language errors in his novels.

But that’s really the only criticism I have of McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels, which are utter gems. Location plays an important part in this author’s novels, especially in his 44 Scotland Street escapades, where New Town in Edinburgh, Scotland, serves as the background to philosophical musings about life, love, friendship and freedom.

An Author goes Window-shopping

McCall Smith uses the City of Edinburg as a location for musings about the human condition, allowing readers a glimpse into the private lives of a set of people living in a particular neighbourhood. They don’t necessarily know each other personally, but their lives have a tendency to unexpectedly touch or, at times, even to collide in dramatic or comic fashion. Edinburgh serves to demonstrate the changes Scotland has undergone over the past few centuries, how its people have adapted to change and in turn have changed the world with their innovations.

Although the main focus of the story is on the residents of one particular tenement house in Scotland Street, the different districts of Edinburg all play an important role in describing the individual characters of the novel and the nature of what might be called “the Scottish condition”.

Whenever we learn more about a character or are introduced to a new character, we do so by following them to their favourite haunts in Edinburgh. Here the location is actually a character in the novel, as multi-faceted as any human being.

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, by Tilmandralle

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, by Tilmandralle

McCall is taking us on a stroll through this wind-swept Scottish city, reminding us of its heroic and foolish moments, holding up a lantern to shine on its grand architecture and its slums alike. Every so often he’s window-shopping for poignant moments, peering through the curtains to catch intimate exchanges between Edinburg’s citizens.

What at first glance appear to be mundane morsels of conversations between lovers, friends, neighbours, customers and coffee shop owners, children at school, or teachers out shopping, are eventually revealed as insightful comments on love and friendship, hope and aspirations, marriage and childhood; even the human psyche comes under scrutiny.

All Heroes great and small

Just like vet James Herriot examined the lives of all creatures great and small in the Yorkshire Dales, Alexander McCall Smith includes Edinburg’s pets in his examination of the human condition. Pet and pet owner are subjected to a minute examination, exploring their feelings to each other and the nature of their interaction with the rest of the world.

The way humans react to other people’s pets often give us a valuable clue to a person’s real personality. When at the end of the book one of the characters contemplates giving a dog a chance in order to secure the man she fancies, we know that she has finally tapped into the better part of her being, reached into herself and discovered her humanity.

Comic Genius

Edinburgh in the 17th Century

Edinburgh in the 17th Century

McCall Smith can be incredibly funny without resorting to obvious jokes. Here we see the residents of Scotland Street react to a shocking miscarriage of justice against one of their canine neighbours. From the way neighbours react to the pet’s misfortune, we catch a glimpse behind the mask and get to know these people’s true nature. We also see officialdom thwarted, always something that cheers us up, no matter what our nationality.

Naturally, plucky terrier Cyril is my favourite character in the book, apart from long-suffering Bertie himself. This time Cyril narrowly escapes the evil clutches of the law, when he is arrested for indiscriminately biting people in the neighbourhood of 44 Scotland Street. It’s all a terrible mistake, but Cyril is thrown into prison and put on death row anyway.

Cyril is innocent of this particular crime, but as some residents in Scotland Street recall, he did sink his teeth into the ankle of Bertie’s despicable mother Irene, a woman who smothers her 6-year-old son and her husband to such an extent, the two males of the Pollock household lead a miserable existence and cannot see themselves ever finding happiness.

The funny thing is that Irene is well-meaning, a mother and wife who only wants the best for her family. She believes herself to be tolerant and enlightened, but she is actually devoid of humanity, has no understanding, charity or mercy. Irene is the villain of the piece and all over the world, so McCall Smith tells his readers in the prologue to the follow-up of this novel (“The Importance of Being Seven”), readers are hoping that Bertie will finally turn seven and escape the clutches of his domineering mother, if only for an afternoon!

Scotland is a Dog-eat-Dog World

Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

A mother and wife from hell, Irene seems to have conducted a clandestine affair with Bertie’s child psychotherapist, who Bertie believes to be the father of baby Ulysses, Bertie’s 4-month-old brother. The scenes where Bertie asks the adults in his small world about the paternity of baby Ulysses are priceless and among the funniest in the book.

Bertie’s view of the world is explained in a short essay he and his classmates are asked to write by a new teacher. Full of humanity and kindness, Bertie tolerates his mother’s nasty nature, taking it as something that must be endured until he is old enough to move away as far as possible from Scotland Street. Miserable at home and at school, Bertie sees the world as one long ordeal, just like most of us do, if we’re honest.

At the end of the novel the reader cannot help but feel that Cyril the Dog would grin broadly – gold tooth and all – at some of the human peccadilloes that have happened in Scotland Street while he was in prison. He owes his life to Bertie and this reader suspects, Bertie was just returning the favour. Having witnessed his mother being bitten by Cyril must have been a great comfort to the little boy. There is a happy end – really more of a happy beginning – at the end of the novel that allows readers to look forward to McCall Smith’s next window-shopping trip in Edinburg.

Interestingly, McCall Smith ends the novel with a domestic setting in one of 44 Scotland Street’s spacious Georgian flats. We see some of the characters enjoy a harmonious meal together – which is as the world should be, according to Bertie.