And Now For Something Completely Different

Portuguese Irregular Verbs (A Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainment) by Alexander McCall Smith
Grade: B+

Alexander McCall Smith is most famous for his mystery series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Portuguese Irregular Verbs is apparently quite different from the books of that series. It is not a mystery, but rather a collection of short stories about Dr von Igelfeld, German professor of philology, fool at large.

The book starts out strongly with a story about von Igelfeld and two of his colleagues. They decide to play a game of tennis though none of them has played before. Indeed, none of them is typically inclined to any kind of athleticism, but as von Igelfeld says,

That’s no reason not to play. . . . Tennis, like any activity, can be mastered if one knows the principles behind it. In that respect it must be like language. The understanding of simple rules produces an understanding of a language. What could be simpler?

So they locate an old rulebook and, having absorbed the rules, two play while the third keeps score. Unfortunately, neither player can mange a proper serve and, according to the rules, the match must continue until a lead of at least two games is established, which is never going to happen. Von Igelfeld says,

This is quite ridiculous. . . . A game must have a winner—everybody knows that—and yet this . . . this stupid book makes no provision for moderate players like ourselves.

They all agree to quit, and off they go to take a refreshing swim, even though none of them has ever tried swimming before….

If all of the stories were this funny, I would have given Portuguese Irregular Verbs an A+ and a glowing review. However, the stories seem almost to be arranged by quality, from best to worst. By the time I reached the end of the book, I’d had quite enough of von Igelfeld and his travels. So I half-recommend it, or recommend half of it, whichever way you want to look at it.

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