Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bertie Plays the Blues, by Alexander McCall Smith

Image from New South Books

"Sandy" Smith has ramped up the comedic charm in this latest book in the 44 Scotland Street series (Polygon, 2011). Even the image conjured up by the title, that of a seven-year-old playing the blues on a saxophone, is faintly ludicrous. Reading on the Sky Train, I caused fellow passengers to glance over when several times I found myself unable to contain the chuckles inspired by this book.

Where else but in the works of this author could we overhear a conversation between an infant and a Danish ventriloquist about English grammar? In who else's work could we learn the plans of an Italian driver employed by a prominent politician who is learning German in order to get a job in Germany driving dangerous mental patients, confident that the skills needed will be the same.

And how else would we learn that at an Edinburgh dinner party, it is reassuring when there are no new faces?

Looking in on Domenica's flat, we are astonished by the adventures of her neighbour Antonia, (of the infamous blue spode teacup.) Then Domenica almost makes a mistake more serious than the teacup caper. Upon repenting, she finds that she can blame herself for foolishness only "until the vocabulary of reproach runs out."

We wander through Smith's Edinburgh, known from previous books. The proprietor of Big Lou's coffee shop has a spat with Matthew and bars him from the premises until he sends an emissary with an apology. Later, in the Cumberland Bar, we watch the gold-toothed dog Cyril -- he of the "personal hygiene problems," lap his customary bowl of beer under the table while his owner, Angus Lordie, takes a moment to listen to the troubles of his friend Matthew and vouchsafe his help and advice.

The antagonists are the same familiar folk. The vain and self-satisfied Bruce is momentarily mistaken for a spy when he signals that his property development schemes are hush hush. Bertie suffers once more at the hands of the officious and overbearing Irene, as well as other nemesis, the bossy and spiteful Olive. However, though Olive has followed Bertie to Scouts, she has been demoted. The post of Sixer now belongs to Bertie's new friend Ranald. These two have a brush with e-Bay and undertake an impulsive journey in a misguided attempt to improve Bertie's family situation.

In this uplifting and hilarious work we are treated to the flawed human thoughts of the protagonists, who are imperfect, like us, but just slightly zanier. Through the mouths of these ordinary well-intentioned people, the author whispers gently in the reader's ear, reassuring us that innocence is not dead, and that practicing the virtues does decrease existential loneliness and increase the sum total of happiness in the world, at least a little bit.

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