Monday, August 14, 2017

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Paul, a gentle food writer, is depressed when his live-in girlfriend runs off with her trainer. Then his faithful editor steps in, arranging a trip to Italy so he can finish his latest book and use travel as an antidote for heartbreak. Paul has "always been rather good at suppression," yet fails in his efforts to "delete" his love for Becky. Poignantly, he thinks there are "no flowers or letters any more, just...the faded leaves of the virtual world" to serve as love tokens.

Undertaken with reluctance, his journey brings strange developments: surprise meetings and even a brush with the Italian police. When a rental car proves unavailable, a new friend helps him engage a bulldozer. This machine raises his perspective and his spirits as it carries him at a sedate pace to his hotel high in the Tuscan hills.

Speaking through his characters, McCall Smith treats readers to hearty doses of the his gentle humour and philosophy. His beloved Italy is described as a complex culture in which people give importance to la bella figura, a sense of the value of doing everything beautifully, in the conviction that "they, like everyone else, were being watched."

It is also a collective of subcultures. As Onesto remarks, while politicians in Rome are "busy fighting with one another...all over the place there are people using European Union money to build things we don't need, and then other people come along and knock them down." Hmm, that's a good job for a civic-minded bulldozer driver.

We also learn that "love is a souffle that [can] only too easily collapse," and can rarely be revived. As Paul comes to terms with his loss, the author shares his surprising arrival at the view that sorry was "something he now needed to say to bring the whole matter to an end." He feels compelled to apologize to Becky, even though she left him for someone with more muscle.

The priest brother of a local wine grower routinely argues with the rationalist schoolteacher. In their perennial difference of opinion, Stefano points out that the same problem arises for the man of reason as for the one who chooses faith. "You can't point to something that I can touch or feel and say, That, you see, is Reason...yet you expect me to be able to show you God."

Smith's charming prose is sprinkled with potent philosophical commentary: In case of emotional undercurrents, casual conversation can "cover the things underneath" and "good deeds should never be paraded by those who do them, no matter how strong the temptation to do so might be."

What else do we need to know? Alexander McCall Smith has done it again: another irresistible title and another great standalone tale, filled with the moral solace his readers have come to expect from his work.

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