The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency because I felt that I needed to read a calming, soothing book. (That’s why I decided against Slaughterhouse-Five, for example.) I read the second instalment in the series – Tears of the Giraffe – a few years ago. I don’t know exactly how I ended up reading the second book before the first, I probably bought it on impulse at Oxford Borders, when we still had Borders. Anyway, these novels have a very special aura, they’re naïve and optimistic about life. Problems resolve relatively easily, the characters are at peace with the world – I now recall thinking somehow, as I was reading the first book, that these were aimed at older readers. I don’t mean to say that the plots are dull or anything, but they are a perfect match for people who won’t be able to take too much sadness and stress – like me nowadays. (I think another reason why I think they’re for older people is that there’s nothing rude in the books and the main characters are referred to in the formal address: Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Maybe it would be more precise if I said that I feel the books have been written by an older person, Smith was 51 when the first book was published. He’s a proper gentleman.)

Yes, the plot relies on coincidence, idealizes life in Africa, and there are no stubborn obstacles in the way of Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s first female private detective. On two occasions, she announces wrong-doers that they “might die soon” and they believe her, and either give in or do what she wants them to do. So this aspect might be compromising realism (or verisimilitude) but I don’t see it as a literary defect.

The books can be described as fatalistic as well, and they encourage you to be thankful for what you have – not because you read that people in Botswana live in dire circumstances (on the contrary, Motswana are described as living a comfortable life compared to other African nations) but because the characters, especially Mma Ramotswe, is content with her life. She is also a good Christian, and good things come her way because she is a good person. This aspect is interesting particularly when we remember that Alexander McCall Smith is actually a bioethics expert. (I am curious about his views on euthanasia, for example.)

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was a very smooth read as well, I finished reading it in three and a half days. I’m quoting a romantic section from the end:

“He looked at [Mma Ramotswe] in the darkness, at this woman who was everything to him – mother, Africa, wisdom, understanding, good things to eat, pumpkins, chicken, the smell of sweet cattle breath, the white sky across the endless, endless bush, and the giraffe that cried, giving its tears for women to daub on their baskets; O Botswana, my country, my place (p. 232)”.

Depictions of Botswana countryside here reminded me of reading Xinran’s Sky Burial, which is set in Tibet. That book was also idealizing life in Tibet, and last week, when I was looking up a Chinese writer on Wikipedia, I came across this information:

“Ma [Jian] came to the attention of the English-speaking world with his story collection Stick Out Your Tongue, translated into English in 2006. The stories are set in Tibet. Their most remarked-upon feature is that traditional Tibetan culture is not idealised, but rather depicted as harsh and often inhuman; one reviewer noted that the ‘stories sketch multi-generational incest, routine sexual abuse and ritual rape’. The book was banned in China as a ‘vulgar and obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots’”.

I remember a Tibetan woman sleeping with her husband’s brother as part of family tradition (all the family sleep in the same tent), but this account of Tibet disillusioned me. Of course Stick Out Your Tongue would be telling about certain families and certain aspects of life Tibet and the Sky Burial others, but I somehow believed that Tibetans lived in the place I read about in Xinran’s book.

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