Friday, August 10, 2012
I have just finished reading another of Alexander McCall Smith’s charming novels about Mma Ramotswe and her detective agency, the one and only in Gaborone, Botswana. I keep wondering why I continue to feel refreshed after reading one of them. The stories are sweet and compelling, although not riveting. The characters have grown through the course of the novels, each with his or her quirks and motivations, until I feel as though I know them fairly well. (Actually, McCall does little in the way of description – a few character tags, and you fill in the rest for yourself.)
Precious Ramotswe has some weight, a condition she refers to as “traditionally built.” In fact, the title of this recently-read book is “Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.” (I am not reading these in sequence, but as they come along.)
But I come away from one of them feeling warm, relaxed, happy, and somehow elevated in my perceptions of human behavior. More forgiving, perhaps. More capable of allowing for human differences. And just as I was trying to figure out the exact reasons for this, I came across this passage, in which Mma Ramotswe’s recently-wed husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (the is how they address each other, in fact) reflects on his feeling for his wife:
“He looked away. He was not one for displays of emotion; he never had been, but it made his heart swell to be thanked by this woman who stood for so much in his eyes; who stood for kindness and generosity and understanding; for a country of which he was so proud; who stood for Africa and all the love that Africa contained.”
And that about says it. Precious worries at the loss of old traditions of respect, kindness, generosity, etc. as the newer generation adopts more selfish and unthinking ways, even as she upholds those traditions herself. She loves Africa in a way that I can understand in my heart, as common to those of us who feel our roots in a place run deep.
It is not a love that blinds: she knows the failings and failures of her beloved country. “”We were tiny creatures, really;” she thinks, “tiny and afraid, trying to hold our place on the little platform that was our earth. So while the world about us might seem so solid, so permanent, it was not really. We were all at the mercy of chance, no matter how confident we felt, hostages to our own human frailty. And that applied not only to people, but to countries too. Things could go wrong and entire nations could be led into a world of living nightmare; it had happened, and was happening still. Poor Africa, which could stand for love and happiness and joy, could also be a place of suffering and shame. But that suffering was not the only story, thought Mma Ramotswe. There was a story of courage and determination and goodness that could be told as well, and she was proud that her country, her Botswana, had been part of that.”
(Smith may, incidentally, be single-handedly responsible for reviving the semi-colon in literature.)
So in those quotations lie the answer to my questions. Deeply probing philosophy gently robed in kindness.