Portuguese Irregular Verbs (Portuguese Irregular Verbs #1), by Alexander McCall Smith
Spoiler alert: This book isn’t actually about Portuguese irregular verbs. One of the odd things that happens when one simply puts on hold all the books in one’s library system that are about the Portuguese language without reading too closely into the summary material of said books is that one gets books that are both very personally relevant and not relevant at all to the subject matter one is looking for. This book, by the author of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, centers on a set of eccentric people involved in the competitive field of academic linguistics. For all of my own personal interest in languages this is not a world that I have ever been a part of, but at the same time if you have met one quirky and eccentric intellectual, you have a good idea of what that sort of person is frequently like and this book does a good job at portraying someone not entirely unlike myself whose endearing awkwardness and competitive struggle against others of his kind leads occasionally to moments of reflection and insight and into struggles about the desires for love and honor that are shared by even the most eccentric and most intellectual.
This book, which is only a bit more than 100 pages, begins a saga relating to a Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld of linguistics, an eccentric German academic who made his career by writing an exhaustive book on Portuguese Irregular Verbs that is widely recognized as the last word on the subject, and which the author believes should provide him with a great many honors that somehow manage to escape him, much to his frustration. Over the course of this book the author learns to play tennis, but with rules before the invention of the tiebreaker. He induces a college friend and later professional rival to enter into a duel that ends up in an injured nose. He goes to Ireland and struggles with the people there. Some disastrous travels to Italy and India demonstrate the wide gulf between the protagonist’s deep interest in his language and his equally deep struggle to relate to other people through the languages that he studies so passionately. He even has an infatuation with a dentist who ends up engaged to one of his rivals, which shows him at his most painfully longing.
At the end of this short novel I felt a great deal of empathy for Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld, whose awkwardness and whose struggle to be respected and loved are ones I can deeply personally identify with. There may be many readers who are inclined to laugh at the protagonist of this novel. But although the author does have gentle sport with the pretensions of the protagonist and certainly puts him in more than a few awkward and uncomfortable positions that provide him with melancholy insight about himself and teh course of his life, it is also clear that the author has a great deal of sympathy for the author and expects the reader to be at least a little bit indulgently sympathetic for the character. I am unsure how many people the author expects to be empathetic, given that he deliberately set the protagonist in an obscure field and to help on his eccentricities to a hilarious degree. Even so, one of the hazards that a bookish and eccentric person has when reading a lot of books is that people end up writing a great many books that are all too easy to identify with, and it is not always clear whether this is intentionally done or simply very bad luck.