The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith, read by Lisette Lecat, Recorded Books, LLC, 2004
I have finally come to the conclusion that I will never ever understand the nature of bestsellerdom, that I will never be capable of writing a bestseller, that bestsellerness is as foreign and alien a concept to me as the atomic structure of Strontium-90. Perhaps even more so.
That Alexander McCall Smith’s series of cozy Botswana mysteries fall into the category of bestsellers with chart-topping success is one of the more esoteric mysteries of the order of the New York Times Top Ten list. The book is poorly written, worse paced, and below the pits on the sliding Agatha Christie to Murder, She Wrote scale. There is, firstly, no mystery. In and of itself, this wouldn’t be a problem. It might even be a charming wrinkle in a mystery series to sport a book in which the biggest disappearance is that of the actual crime. What The Full Cupboard does tackle is a few eensy-weensy bothers that the pleasantly polite and charming Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, effortlessly clears up time and again.
In fact, if there is any crime involved in this book it is that it won the Saga Award for Wit as most humorous book of the year. That little seal of approval more than anything spurred me to pull this short audiobook off the shelf, jumping for the third time in as many weeks into the middle book of a mystery series. This is getting to be a bad habit and I should know better than to fall for the nudging of an award I’ve never heard of, yet when your major source of review material is the public library, you take what they have. (I’ll be down to reviewing Jackie Collins novels by year’s end.)
For those, like myself until this week, who’ve never heard of the Saga Award for Wit, it is also called, unjustifiably if this is its maiden winner, the Silver Booker. Winners, who all must be over the age of 50, are bestowed a prize £20.000 and are feted at Saga Magazine’s headquarters as humorists toast and roast them and the others on the short list. If this book represents the pinnacle of humorous British writing for 2003, than it must have been a slender year in the British publishing world. Poor Stephen Fry has two more years to go. The SAW claims to be for humorous books in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and by this they must be meaning more Brideshead Revisited than Vile Bodies, The Loved One, or Black Mischief.
Honestly, I’ve never suppressed more mental yawns waiting around for the funny to show up in my entire life. The funniest line in the entire book is when Mma Ramotswe gets flustered and says that men are just like boys and if “you take off their trousers, there is no difference between boys and men.” Har, hah, cough, ahem, yes. Rib tickling. The other big laugh is how dumb Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistant mechanics are. Boy does that old kneeslapper never get tiresome. Unfunny, yes. Tiresome, not quite.
Now, I rather consider myself pretty understanding of and sensitive to the various types of humor, even that most curious of ducks, the British variety, which I love dearly, but by god I’m flummoxed here. If there is any one person among my readers who can get me a ticket on the Clue Train I’d appreciate it. I’ve given you the big wind up joke of the book already, which hits you about half way through the novel, a G-rated piece of ribald malapropism never repeated in the whole of the story.
What is repeated, however, is every trite piece of information you’ve already been nudged with a dozen times. Yes, Mma Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe’s assistant, got a score of 97% on her secretarial school exam, I get it, I get it. I needn’t hear about it every time her judgement is sought or she is appraised by her boss or her boss’ fiancé or by the entire world or when she considers the possible titles of possible books she might possibly write some day. I get it. 97%. Check. I also understand that Mma Ramotswe is plump, a traditional sized woman, yes indeedy, I got that the first time too. Big dress jokes, extra long seatbelt gags, gentle comments about how large she is, disparagement of Western notions of thin, etc. etc. ad nauseum. And Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants are dumb, which is to say not clever, which is to say almost stupid, which is to say ignorant, which is to say insipid, foolish, inane, moronic, whatever your thesaurus will allow. Lord help us if this is what passes for wit among the older set.
The story, not really a novel per se, but a series of little episodes that involve the same characters along with a drawn out story involving a parachute jump for charity, is like this. Mma Halonga, a wealthy hair salon entrepreneur hires Mma Ramotswe to investigate her four possible fiancés. Mma Halonga wants to know if they are suitable, if they love her, if they are in it for the money. When Mma Ramotswe’s only gotten around to investigating one of the four by the beginning of the last disc, I began to get the impression that that research wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, she never finishes her investigation because Mma Halonga ends it by getting engaged to one of the men, a schoolteacher who does have designs on her money, but charitable ones. That’s it. That’s the whole case. She has one interview with one suitor, one casual conversation with another, and it’s all over. Is there a term for something even more lazy, more indulgent, and more smothering than cozy? Shroud, maybe?
As I jumped into this series in the middle, I got the distinct impression that the rest of the novel was repeated jokes (97%!) and strung out scenarios that Smith had carried over from previous books. At long last Mma Ramotswe gets her long-standing fiancé Mr J.L.B. Matekoni to marry her at the book’s conclusion, the whole novel being about marriage. Apparently they got engaged in the first book or thereabouts and this is the fifth in the series, proving that Alexander McCall Smith can carry a joke too far with the worst of them, boy can he.
In fact, no plot line in the book ever goes anywhere at all with any alacrity, and not in that charming way of moving without going. Fans of this book series must be terribly fond of doing doughnuts in a parking lot or weeding or some other mindnumbingly dull repetitive schtick. It is at least pleasant of Smith to write some books about Africa that aren’t filled with pain and suffering, that show us that there are people who laugh, enjoy themselves, and live lives of relative prosperity and peace that don’t involve living in mud huts or escaping genocide. That is a small blessing, only you have to listen to Mma Ramotswe endlessly pronounce the joy of sitting down to a cup of bush tea to get it. Snore.
By now you may have noticed that certain characters in this review are always referred to by title. (Mma is the Botswanan equivalent to Madam; Rra means Sir). That is from the book. If Mr J.L.B. Matekoni has a name hidden in all those initials, I’ve never heard it and the book never tries to unravel that enigma. Either you learn it in the first book or you will never learn it and that’s more of Smith’s idea of fun. Whether this curious quality of constantly referring to characters by their titles and full names is just an authorial quirk or a Botswanan tradition I’m unable to say with any authority. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is mentioned, always by his title, his full three initials, and his last name even by his fiancée, even to his face, even after they are married. This is a bit absurd, but most likely traditional honorific speech and Smith is enjoying himself. At least someone is. I was constantly reminded of Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas in which the main character is referred to as Mr. Biswas always and in every situation, even in flashbacks to when he was a child.
That this book sold millions is a testament to some kind of monumental stupidity or bad taste. To go to the Amazon page for the book is to read critical acclaim of so many that you’d think Smith must pass around payola by the barrel. In cases like this, I assume the critics at the big dailies like the New York Times have assistants who read the books, pass on the salient plot points and character names, and the critics write glowing reviews using a template of adjectives strung together from a previous review of the first book in the series. It’s easy rehash and when my daughter gets a little older she’s going to start earning her keep around here.
Lisette Lecat, the reader, also read Nadine Gordimer’s novel reviewed previously. She seems to be the go-to for reading African novels. It seemed to me, listening to her read a novel about Botswana blacks, that she had a great deal more accent than when she read about a South African white woman. She is also a bit looser here, having a spot of fun doing thick low accents for dullards and high cheeping voice for Mma Makutsi. She was the most enjoyable aspect of this entire experience and I can only imagine how much more tedious the book could have been in other hands.