Yngvild's Reviews > Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith
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U 50x66
's review
May 08, 10

it was amazing
bookshelves: humour

Alexander McCall Smith’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs is very short and very funny. It follows a German professor of philology and some of his colleagues as they engage in that peculiar sport of academic infighting in the exclusive world of international conferences. This is not subtle humour. The core jokes are about stereotypes, funny exactly because they are spot on.

There is a sweet innocence about the hapless professors. Take for example, their decision to use the hotel tennis court, although none of them have ever played tennis.
“I’ve never played,” said von Igelfeld.

“Nor I,” said Unterholzer. “Chess, yes. Tennis no.”

“But that’s no reason not to play,” von Igelfeld added quickly. “Tennis, like any activity, can be mastered if one knows the principles behind it. In that respect it must be like language. The understanding of simple rules produces an understanding of a language. What could be simpler?”

– Portuguese Irregular Verbs, Alexander McCall Smith (2004)
Warning: If “German professor of philology” does not prime your cheek muscles to laugh, you are in trouble with this book. Philology was largely developed in Germany and the obscurity of some of the papers written about the subject reached levels of absurdity unusual even for German academicians. Then there is the whole question of German snobbishness about titles, the kind you earn ("Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Schmidt") and the kind you inherit ("Herr von Igelfeld".) The book also assumes that you understand what is innately hilarious about the subjunctive tense.

McCall Smith assumes you can understand German (and French) without needing an English translation, and that you will immediately recognize which famous work of German fiction involves a Polish youth called Tadeusz (or Tadseuz, as it was spelled in my copy). Without all that "assuming" there are still the slapstick passages about professors trying to use a textbook to learn to play tennis (and swim).
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Martha Groeber Thank you for mentioning the Polish boy and where the reference was from. Having not read Thomas Mann, I didn't know the allusion. After doing a little research now, the whole last chapter makes a lot more sense!

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