No one pricks pomposity and self-importance as hilariously as Alexander McCall Smith. Whether it is self-congratulatory assistant lady detectives, officious Scandinavian policemen or snobbish residents of Edinburgh’s New Town, he captures absurdities with a gentle lampooning that we laugh at while perhaps also recognising such tendencies in ourselves.
It is something of a trademark, too, that he lets the reader hear the inner thoughts of characters as awkward conversations progress, as each participant reviews the minutiae of exactly what is said while strategising their own responses, and this technique has reached its zenith in his latest novel, set in the philology department of a German university.
Here the professors of the structure of language are equally constrained by departmental hierarchy and conventions of etiquette. They spend their days not only obsessing over the precise meaning of words and tenses in obscure languages, but the nuance in their own status and the meaning of their interactions with each other.
In the wider world, we know that universities have become the battleground for a new order of revolutionary thought – so-called wokism – but at the University of Regensburg’s Institute of Romance Philology, the progressive inclusivity which threatens the status quo is on a much smaller scale.
The conflict comes from the arrival of younger, female employees. The first, Dr Schreiber-Ziegler, the new deputy librarian, makes the mistake of entering the Senior Coffee Room on her first day, which is reserved for the exclusive use of the department’s three full professors and the head librarian. Such a breach of protocol is intolerable, but the four established coffee room inhabitants agonise over how such an egregious act can be dealt with.
Herr Huber, the head librarian, is dispatched to inform the offender of her transgression. Her reaction, which is to laugh, say “phooey” to the rules and compare one of the professors to a potato, shocks Huber to his core. “This Dr Schreiber-Ziegler, he decided, was a very dangerous woman indeed.”
So she proves. In order to clear shelf space in the library she removes 21 of the 22 copies of Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the masterpiece written by Professor Dr Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, to give him his full title. Von Igelfeld is head of the department and takes great offence, despite there being only two records of his book ever being borrowed – once by him.
When Huber is again asked to deal with his deputy, he accuses her of challenging his authority but her reply shocks him:
“Dr Schreiber-Ziegler looked bored. ‘Actually it is far more than that. It’s a challenge to outdated patriarchy. It’s a questioning of assumptions of superiority made on the slenderest of grounds. It’s a knocking on the door of privilege.”
She further accuses Huber of being part of the problem, in echoes of the wider debates going on in the world – if you aren’t with us, you must be against us.
The sedate and rigid world of the institute is further rocked by the arrival of another young woman, an American no less, who insists on addressing her colleagues by their first names, rather than acknowledging their full academic achievements in every exchange.
Such sedition must be dealt with, and the novel follows the knots that the men tie themselves in, while simultaneously competing with each other, disparaging rivals’ work and qualifications, backstabbing and falling victim to petty plots while attempting to squeeze every ounce of recognition and dignity for themselves.
Outside the main action are further delights – the tales of a maiden aunt’s nursing home travails and an unfortunate dachshund with one leg, who utilises a trolley to get around.
Those within the institute do indeed enjoy a cloistered and privileged existence, but there are no real villains here, just a gentle and witty delight at human frailties. As such, Your Inner Hedgehog might be just the antidote we need to the constant real world cacophony of hyperbolic argument and mud-slinging that seems to surround every debate on every issue.
Your Inner Hedgehog, by Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown, 216pp, £14.99
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions