Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
But then there was the third name, and that was where enthusiasm and mild irritation were succeeded by outrage. Professor Dr Dr Detlev-Amadeus Unterholzer, the journal announced, had been nominated on the basis of his work on Portuguese verbs – work which enjoyed a considerable reputation not only in Germany but throughout the world.
His research has put Regensburg’s Institute of Romance Philology on the map
, the journal concluded,
and deservedly so. This makes him a very strong candidate for the award of this prize.
It was difficult to know where to begin. Unterholzer had been von Igelfeld’s colleague for a considerable time. Their relationship was not a simple one, as there had been a number of issues over the years – none of them von Igelfeld’s fault, of course – because of which the friendship between them, if one could call it that, had been strained. Most notably there had been the incident of Unterholzer’s dog, the unfortunate dachshund, Walter, or Dr Walter Unterholzer, as the
Librarian, Herr Huber, had so wittily called him. This dog had lost three of his legs in circumstances for which Unterholzer blamed von Igelfeld, and the poor animal was now obliged to get about on a prosthetic appliance involving three small wheels. Walter had, some years previously, disgraced himself by coming across and eating a small collection of bones. These bones had not been intended for consumption by dogs, rather they were sacred relics of particular interest to the Coptic church, being the bones – or some of them – of the late Bishop of Myra, none other than St Nicholas. Thereafter, Walter had become an object of veneration within the Coptic church as he had consumed holy relics and was therefore, in a sense, a reliquary, even if an ambulant one. He had enjoyed a brief period of veneration in a church, occupying a small gilded kennel before which pilgrims would kneel. Unfortunately, many pilgrims expressed surprise at the barking sounds which emerged from this kennel–reliquary, and so in the end Walter was restored to his original owners, the Unterholzers.
Von Igelfeld’s responsibility for Walter’s unfortunate injury had led to ill-feeling, but even putting that
aside, there had also been numerous occasions on which Unterholzer had sought to obtain some advantage over von Igelfeld. Some of these were minor – and could be forgiven – but others were of such a serious
nature as to remain a stumbling block in the way of normal relations. One thing was clear, though – that von Igelfeld was the better scholar. Unterholzer had written his own book on Portuguese subjunctives years ago, a minor insubstantial book, which had concentrated only on a few modal verbs. Certainly that work was not fit to be mentioned in the same breath as
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, and indeed never was, at least by von Igelfeld, who always made sure that he left a gap, a silence, between any uttering of the names of his own book and Unterholzer’s.
It was the glaring disparity between their respective contributions to Romance philology that made this announcement so hurtful. If anybody’s work had put Regensburg on the map, it was his, von Igelfeld’s, that had done so. A few people abroad might have heard of Unterholzer, von Igelfeld conceded, but they would not necessarily know him for his
. They might have seen him at conferences, perhaps, where they surely would have noticed, and perhaps even discussed, Unterholzer’s rather vulgar nose; not the nose of a scholar, thought von Igelfeld. Or they might have come across a reference to Unterholzer’s book while looking for something more substantial, such as
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
itself. But they would certainly not have bothered to sit down and read Unterholzer’s observations on modal verbs.
So why, then, had Unterholzer been shortlisted for what was, after all, a rather generous prize of fifty thousand euros? As von Igelfeld was thinking of this outrage, he was joined in the coffee room by the Institute’s librarian, Herr Huber.
‘Anything interesting in the
?’ asked the Librarian. ‘I haven’t read the latest issue yet. It’s on my desk, of course, but I’ve been terribly busy over the last few days, what with my aunt not being quite as well as she might be, poor soul.’
The Librarian lost no opportunity to mention his aunt, a resident of a nursing home on the outer fringes of the city. This aunt, who enjoyed bad health, was the subject of long monologues by the Librarian, who laboured under the impression that his work colleagues were interested in endless details of her complaints and afflictions.
‘No, she has not been all that well,’ mused the Librarian, quite forgetting the question he had just put to von Igelfeld. ‘She has blood pressure, you know. I did tell you that, didn’t I? Yes, I think I must have. She’s had it for a long time.’
‘Everybody has blood pressure, Herr Huber,’ said von Igelfeld cuttingly. ‘If one did not, then one’s blood would simply stay where it was, rather than going round the body. Your aunt would not last long without blood pressure, I can assure you. Nor would you, for that matter.’
This last remark was an aside, but even as he uttered it, von Igelfeld wondered whether the Librarian had, in fact, much blood pressure. There were some people who gave the impression of having a great deal of blood coursing through their veins – robust and ruddy people who moved decisively and energetically. Then there were those who were pallid, and slow in their movements; people through whose veins the blood must move sluggishly, at best, with only the pressure expected of a half-inflated bicycle tyre. The Librarian belonged in that group, von Igelfeld thought.
Herr Huber laughed. ‘Oh, I know that. I meant to say that she has the wrong sort of blood pressure. It’s either too high, or too low. I can’t remember which. And there is one sort of pill for high blood pressure and another for low. You have to be terribly careful, you know. If you took the pill for high blood pressure and your blood pressure was really too low, then I’m not sure what would happen. Heaven forfend that anything like that should happen to my aunt, of course!’
‘Indeed,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘That would be a most unfortunate occurrence.’
‘Of course, these days pills are made in different colours and shapes,’ the Librarian went on. ‘One of the nurses said that most pills used to be white, which could lead to bad mistakes in their administration. Now
they are different colours and have markings on them.’ He paused to take a sip of his coffee. ‘She – my aunt, that is – used to have a large red pill that she had to take before she was settled for the night. Sometimes I was there when they gave it to her. She called it “my red pill” and I once asked her, “What is that pill for, Aunt?” and she said, “I am not sure. It is my red pill and I have been taking it for a long time. Perhaps it is meant to turn me red.” ’
Von Igelfeld stared glassy-eyed at the Librarian. ‘And did she turn red, Herr Huber?’
The Librarian laughed. ‘No, that’s the funny thing. She took that red pill for years, always saying that it was intended to turn her red, and I thought she was just joking. Then when I said to the doctor, “I see that you have prescribed a pill to turn my aunt red!” he answered, “That’s right.” ’
Von Igelfeld said nothing.
‘And the funny thing,’ continued the Librarian, ‘was that the red pill was for anaemia. It was iron, you see. And if she had not taken it, she would have appeared very pale. So the pill really was intended to turn her red.’
Von Igelfeld pursed his lips. ‘Your aunt’s affairs are of great interest, Herr Huber,’ he said. ‘But will you forgive me if I return to the question you asked me when you came in? You asked me whether there was
anything of interest in the
. I would like to answer that question now, if I may.’
The Librarian took a sip of his coffee. ‘Of course you may, Herr Igelfeld.’
The Librarian inclined his head. ‘Yes, of course. Do you know there is a doctor who attends at my aunt’s nursing home who
a von to his name? Suddenly it was there and he was most insistent on its use. He would very pointedly correct people who omitted it.’
Von Igelfeld sighed. ‘If he was entitled to it, then it should have been used. But I would prefer not to discuss matters of etiquette, if you don’t mind, Herr Huber. You asked me if there was anything of interest in the
. And I would like to answer that question.’
‘But you must,’ said the Librarian. ‘You know, I don’t think that one should leave questions hanging in the air. Have you noticed how politicians do that? Somebody asks them a question and it sits there unanswered. I don’t approve of that at all, do you, Herr von Igelfeld?’
Von Igelfeld began to feel the back of his neck becoming warmer, as it often did when he talked to the Librarian. Sometimes it felt as if he were in one of those dreams where he had to get somewhere or
perform some task and it was just impossible to do it. Talking to the Librarian was a bit like that, and in an ideal world he would not have had to talk to him at all. But there were often occasions when the Librarian was the only other person in the coffee room and one could hardly sit there in complete silence.
,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘There is a mention of the Institute. Perhaps you would care to see it.’
He passed the journal over to the Librarian, pointing to the offending item at the bottom of the page. Herr Huber took it from him and, adjusting his glasses, began to read.
When he had finished, he looked up at von Igelfeld and beamed with pleasure. ‘Well, this is most remarkable news, Herr von Igelfeld. It’s very good to see the Institute get recognition. And how gratifying it must be for our dear colleague, Herr Unterholzer, to get a prize. Fifty thousand euros! That is a very substantial prize, even if our currency is worth next to nothing these days because of bad behaviour by everybody except Germany. My aunt says that certain countries should—’
Von Igelfeld’s eyes narrowed. ‘You do not need to remind me of the elementary facts of economics, Herr Huber. But thank you, anyway. Returning to the matter in hand, it is, as you say, a very good thing to see the
Institute get publicity. But do you not find it surprising that they should seek to give Herr Unterholzer, of all people, a prize?’
The Librarian looked puzzled. ‘Not really,’ he answered. ‘Herr Unterholzer is an established scholar. I’m sure that he richly deserves recognition for that book of his. Not that I have read it personally.’
Von Igelfeld suppressed a smile. ‘Not many have,’ he said. ‘It is not a very widely read book at all. In fact, I would venture to suggest that nobody at all reads it nowadays.’
The Librarian shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t know. There’s a small library in my aunt’s nursing home, but I don’t think it’s there. And I don’t think my aunt would be interested in Herr Unterholzer’s book – not at her advanced age.’ He paused. ‘But you do not seem very pleased, Herr von Igelfeld. Why is this?’ He peered at von Igelfeld over the top of his glasses. There were times when the Librarian saw nothing, but there were times when he saw everything. ‘I would have thought that the triumph of one would be a triumph for all. Would you not agree?’
‘Of course,’ said von Igelfeld, hastily. ‘It’s just that in this case … well, I think that there may perhaps be a mistake, Herr Huber. I would love Professor Dr Unterholzer to win some sort of award. But at the
same time I would always want the award in question to be – how shall I put it? – fully merited.’
The Librarian looked blank, and von Igelfeld continued with his explanation. ‘You see, it would hardly be very satisfactory if he, being a person who undoubtedly deserves at least some recognition, were to be given a prize that perhaps he does not actually deserve, if you see what I mean.’
The Librarian did not. ‘Do you mean that they might be mixing him up with another Professor Unterholzer?’ he asked. ‘Some Unterholzer …’ He waved a hand in a generally northerly direction. ‘Some Unterholzer up in Hamburg or somewhere like that? Is that what you’re suggesting?’
Von Igelfeld shook his head. The Librarian was either trying to appear obtuse or was simply not picking up the very clear point he was making. He would have to spell it out, and he now did so, leaning forward and lowering his voice even though they were still the only ones in the coffee room. ‘Herr Huber, has it occurred to you that they have mistaken Unterholzer for
?’ He pointed a finger to the text in the
. ‘They refer, as you have seen, to the putting of Regensburg on the map. Well, who did that? Professor Unterholzer? Or did
do it? With
The Librarian was a fair man, and faced with so direct a question there was only one answer he could
give. He did not in any way want to diminish any glory that might be coming Unterholzer’s way, but he had to admit that of the two works of scholarship, von Igelfeld’s
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
was undoubtedly the more significant. ‘That is quite possible,’ he said. ‘But it’s a great pity if it is true.’
‘Indeed it is a pity,’ said von Igelfeld, sitting back in satisfaction that his point had been agreed to. ‘There are many regrettable mistakes made in this life and some of them are not only a pity but are painful – to all concerned. I refer, of course, to the decision made by Athens to send its fleet to Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War.’
The Librarian nodded. ‘That was most regrettable. The victory of Sparta was not a good thing, in my view.’
Von Igelfeld tapped the table in emphasis. ‘Indeed it was not. But mistakes are made, and this is possibly one. Not perhaps of quite the same magnitude as the mistake made by the Athenians, but a mistake none the less.’
The Librarian looked thoughtful. He could not recall making any mistakes himself, but others certainly did. ‘You know something, Herr von Igelfeld,’ he began. ‘I heard of the most extraordinary mistake that was made a few years ago. Please forgive me if I’ve already told you about it, but there was a lady in my aunt’s
nursing home whose first name was Inge. That, in itself, is unexceptional enough, but as it happens there were two Inges in the home. One is now no longer with us, I regret to say, but the other is. She has the room two doors down from my aunt’s old room – before they moved her to the new wing, that is. That wing took an awfully long time to build, you know. The builder went bankrupt. He was Polish, I believe, and although they can be very good builders they can sometimes get into a bit of a financial mess.