Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
‘This lady by the name of Inge received a letter one day. But before I take this any further I should tell you that her surname was Schmidt and the other Inge, the one who did not live in the old wing but had a room under the clock tower – or the place where the clock tower used to be before they knocked it down and built a storeroom – that Inge’s surname was Schultz. She was Frau Inge Schultz, and my aunt told me – discreetly, of course – that she had the most terrible habit of moving the top set of her false teeth while you talked to her. The teeth came out over her lower lip and you saw the artificial pink gums. It was a nervous habit, really. She didn’t intend to cause offence.
‘Anyway, this letter that Frau Inge Schmidt received was in reality addressed to Frau Inge Schultz! The handwriting was indistinct, you see, and the young man
who sorted the mail misread it. Easily done, I suppose, but it meant that Frau Inge Schmidt received a letter addressed to Frau Inge Schultz, and started to read it. Of course it began with the greeting
and so she assumed it was for her. But the letter went on about all sorts of things that meant nothing to her, and was signed at the end by a name she just did not recognise. Klaus, I think it was. Or possibly Karl. I must ask my aunt about it when I go to see her this evening. She remembers these things. But let us work on the assumption that it was Klaus.
‘Well, she reached the end of the letter and, being a very polite person, decided that she would just have to write back to this Klaus person and tell him some of the things that were happening in the nursing home. So she did, and a few weeks later she got a letter addressed back to her. She had put her room number on her letter of reply and so the young man in the post room had delivered it to her although this time the writing was clear enough. He didn’t look at the name, you see – he just looked at the room number.
‘So it carried on for some months. She continued to get letters from Klaus and he got letters from her. Then he wrote and announced that he was coming to visit her because he had to be in Regensburg for some reason or other. He turned up and asked for room fifty-two – or whatever it was – and they directed him
to it. Then he realised that he had been corresponding for some time with a complete stranger.’
The Librarian paused, allowing the full impact of the story to sink in.
‘And so?’ said von Igelfeld.
‘They became very good friends. He decided that he rather preferred this Inge to the other one and they continue to write to one another to this day. He sends her books and magazines, and she has knitted a whole set of very attractive bathroom accessory covers for him. My aunt showed me a picture of one of these – it was very beautifully worked, I must say.’
Von Igelfeld rose to his feet. ‘I must dash, Herr Huber,’ he said. ‘As usual, it has been a great pleasure talking to you.’
‘We could continue later, over lunch if you wish, Herr von Igelfeld,’ said the Librarian, also rising to his feet. ‘That is, if you are free.’
‘I am not,’ said von Igelfeld. There were limits to the comity one had to show colleagues, and these had been reached, indeed had been exceeded, even before the conversation had come to an end. Besides, he had letters to write. The mistake that he had uncovered could not be left unchallenged. If there had been confusion, then it would have to be dispelled, painful though that duty might prove to be.
* * *
He travelled to Berlin by train, enduring a journey that could have been pleasant had it not been for the annoying conversation of his fellow travellers, some of whom insisted on talking on the telephone at great length about matters of a most personal nature. Von Igelfeld’s stares of disapproval were met with a blank response from a woman who spent at least fifteen minutes describing an operation for ingrowing toenails and the difficulties she had had with her insurance company over the resulting claim. Why should they pay such a claim, von Igelfeld asked himself. It was nobody’s fault that her toenails had grown in; or, if there were fault, then surely it would be her own, for not cutting them correctly in the first place. That was the trouble these days; nobody was prepared to accept responsibility for anything, not even for the state of their toenails.
By the time the train drew into the Hauptbahnhof von Igelfeld felt in a thoroughly bad mood. Berlin, however, lifted his spirits, with its wide skies, its architecture and its air of being at the centre of something. This was undoubtedly a place where power was exercised and decisions were taken, even if some of these decisions, as in the case of Unterholzer’s nomination, were unfortunate ones. Well, if Berlin was a physical metaphor for decisions, then it was also a metaphor for the confrontation and rectifying of past mistakes
and wrongs. There had been the horrors and moral disaster of the thirties, followed by the pain and penitence of the forties and fifties. These had been followed by the monstrous mistake of the Wall, and again that had been rectified by that structure’s dismantling. Wrongs, rectification, renewal: a mantra we might all commit to memory, he thought.
The offices of the Leonhardt Stiftung, the body in charge of the prize, were not far from the main campus of the Freie Universität. Von Igelfeld was familiar with the university, as he had recently given a seminar at the Languages of Emotion Centre, or Cluster of Excellence as it was now called. That was not a very modest way of describing oneself, he had thought at the time. One might be excellent – indeed his institute in Regensburg was undoubtedly excellent – or largely excellent, if one left Unterholzer out of the equation – but that did not mean to say that they should change their name from the Institute of Romance Philology to the Cluster of Excellence of Romance Philology. How ridiculous people had become, he thought, in their scrabbling after recognition and the funds that came with it. He had written
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
without so much as a penny of public money, although its publication undoubtedly made him a cluster of excellence in these new, ridiculous terms. And who would head a cluster of excellence? Did a cluster have a director, or did it
have a pole, rather like a magnetic pole? Hah! It would surprise them if he went into the Cluster of Excellence nearby and asked for the pole. Of course the director might be a real Pole, and that would cause confusion. How funny!
He was well received at the Leonhardt Stiftung, where he was shown into the waiting room outside the director’s office.
‘Herr Unterholzer will be with you in a moment,’ said the secretary, flashing a smile in his direction. ‘He is just completing an important telephone call and asks that you would be good enough to wait.’
Von Igelfeld froze, halfway into the sitting position, poised immediately above his chair. He wondered whether he had heard correctly. Had she said
or had he heard
because Unterholzer had been on his mind? He knew that the mind played tricks on one, especially if one were tired after a long journey. It was not unusual to hear, or read, things that were not really there but were suggested to us by the subconscious. Professor Freud had written something about that, he thought, although it was difficult to remember exactly where Professor Freud had written anything.
‘Did you say Herr Unterholzer?’ he asked.
‘Please do continue to sit down,’ said the secretary. ‘Yes, Herr Unterholzer is the director of the Stiftung.’
For a few absurd moments von Igelfeld imagined that he had stumbled upon the most extraordinary piece of chicanery. Unterholzer had relatively few commitments in the Institute and could easily spend three days a week in Berlin without anybody’s being any the wiser. It was perfectly possible, then, that he was moonlighting as the director of the Leonhardt Stiftung while still holding down his position in Regensburg. That sort of thing was common in Italy, of course, where there were people known as pluralists, who had jobs in more than one university. Thus a professor in Parma might also be a professor in Bologna, or even Rome. He had heard of one man who was a professor in Bari while at the same time being a professor in Trento – cities separated by an immense length of Italian railway track. This professor, drawing a full salary from both institutions, had taken to conducting some of his seminars in Milan, expecting students to travel from each city to meet him there. That was all very unsatisfactory and would not be tolerated in Germany, thought von Igelfeld. Nor would the German authorities tolerate another Italian situation he had heard of involving a university in a city where neither the professors nor the students lived, thus making the institution a virtual shell. Shells, however, can get grants from the European Union, which had a long history of giving grants for
non-existent tomato crops in places like Sicily and Greece.
If Unterholzer was the director of this foundation, then he was showing the most remarkable brass neck in putting himself on the shortlist for the prize. Von Igelfeld considered that not only was this unprincipled, it was probably also criminal, and for a few delicious moments he imagined Unterholzer being arrested in the coffee room at the Institute and dragged off while the Librarian went on about somebody’s having been arrested in his aunt’s nursing home for stealing from the kitchens or something of that nature. What a thought!
Unterholzer disgraced over self-awarded prize
, the headlines would read. And the report would continue by saying,
His colleague, Professor Dr Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, remarked sadly yesterday that nobody had been aware of Professor Dr Unterholzer’s double life. ‘Criminals can be very cunning,’ the professor said …
The door at the end of the waiting room opened and a rather rotund man peered out. He was smartly dressed in a double-breasted grey suit and was sporting a carnation in his buttonhole. The man smiled at von Igelfeld. ‘My dear Herr von Igelfeld,’ he said, stepping forward to shake his visitor’s hand. ‘What a pleasure it is to see you. And how kind of you to call in during what must be a very busy visit to Berlin. That, you see,
is the trouble with Berlin. All our visitors are so very busy we have to fight for the tiniest part of their time.’ And here he indicated a very small amount of time by placing a thumb and forefinger very close to one another.
So, thought von Igelfeld, this is another Unterholzer altogether; Unterholzer is not holding down two positions, and yet this is an Unterholzer, as the name on the door so proudly proclaims. He must therefore be some relative of Unterholzer – and that would explain why Unterholzer was shortlisted for the prize. And just as fraud was being excluded, something as corrosive was in the process of being uncovered – gross and blatant nepotism.
As he sat down in the chair on the other side of the director’s desk, von Igelfeld glanced quickly at his host’s nose. Unterholzer’s entirely unsuitable nose was very individual, and it would be interesting to see whether this Unterholzer’s nose was in any respects similar. If it were, that fact would provide an additional element of proof in his case. Even if the director denied any relationship to Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, then the evidence of genetics, incarnate in a large, potato-farmer’s nose, would clinch the matter.
He looked at the nose. Yes, it was large, and yes, there was the same sort of uneven bumpiness that was
so prominent a feature of the topology of Unterholzer’s nose, the ur-nose, so to speak. If only the director would turn slightly to the left, von Igelfeld thought, then I would be able to see whether there is that very characteristic bulge on the bridge.
The director cleared his throat. At the same time, he shifted slightly in his seat and his left hand went up to his nose, as if to check that there was nothing wrong. Von Igelfeld looked away guiltily.
‘It is a very fine day,’ said the director nervously. ‘Sometimes Berlin can get very hot, you know. You have those mountains to keep you cool. Here we are at the mercy of the hot winds of the plains.’
‘Indeed,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘I have always been fortunate on my visits to Berlin. I have always found the weather very agreeable.’
The director nodded, acknowledging the compliment. ‘We do our best, of course.’
There was a brief silence. Then the director spoke again. ‘I wonder if there is any way in which the Stiftung can help you, Herr von Igelfeld? We are familiar with your institute, of course, and we are certainly anxious to engage further in the cutting edge of language research. We have a major programme at the moment in neuro-linguistics.’
‘I am not interested in that,’ said von Igelfeld cursorily. ‘These days they are adding neuro- to everything.
Neuro-ethics, neuro-theology and so on. It will be neuro-tennis next, I imagine.’
The director laughed. ‘That would be neuro-tic,’ he said.
Von Igelfeld stared at him. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Nothing,’ said the director, waving a hand in the air. ‘All I would say is that in addition to our neuro-linguistics programme we have funds to support more conventional fields. We have people working on the acquisition of pidgin languages, for example. And we also have a very interesting research programme down in Frankfurt looking into the ability of animals to understand language commands. Most dogs respond to the
command – that is more or less universal. It’s clear that domestic animals acquire a small vocabulary – a passive knowledge of language, of course – but what is not so clear is whether there are some languages that are easier for dogs to acquire than others. Is it purely a question of how many syllables there are, or are there other factors involved? How do animals cope with tonal languages, for example? All in all, it’s a fascinating bit of research.’
Von Igelfeld nodded. ‘Yes, it must be. But I must point out that I have not come with a view to discussing a grant. I have come about the prize you have announced.’
The director raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m afraid that we
are somewhat past the closing date on that one,’ he said. ‘The judges – of which I have the honour to be one – have recently announced their decision on the shortlist. Perhaps you haven’t seen it. There are three names, actually, and one happens to be …’