Author Archive

• Friday, April 24th, 2020

Alexander McCall Smith was born in 1948 to a Scottish family in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), the youngest of four children. His father worked in Rhodesia as a public prosecutor in what was then a British colony. His mother wrote several unpublished manuscripts.

After finishing school in Rhodesia, McCall Smith moved to Scotland to study Law at Edinburgh University. After graduating, he worked as a professor in Scotland before returning to Botswana to teach law at the University that he managed to create.

He has received numerous prizes and awards and holds twelve honorary doctorates from universities in Europe and North America. In 2006 he was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to literature and in 2007 won an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Law in Edinburgh.

McCall Smith is a prolific and diverse writer, having produced an abundant and varied number of books ranging from children’s tales to picture books to legal textbooks to novels. But he became internationally known through his Botswana detective series, first published in 1998. The sequel in English sold millions of copies around the world and was translated into many languages. It was made into a television series and broadcast on BBC1 TV in 2008. He currently lives in Edinburgh with Dr Elisabeth Parry, whom he married in 1982 and from whom he has two daughters.

In one of his interviews, McCall Smith admits that when he wrote the first book of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, published in 1998, he became so fond of the Precious Ramotswe character that he could not let her go. The story became a sequel of nineteen books published to date.

In our United Nations Book Club, we already read the number two of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: Tears Of The Giraffe, published in 2000. This time we are discussing the eighth of this same series published in 2007: The Good Husband Of Zebra Drive.

The story of The Good Husband Of Zebra Drive is set in Gaborone in Botswana. It is about the leading character, the professional premier private lady detective, the “traditionally built”, Mma Precious Ramotswe, who is in her forties. Her associate, Mma Grace Makutsi, is in her early thirties and Mma Ramotswe’s husband, the mechanic, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, is a garage owner in Tlokweng Road called “Speedy Motors”. He shares with his wife, the same premises of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

In this eighth volume of the series, there are three intersecting investigations for the Detective Agency. First, the three deaths in the Mochudi Hospital where Mma Ramotswe, distant cousin, Rra Tati Monyena works. The three deaths have occurred in the intensive care unit within the last six months, all of them on Fridays at the same time and in the same bed. The second case concerns a disagreeable woman, the condescending, Mma Botumile, who wants to know if her husband is having an affair with another woman. As for the third one, it is about Mma Magama called Teenie, the small businesswoman, who reports repeated theft at her printing company.

The characters are captivating and well depicted. Mma Ramotswe, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, has an exceptional understanding of human psyche as well as a sharp sixth sense for solving mysteries. She is always tolerant, warm-hearted and compassionate towards people around her. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is described as a skilled mechanic as well as being a good, dear husband. He has been waiting for the opportunity to test himself as a detective and took it when the Botumile case presented itself.

Mma Grace Makutsi, who thinks highly of herself after obtaining an excellent diploma from the Botswana Secretarial College, is considering quitting her job at the Detective Agency now that she is engaged to be married to the stammering, bashful, but rich, Phuti Radiphuti.

The ambitious young man, Charlie, one of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s apprentices, wants to run his own taxi service and call it “No.1 Ladies’ Taxi Service”. Charlie is attracted to girls and danger arises when his first passenger is a good-looking woman. He gets distracted while driving by glancing at her through his rear-view mirror. Charlie doesn’t notice the traffic lights going red against him, nor does he see the truck heading towards him and the impact is inevitable. Luckily there are no deaths or injuries. Nevertheless, the second hand Mercedes-Benz he bought by instalments from Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is now suitable for scrap.

There are essential elements prominent throughout the narrative: dignity, courtesy and respect, which form part of the culture of the Botswana people and is revealed in the story through their everyday behaviour. The tone of the novel is rather humoristic, cheerful and optimistic in the most simplistic way due to the author’s fluent writing as well as his sympathetic portrayal of all his characters, showing, like Mma Ramotswe, his fondness for Botswana and its kind warm-hearted people.

• Friday, March 20th, 2020

Javier Sierra was born in 1971 in Teruel, Aragon, Spain. Since his childhood, Sierra was interested in the world of communications. After his school education, he studied journalism at the Complutense University of Madrid and worked for the radio, television and the press. His first book was published in 1995.

He has written fiction and non-fiction books. The Master Of The Prado, his sixth, was published in Spanish in 2013 and English in 2015. Sierra became an acclaimed writer, his books have been published in several countries and he has won awards for some of his work. He currently lives in Madrid with his wife and two children.

The story of The Master Of The Prado starts in 1990 in Madrid with Javier Sierra standing in the Gallery “A” of the famous Prado Museum in the capital, admiring the painting of the Renaissance artist, Raphael, the Holy family, known as The Pearl. An enigmatic, tastefully dressed gentleman appears at Sierra’s side and introduces himself as Dr Luis Fovel. Noticing Sierra’s state of surprise, Fovel quotes the ancient Eastern proverb, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”, which sums up succinctly the subject of the story.

Javier Sierra, a provincial nineteen-year-old journalism student and part-time worker at Scientific Discovery, a monthly magazine, is initiated by his mentor, Luis Fovel, who takes him for a journey of five unexpected encounters in the Museum’s galleries. Both of them will marvel at the various masterpieces painted by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Boticelli, Titian, Brueghel, El Greco and other famous European painters. Fovel tries to stimulate Sierra’s intellect by encouraging him to decipher the astonishing secret messages hidden in these various works of art.

When Sierra fails at his task, Fovel enlightens him by disclosing incredible esoteric information and points out various details which would be impossible to detect by the average person – alluding to the ambiguous codes purposely included by the artist in his painting. Fovel’s explanations and analysis of the clandestine religious sects, supernatural beliefs, heresies, schemes and zealotries of remote times are all based on his own historical knowledge.

All these intriguing revelations described by Fovel, give Sierra food for thought as well as transport him to olden times. It certainly makes him look at the ancient paintings through different eyes. The story is written by the author like an autobiographical fiction.

Sierra takes upon himself the task of untangling reality from fantasy by following his fact-finding pursuit. Nevertheless, in his impetuous endeavour, he goes against his girlfriend Marina’s warning and better judgement, putting both of them in danger.

The Master Of The Prado has a gripping plot. It is elaborately described and richly footnoted like a textbook. The novel has beautifully coloured illustrations, fitting for a museum guide book of some of the famous paintings mentioned by the author and which are placed comfortably in the right spot for the reader to examine while reading about them.

It is a book for art historians as well as lovers of classical paintings of the great masters of the Renaissance period. The notes, index and list of The Prado owned paintings mentioned at the end of the book will be useful for art enthusiasts who might like to pursue their research on the subject further.

In one of his interviews, Javier Sierra says about his book: (It is) “A sort of fictionalized biography. I wrote it from a very real experience of encountering an old and wise man in the Prado Museum in the early 90’s. We had a very revealing conversation and from my memories of it, I developed a character which is a sort of ‘spirit guide’ of the Museum, who knows all about the ‘biographies’ of the paintings (…) Regarding Marina, she is a real person, but I have never met her again since the time of the plot line. She just vanished from my life”.Sierra went on by saying: “I have always been interested in the ‘other side’ of reality”. Those words reveal it all.