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    To Fit and to Fix

    The Moral Imagination of Alexander McCall Smith

    By Jeffrey Bilbro

    September 1, 2021
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    The emptiness of a blank page. The promise of a virgin landscape. The smell of a new car. There is something alluring about a new beginning with no history, no lingering tensions, no idiosyncratic particulars to accommodate. And yet a clean slate is always to some extent an illusion. We always begin in medias res; our task is not to impose a grand vision on malleable raw material but to tend and steward what we have been given.

    Stewardship involves the humble, often overlooked work of sorting through what has been broken and discarded, imagining how their pieces might fit together, and then fixing what we can. It is tempting to grow impatient with the task of mending and instead simply replace what has worn out. Our technological culture encourages us to see the new as a solution to our problems: throw away what’s broken and buy new; bulldoze old buildings for new construction; move away from fractured family or friendships and make new relationships.

    This preference for innovation and disruptive change, to “move fast and break things” as Mark Zuckerberg puts it, is the hallmark of what Pope Francis has criticized as our “throwaway culture.” In its place, we ought to take up the practice of tikkun olam, as it’s known in the Jewish tradition, the repair of creation. As Wendell Berry observes in the film Look & See: “Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do: you take two things that ought to be together, and you put them back together. Two things, not all things. … Finding how it fits together and fitting it together.”

    For this work of repair to become more widespread, however, we need an imaginative shift. As long as our culture equates “newness” with “better” we will tend to devalue the vital work of mending and caretaking. Here we can learn much from the popular novelist Alexander McCall Smith, best known as the author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

    McCall Smith was born in Bulawayo, in what is now Zimbabwe, in 1948 and attended a Catholic boarding school there before matriculating at the University of Edinburgh, where he earned a PhD in law. He taught at Queen’s University in Belfast and helped found the law school at the University of Botswana in Gaborone, where he co-authored The Criminal Law of Botswana. He later returned to Scotland and became a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, and he has served on several medical ethics committees.

    For many years he wrote fiction on the side while concentrating on his academic work. At the age of fifty he published The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which soon became an international bestseller. In the following decades he has published twenty-two books in this series, many standalone novels, and a couple of additional series including 44 Scotland Street, which initially appeared in installments in the Edinburgh newspaper The Scotsman. This serial relates the doings of a set of characters who reside in the apartment building at 44 Scotland Street.

    Why have McCall Smith’s books become so popular? The easy answer is that they narrate sentimental, heartwarming stories. He does indeed have a knack for witty dialogue and humorous anecdotes. When I heard him speak at a nearby college, he performed one of the most mesmerizing readings I’ve ever attended. And yet there is an unexpected depth and wisdom in his work. As he writes about the poet W. H. Auden, responding to the charge that Auden turned away from political poetry to take refuge in frivolous verse, “His later poetry, although not overtly political, was very much concerned with the question of how we are to live and by no means evades profound issues.” The same can be said of McCall Smith’s stories, which in showing how ordinary humans navigate their day-to-day lives reach toward profound matters of stewardship and repair.

    Humans can’t understand everything or help everyone; we can love and tend particular people in particular places. By accepting this reality, McCall Smith’s protagonists follow Berry’s advice to “work on a scale proper to [their] limited abilities.”

    McCall Smith’s moral imagination honors those characters who have an awareness of the proper scale on which to exercise their affections and abilities, an intuitive sense for how disparate members of their places might fit together, and the patience and skill required to take up the practical work of fixing and restoring these places.

    Whether his stories are set in Gaborone or Edinburgh, McCall Smith’s protagonists routinely disparage the temptations and damages of globalism. Globalism can take many forms; it can be represented by the colonists who controlled Botswana for many years, the cultural imperialism of the United States, or the political authority centered in Brussels and the European Union. As Domenica Macdonald, one of the fictional residents of 44 Scotland Street, remarks, it is through globalization that “our wide and entrancing world, our vivid world of songs and music and cultural difference, [is] brought to an end by the crude, the false, the mindless, the imposed.” She firmly rejects such a world: “I, for one, refuse to lie down in the face of all that. … I want to live in a community with authentic culture … a culture that is the product of where I am – that engages with the issues that concern me. It’s the difference between electronic music and real music. Between the pre-digested pap of Hollywood and real film. It’s that basic.”

    Both Scotland and Botswana have suffered the ill effects of colonization, and their residents remain attuned to the ongoing ways globalism enables distant powers to extract attention, wealth, and people from smaller places. In this respect, McCall Smith would agree with Berry, who warns that “we must not work or think on a heroic scale. In our age of global industrialism, heroes too lightly risk the lives of people, places, and things they do not see. We must work on a scale proper to our limited abilities. We must not break things we cannot fix.” Both Berry and McCall Smith have seen the colonizing mind of the industrial age impose “solutions” on local places to which they were not adapted. In response, both speak for the small, the local, and the marginal and urge us to listen more carefully and act with more humility. The local is the proper sphere for human affection and the scale on which we can set about the work of repair.

    The villains in McCall Smith’s fiction – though villains is probably too strong a word for an author who portrays all his characters with sympathy – include those who reject place because they find it unimportant or confining. In the Scotland Street series, Irene Pollock, the overbearing mother of the unfortunate child-hero Bertie, takes this attitude to an extreme: “Although she had been born in Scotland and had been educated there, her outlook transcended that background. She belonged to that sector of society which somehow did not regard itself as located anywhere in particular. To be located, thought Irene, was to be provincial and narrow. She was above location.”

    artwork from a book cover showing a woman in traditional African dress carrying an umbrella

    Artwork from the cover of The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith

    The importance of location and particular places matches the form of McCall Smith’s stories, which are not so much plot-based as place-based. As he acknowledges in an interview, “I often think first of place, then think of character and then plot.” This approach to fiction has had real-life results – tours in both Edinburgh and Gaborone show readers around the places that McCall Smith has so vividly rendered. More significantly, his loving portrayal of places that are often shown in a negative light, particularly in the case of Botswana, encourages their residents to take proper pride in their home. Sheila Tlou, the Botswana minister of health, played the character of the No. 1 Lady herself, Mma Ramotswe, in a theatrical production in Gaborone, and praised her perspective on life: “[Mma Ramotswe] embodies all that I believe about Botswana; that it is a great place to live in. She stands for the nurturing of values such as botho, compassion, and caring for other humans.”

    In the opening book of the series, Mma Ramotswe calls herself “an African patriot” and explains how her love for her place leads her to care for its inhabitants: “I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place. They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives. This is what I am called to do.” This sense of calling leads her to found the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in order to help bring justice to the members of her community.

    Mma Ramotswe understands herself as an inheritor and defender of “old Botswana morality,” and the norms of this tradition lead her to locally-adapted methods and solutions. She describes this outlook in explaining why a Western scheme to grow vegetables in the Kalahari Desert is doomed to fail: “The advice may be good, and it might work elsewhere, but Africa needed its own solutions.” Her commitment to local knowledge leads her to distrust the arrogance of foreigners, often Americans, with grand schemes for “improving” Botswana: “The Americans were very clever; they sent rockets into space, and invented machines which could think more quickly than any human being alive, but all this cleverness could also make them blind. They did not understand other people. They thought that everyone looked at things in the same way as Americans did, but they were wrong. Science was only part of the truth. There were also many other things that made the world what it was, and the Americans often failed to notice these things, although they were there all the time, under their noses.” It is, of course, worth noting that while these sentiments are voiced by a female Botswanan protagonist, they are imagined by a white man living in Scotland. Dr. Tlou’s praise offers one Botswanan reader’s response to those concerned about cultural appropriation, and Rainer Emig provides a good scholarly consideration of how McCall Smith manages to navigate these tensions.

    The reality behind this commitment to local knowledge and local action is the limited nature of human knowledge and power. Humans can’t understand everything or help everyone; we can love and tend particular people in particular places. By accepting this reality, McCall Smith’s protagonists follow Berry’s advice to “work on a scale proper to [their] limited abilities.” Mma Ramotswe articulates this commitment in terms of the moral duties inherent in proximity:

    I must help whomsoever asks for my help. That is my duty: to help other people with the problems in their lives. Not that you could do everything. Africa was full of people in need of help and there had to be a limit. You simply could not help everybody; but you could at least help those who came into your life. That principle allowed you to deal with the suffering you saw. That was your suffering. Other people would have to deal with the suffering that they, in their turn, came across.

    While she doesn’t offer a biblical precedent for this moral code, Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan supports her injunction to help your particular neighbor who is in need. By limiting their work to its proper scale, McCall Smith’s protagonists don’t break things they can’t fix, and they manage to fix much that has been broken by people working at the wrong scale.

    Mma Ramotswe’s rather unusual detective agency embodies her intuitive, bottom-up approach to repairing the injustices of life. She doesn’t work in a government bureaucracy, and she doesn’t try to impose a grand vision of justice on society. In fact, she often contrasts her work to that of the official police and the government court system. As she puts it, her agency is “not here to solve crimes” but instead “to help people with the problems in their lives.” And she approaches this task with sympathy and patience, taking the time to feel the rough edges of her clients’ fractured lives and imagine how she might fit them back together. Mma Ramotswe seeks to be an attentive inhabitant of her place, to observe its patterns and habits, and to mend its fraying threads.

    Most of the cases she and her assistant take on involve domestic problems, suffering children, employment disputes, and other issues brought on by normal human foibles. Her methods are also somewhat unusual among literary detectives: the books don’t follow a taut, suspenseful trajectory. They unfold in their own time, a time governed by regular cups of tea, gazing out the window and contemplating the beauties of the day, and conversations with neighbors and passersby. Beyond merely slowing the pace of readers’ expectations, this meandering narrative voice also reveals a deeply interconnected world, and what seem superfluous ramblings turn out to reflect various facets of the case at hand. Mma Ramotswe’s ability to be a detective, to identify and mend broken lives, lies in her ability to entertain and probe connections that most people would overlook.

    For this work of repair to become more widespread, however, we need an imaginative shift. As long as our culture equates “newness” with “better” we will tend to devalue the vital work of mending and caretaking.

    Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and the husband of Mma Ramotswe, takes a similar approach to his work of repairing cars. Unlike his apprentices, who tend to employ brute force to get a job over with, Mr. Matekoni imagines the cars brought to him as sick people who need to be listened to and lovingly cared for. As he tells Charlie, the more impatient of his apprentices, “We are a hospital for cars, and you and I – what are we? We are surgeons, Charlie; that is what we are. And if you go into a hospital do you see the surgeons using hammers on their patients? Spanners, not hammers: remember that.” Like his wife, he relies on a sympathetic, intuitive approach to identifying the disorder and then finding a creative way to restore the tired car to serviceable health.

    The protagonists in the 44 Scotland Street series cultivate a similar mode of imaginative, loving perception. The artist Angus Lordie mostly paints portraits, but he cherishes the idea of painting his masterpiece on the subject of kindness. It would show a woman, “portrayed in the style of Celtic illuminations, comfort[ing] a crouching boy, a figure of modern Scotland.” Domenica suggests he call this painting Let the More Loving One from Auden’s poem: “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me.” Such a painting would, as Angus says elsewhere, “encourage [people] to think about spiritual possibilities.” And this is his aspiration, to “paint the just city” so that people desire it, even if, as an artist, Angus “can’t necessarily show people how to get there.”

    And yet many of McCall Smith’s characters find ways to journey toward this just city. Domenica’s suggestion regarding the title of her husband’s prospective painting follows her reluctant invitation to Antonia – a neighbor with a knack for getting under Domenica’s skin – to join them for a dinner party. Each book in the 44 Scotland Street series concludes with a dinner party at Domenica’s, where many of the central characters gather for food and fellowship. These get-togethers take on a sacramental role in McCall Smith’s Edinburgh: they enact the kind of friendship he envisions as the center of human culture. While shopping for wine and food for the party, Angus asks, “Why are we doing this? Why are we having all these people round to dinner?” Domenica replies with one word, “friendship,” and goes on to elaborate. “A dinner party provides the ideal opportunity to sit with people. To talk to them.” It is one of the rituals she sees as “the absolute cement of any society.” Without them, “you find you’ve got a void where society used to be. Just a whole lot of individuals, all strangers to one another.” Angus agrees and asks her what the solution might be. “We have to recivilise society,” responds Domenica. “The whole of Britain: England, Scotland, the works, everything has to be recivilised. We have to rebuild. We have to re-create the civilisation we have so casually destroyed.” While Angus is daunted by such a monumental task, the simple act of gathering friends to enjoy a meal and conversation – and one of Angus’s occasional poems – is the perfect way to begin the work of restoration and rebuilding. When we recognize that the world is broken, we can paint the just city; we can invite our annoying neighbor for dinner. We can imagine how things might fit together, and we can begin to put just two of them back in place.

    McCall Smith consistently celebrates this humble work of fixing what has been broken. In many respects, his protagonists are like Japanese Kintsugi artists who mend broken pottery with precious metals, making a repaired bowl more beautiful and valuable than the original had been. Unlike Kintsugi, though, the work of most accomplished fixers and repairers is not often noticed, let alone honored. Yet as Mma Ramotswe remarks about one young man who “is very good with his hands”: “Everything would fall to pieces without such people. … The whole country would fall apart, bit by bit.” She goes on to imagine a Botswana without mechanics and other repairers, a lifeless and desolate country marked by the detritus of human life. She admires the young man who stands against this possibility, and she and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni are likewise the kind of people who dedicate their lives to ensuring her apocalyptic vision does not become reality. Mma Ramotswe cannot help everyone in need, Mr. Matekoni cannot fix every car, but each day they faithfully tend the broken, lost, and confused whom they encounter.

    By doing so, they take their stand against a throwaway culture. One day, Mma Ramotswe reads a business article that claims, “A business that isn’t expanding will actually be contracting.” She considers that her agency has not grown except for the addition of a teapot and wonders, “Could you say that your business had expanded if it had gone from owning one teapot to two?” Her waistline has grown larger since her business started, but she doesn’t think this counts either. Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors has also not been growing, in part because newer cars contain electronics that require specialized equipment to diagnose. It doesn’t help that Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni often does free maintenance on the vehicles driven by Mma Potokwane, the matron in charge of an orphanage. Mma Ramotswe articulates her concerns to her husband:

    “Everything is too complicated these days, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. Everything is made to be thrown away rather than fixed. It is all very wasteful.”

    She warmed to her theme. “When I think of what we made do with in the past, it makes me very sad. If you found a hole in a sock, you darned it. We were taught how to do that at school. And if your collar frayed, then you had it turned. If the handle came off a cup, you glued it back on.”

    “Yes,” said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. “You never threw things away. Nowadays, if something goes wrong, you throw it out of the window, just like that.”

    “And people too,” said Mma Ramotswe. “If you suddenly decide you don’t like somebody, you throw them out of the window too. That’s what wives do to their husbands these days.”

    Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni looked concerned. “Out of the window, Mma?”

    “Not really out of the window,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I just use that as an expression, Rra. And it’s not just wives who throw their husbands out of the window when they get bored with them; it’s men too. In fact, there are more wives thrown out of the window than men, I think.”

    “Either way, it’s not very good,” said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. “Nobody should be thrown out of the window, Mma.”

    Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s moral stance against defenestration may be self-interested, but it remains sound.

    Some things, of course, are beyond repair. Mma Ramotswe is devastated when the engine in her beloved little white van, which lists permanently toward the driver’s side because her “traditional” build has damaged the suspension, finally fails. Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni declares he is a mechanic, not a miracle-worker, and Mma Ramotswe gamely tries to get used to her new blue car. When she later learns that a young man bought the white van for parts but ended up painstakingly rebuilding it instead, she eagerly buys it back. And Mr. Matekoni good-naturedly resumes the ongoing work of keeping the old white van drivable. Even though this old van is unreliable and can’t go very fast, Mma Ramotswe loves it and refuses to get an upgrade.

    A similar desire to repair marks the kind of justice that she pursues in her cases. Rather than an abstract, strictly legal justice, or a retributive justice that metes out punishment for the wrongdoer, Mma Ramotswe tries to imagine resolutions that restore just, harmonious social relations. In Morality for Beautiful Girls, for instance, she untangles a complex domestic drama in which no fewer than five people are at fault in some way. After much careful listening, she comes to understand the causes of the discord, and she speaks with each member individually in order to restore peace in the family. In this case and many others, her resolution depends on convincing those who have done wrong to repent, seek forgiveness and make restitution if need be, and change their behavior.

    Sometimes, as in the case of the cattle whose legs are mysteriously cut off in the middle of the night in The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, Mma Ramotswe never determines who precisely is at fault, but she nonetheless manages to restore peace among the aggrieved parties. And that, more than the intellectual satisfaction of “solving” a crime or the judicial satisfaction of seeing someone go to jail, is the goal of her detective work. Having seen restitution made, she finds this “an entirely satisfactory outcome” despite her ignorance of the culprit. A wrong has been righted. “All that was lacking was the punishment of the one responsible. But punishment often did not do what we wanted it to do.” What we want it to do is to fix the lives damaged by injustice, and Mma Ramotswe often finds ways to accomplish this end without involving standard judicial methods.

    The protagonists from 44 Scotland Street share this inclination toward restorative justice. Such justice is often off-the-books, as it were. In one story Stuart Pollock, the long-suffering husband of Irene, is outraged over a wrong done to his friend Big Lou, who runs a small coffee shop, and he longs for justice to be done:

    It was awful, the lack of justice in the world. … It would be wonderful to be able to bring about justice. It would be wonderful to be some sort of omniscient being who saw it all, noted it down, and then set things right. But that was a wish, a wish of childhood, that we grew to understand could never be. Except sometimes, perhaps … Sometimes there were occasions when the bully was defeated, the proud laid low, the weak given the chance to recover that which was taken from them. Sometimes that happened.

    Stuart’s glimmer of hope comes when he realizes that the gangster Lard O’Connor might be able to help Big Lou. Stuart pays O’Connor a visit and explains the situation. O’Connor agrees to offer his extrajudicial assistance: “Me and my boys might just give him a wee warning. Just threaten to rain on his parade. It usually works, particularly with characters like this Eddie, who sounds a wee bit sketchy to me, know what I mean?” Stuart doesn’t normally endorse vigilante justice, and he tells O’Connor not to do anything illegal. His gambit works, and the gangster is indeed able to convince Eddie to make restitution to Big Lou. Such glimpses of justice – even those realized through unsavory characters like Lard O’Connor – point toward a hope for a final, eschatological justice.

    Although McCall Smith’s protagonists generally don’t seek to make systemic change – the levers of political power usually remain beyond their reach – they do cherish this hope of an ultimate justice. Big Lou, for instance, admits that “there might be no ultimate assertion of justice, but we had to behave as if there were. The problem of human evil was not so simple as we might blandly assume, she felt, and removing the eschatological dimension had only made it even harder.” Big Lou and her friends can be content with small, partial acts of restoration because they retain at least a residual hope in eschatological, final justice. McCall Smith recognizes that if people give up their belief in divine justice, they are tempted to demand perfect justice in the moment, at the cost of achieving the restoration that lies within their power. In “For the Time Being” Auden reminds us that “in the meantime,” while we wait for the second coming of Christ, “There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, / Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem / From insignificance.” We keep the machines in repair ­– the water pump at Mma Potokwane’s orphanage comes to mind – in hope that the one who will set all things to rights is coming again. As Berry would have it, though we cannot fix everything that has been broken, we can put some things back together – “two things, not all things.”

    Reading Alexander McCall Smith will not enable us to magically fix all that has been broken and discarded. Yet his moral imagination redirects our attention, away from the lure of grand, technocratic solutions, toward the vital work of repair and restoration. His protagonists are exemplary practitioners of tikkun olam; they show us that in our daily lives opportunities abound to lovingly steward God’s good creation. Such work begins in love for our particular places and their people. When we love right where we are, we will begin to imagine how we might bind up what has been broken and participate now in God’s ongoing work of restoration. As Angus says in one of his dinner party poems, “Love cannot solve / Every human problem, but it makes / A start on a solution.”

    Contributed By Jeffrey Bilbro Jeffrey Bilbro

    Jeffrey Bilbro is the editor-in-chief at Front Porch Republic and the author of several books.

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