After a hiatus of some eight years in which the prolific Alexander McCall Smith devoted his attention to his many other popular series, Unusual Uses for Olive Oil marks the return of the hapless hero of his Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, Professor Dr. Dr. (he is fond of including his earned and his honorary doctorate in his title) Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. It is a long-overdue return. Professor von Igelfeld is a comic gem and his misadventures had this fan laughing out loud. Smith skewers the pomposity of academic pretension with an irresistible, deadpan insouciance.
Rather than a novel, Smith calls the book an entertainment, and while “entertainment” may suggest a lack of seriousness on the author’s part, it is more likely an indication of humility and a sense of playfulness. Besides, “entertainment” is not a bad characterization of a book that reads more like a collection of short tales than it does a coherent novel. Each of the five sections that comprise what is in truth a slender volume, while featuring a similar cast of characters and in some cases flowing one into another, feels more like an individual tale than part of a larger whole.
Von Igelfeld (“hedgehog field” in English as we and he are reminded again and again) is an academic working at the Institute of Romance Philology in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, home of the university perhaps best known now for Pope Benedict’s tenure there as professor of theology. Von Igelfeld is the self-centered author of the very much neglected academic study Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and he is much impressed with his status and quite anxious to ward off any perceived lack of respect. His nemesis is his colleague Detlev-Amadeus Unterholzer, an absolutely undeserving (in his opinion) rival who meets all of von Igelfeld’s pontificating with biting sarcasm. Herr Huber, the unpretentious, dull librarian obsessed with his aunt in a nursing home but always suitably impressed with von Igelfeld, and Prinzel, an almost rational colleague, round out the cast of major characters.
The narrative itself is episodic. “The Award” deals with von Igelfeld’s reaction to the news that Unterholzer has been shortlisted for a scholarly prize. The second chapter, “An Intriguing Meeting,” has Prinzel’s wife arranging a dinner for von Igelfeld and an eligible widow. “Lunch at the Schloss Dunkelberg” follows with the date that results from the dinner. The fourth chapter deals with the annual reading party in the mountains that the professor supervises for selected students, and the book ends with the title chapter or story which details von Igelfeld’s experience as an after-dinner speaker and climaxes with a dinner party at the Unterholzers and a description of the unusual use to which olive oil is put.
This may not be the stuff of serious literature, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Besides, it is well written, witty, and most importantly funny as hell.