Unusual Uses for Olive Oil - By Alexander Mccall Smith

The Award

Surprising? Astonishing? No, it was more than that, far more – it was shocking, quite nakedly schrecklich. Professor Dr Dr (honoris causa) (mult.) Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of that definitive, twelve-hundred-page scholarly work, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, was cautious in his choice of words, but there were times when one really had no alternative but to resort to a strong term such as shocking. And this, he thought, was one such occasion. It was ganz, erstaunlich shocking.

The news in question was conveyed in the pages of a journal that normally did little to disturb anybody’s equanimity. The editors of the sedate, indeed thoroughly fusty, dusty, crusty Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie, a quarterly journal of linguistic affairs, would have been surprised to hear of any reader so much as raising an eyebrow over its contents. And certainly they would have been astonished to see one of their better-known readers, such as Professor von Igelfeld, sitting up in his chair and actually changing colour, reddening in his case, as he studied the small item tucked away in the news section of the review. It was not even the lead news item, but was at the bottom of the page, a mere paragraph, reporting on the announcement of the shortlist for a recently endowed academic prize. This prize, set up with funds left by a Munich industrialist of bookish tastes, was for the most distinguished work of scholarship – an article or a full-length monograph – on the subject of the heritage and structure of the Romance languages. What could possibly be controversial about that?

It was not the fact that the prize had been established that shocked von Igelfeld, rather it was the composition of the shortlist. There were three names there, all known to him, one very much so. As far as Professor J. G. K. L. Singh was concerned, von Igelfeld had no objection at all to his heading the list. Over the years he had had various dealings with Professor Singh, exchanging letters at regular intervals, and he had become quite fond of him. Certainly he did not agree with the rather unkind nickname that some scholars had given the celebrated Indian philologist – the Great Bore of Chandigarh – indeed, von Igelfeld did not agree with nicknames at all, thinking them puerile and unhelpful. His own name, which meant hedgehog-field in German, had resulted in his sometimes being the butt of schoolboyish references, masquerading as humour, but of course he had always risen above such nonsense. It was true that Professor Singh was perhaps a little on the tedious side – indeed, he might well have been quite incontrovertibly so – but that was no excuse for calling him the Great Bore of Chandigarh. The British – ridiculous people! – and the Americans were the worst, he had noticed, when it came to this sort of thing, with the British being by a long chalk the more serious offenders. They saw humour where absolutely none existed, and it seemed to matter little how elevated they were – their jokes often being at the same time unintelligible and silly. Professor Thomas Simpson of Oxford, for example, a major figure in the study of vowel shifts, had referred to Professor Singh by this sobriquet and had remained silent in the face of von Igelfeld’s protest that perhaps not everyone found Professor Singh boring. And he was no longer at Chandigarh anyway, von Igelfeld pointed out, which made the nickname out of date.

‘He has been translated to Delhi,’ von Igelfeld said. ‘So the reference to Chandigarh is potentially misleading. You must be careful not to mislead, Herr Professor Dr Simpson.’

This comment had been made in the coffee break at the annual World Philology Congress in Paris, and later that day, as the delegates were enjoying a glass of wine prior to the conference dinner, von Igelfeld had overheard Professor Simpson saying to a group of Australian delegates, ‘I’m not sure if the Hedgehog gets it half the time.’ He had moved away, and the flippant English professor had been quite unaware that his remark had been intercepted by its victim. A few minutes later, though, he found himself standing next to Professor Simpson at the board on which the table placements had been posted. Von Igelfeld was relieved to find that he was sitting nowhere near the condescending Oxonian, and he had turned to him with the remark, ‘You will be happy, I think, to find that you are not sitting next to