Saturday, March 10, 2018

My review of McCall Smith's “My Italian Bulldozer”

In my conversations with dear Urszula, she once told me that I could lead a Catholic readers’ discussion on this beloved author. As I finish this recent volume of the master contemporary storyteller, I told Husband that I can see myself writing a dissertation on the ins and outs of Catholic themes in his fiction.
       A dissertation takes a long time, so I wrote an Amazon review instead.

[Spoiler alert]

I wish I could get a confirmation from the author about my theory of how he had the idea for this delightful volume. If one reads his other (numerous) works, one knows of the author's love and admiration for the Brunello wine and the village of Montalcino in the heart of idyllic Tuscany. They are all over his Edinburgh series! McS must have, on a visit to that area, one of his favorite spots, come across someone a conversation about the justice of the property boundaries and how the wine labels are so dependent on these seemingly arbitrary, hand-traced borders. Well, he must have thought, at times a simple bulldozer in a couple of hours could re-trace one wiggly property line, and voila--a new wine label is licensed, propelling a bright future for the excellent maker. Are labels important? Yes! I grew up with a Portuguese father for whom the only wine of value in the world was a genuine Port. One is not allowed to call a port-wine Port unless it comes from OPorto, Portugal. Well, recently I have come across a magnificent Port! A priest-friend special ordered it and brought it over to our dinner table to celebrate a momentous occasion. You cannot get it anywhere, not in all of Chicago, not anywhere. You have to know the wine grower and special order it. It is THAT good, but alas, it is from California, and therefore not allowed to be called a Port. In my personal anecdote, no bulldozer of any size could fix the injustice. However, in McS's fertile and gracious imagination, kindness is exercised, love finds people who are willing to give it, and justice is done. The bulldozer was necessary for his wine to receive its proper and just label, so the author wove a story around a heartbroken food & wine writer who experiences much more than good food and superb wine during his stay in the delightful Montalcino.

I gladly give this wonderful story five stars, even if my usual caveats with the author remain. I am a Catholic and love the history and traditions of the Church, and a like-minded reader will agree with me that throughout his work, McCall Smith seems to be challenged by the Catholic Church in regular intervals. One of the most lovable things about his writing, and one that has helped his success in my opinion, is exactly the popping-up of traditional values he evidently believes in. You cannot read any subset of his oeuvre without noticing it: he praises classical education, with the study of the ancient classical works, of beautiful art and music through the centuries, the memorization of good poetry. How many of his characters will rely on those beautiful poems, memorized in school days, when a sensitive situation arises… And invariably, they think back to those teachers with gratitude. He praises the importance of the roles of the man and woman as complementary and different, he believes in positive, healthy discipline in the home, and he constantly and faithfully highlights the centuries-proven virtues of kindness, generosity, sacrifice, love. Even in hospitals--I recall at least two volumes in which the role of the ward’s Matron is praised, along with all of its positive rewards: order, cleanliness and efficiency. In my opinion, however, the author unfortunately falls short on theology. Being an Anglican, he is fascinated by the Catholic aspects of the Christian faith that he encounters at any unexpected turn, and most especially in things Italian. He has Catholic religious characters appearing here and there, and churches and art, and history of Catholic objects and events retold. It is almost impossible for me to read one of his books without googling the places or artwork he mentions… the Church of the Madonna del Soccorso in Montalcino, the works of Nicolas Poussin, the fascinating story of the Italian chapel in the Orkneys, built by Italian WWII prisoners. His characters regularly bring up Catholic beliefs and traditional devotions, and the dialogues often go between the unbeliever and the one who wonders on what might be behind such practices. Every time I encounter this, I challenge the author himself: why don’t you take the time to read and study further on a subject that is obviously so attractive to you?

In this volume, the friendly Padre Stefano has one of the crucial, future-determining closing lines, when he tells Paul to “follow your heart”. Had McCall Smith stepped out of his Oprah-pseudo moral sappy molasses, and studied some solid theology, Padre Stefano would rather give Paul the advice that is actually life changing: follow your God-given conscience. That is the moral compass. Following one’s heart is akin to following the feelings and whims that lead many to a lifetime of egotistical unhappiness and misery. I believe McS meant exactly to say that, because we all read in a previous chapter that Paul had already shown himself to be someone with the integrity to follow not the heart, but a higher authority. (A wonderful chapter by the way, the one of his picnic with Anna and Andrew and his Port-wine stain.) Alas, he did not say it, perhaps because he has not read Thomas Aquinas or some basic theological writings for that matter. Who knows, in future volumes he will have characters who are actually studying and understanding the ancient wisdom of the Church, with is beautiful sacramental life, its example of charity, and its teachings that are anchored in what is most real in this life. One can always hope!

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