Yes I know: a word of explanation is in order….
“A la recherche du yeti perdu” is a chapter heading in The Dog Who Came In from the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the second entry in this prolific author’s Corduroy Mansions series. (Corduroy Mansions is the first; A Conspiracy of Friends is the third and most recent.) For those of you for whom high school and/or college French is but a dim memory, the aforementioned locution is a reworking of the title of Marcel Proust’s turn of the century magnum opus, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. This work is currently known in English as In Search of Lost Time. (When I was coming of age in the early 1960s and studying literature at Goucher College, it was still known as Remembrance of Things Past, a phrase borrowed from Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 30, the one that begins, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….’ Now I ask you, could anything be more beautiful?)
That’s all very well, you may say, somewhat impatiently, but…yeti? Why insert ‘yeti’ in that manner? The Dog Who Came in from the Cold is constructed as a series of stories in which the lives of the residents of an apartment complex in London – Corduroy Mansions – play out in unique and interesting ways. One of these individuals, Rupert Porter, is a principal in the Ragg Porter Literary Agency. Rupert nurses a grudge against Barbara Ragg, his opposite number in the agency, for several reasons. And he seriously questions her professional judgment in taking on a client whose book is called Autobiography of a Yeti. This work purports to be an “as told to” tale that comes straight from the mouth of an actual Himalayan yeti, who, among his other distinctions, has worked as a teacher in a remote village in that storied region.
And then there’s the story thread concerning Freddie de la Hay and his owner William French.
I first heard of Freddie when his creator gave a talk at the Howard County Library. Freddie is a Pimlico Terrier, so named for the London neighborhood in which Corduroy Mansions is located. McCall Smith cheerfully admits to inventing this canine classification, describing it as “…an unusual breed obtained through the judicious crossing of an Airedale with a Border Collie, and perhaps just a touch of something else about which the breeders themselves were now hazy.”
This novel’s structure undoubtedly owes much to the fact of its first appearing in serialized form in the Telegraph.co.uk. I almost invariably find when I ‘m reading a novel in which a number of plot lines are moving forward more or less concurrently, that some are rather more compelling than others. And so it is in The Dog Who Came in From the Cold. The yeti is always tantalizingly just out of reach. The love story of Barbara Ragg and Hugh Macpherson is surprisingly moving. But that feckless little canine and his harrowing adventure as an agent for MI6 – they pretty much steal the show. To my mind, McCall Smith has done something truly rare here. He has penned a tale that contains a finely calibrated mix of sweetness and danger, rather like the classics of children’s literature. The saga of Freddie de la Hay is a children’s story written for adults.
I never cease to be amazed byAlexander McCall Smith’s sheer inventiveness and his ability to surprise the reader with plot twists that nonetheless seem believable – or very nearly so- because he narrates them in such measured cadences and with the authorial version of an absolutely straight face. To wit, who would have expected this kind of quiet eloquence from a yeti:
‘My earliest memory…is of being taken by my uncle to a place just outside one of the highest villages in a remote part of the country. There was a monastery outside this village, a square stone building with a commanding view of the valley below….
I heard the monks chanting within, and the sound seemed to me to bee beautiful beyond imagining….Hearing the chants of the monks filled me with excitement. It seemed to me that I was being addressed, personally and directly, and that if I did not respond this mournful, moving sound would disappear from the face of the earth.’
[excerpt from Autobiography of a Yeti, as told to Errol Greatorex]
McCall Smith is obviously a deeply learned person, yet he wears his erudition lightly. The Dog Who Came In from the Cold is studded with effortless allusions to Dante, Shakespeare, and Norman MacCaig. (The latter, a Scottish poet, must be one of McCall Smith’s personal favorites; he also pays him a lovely homage in The Careful Use of Compliments.) Toward the novel’s conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a reference to a novella by Daphne du Maurier. This work leaps unbidden into Rupert’s mind as he follows the yeti – or the supposed yeti – though the streets of London: “…Rupert could not get out of his mind that terrifying scene in Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now where the art historian pursues a tiny red-coated figure through the streets of Venice, and, in a petrifying denouement, is suddenly confronted by….” McCall Smith completes the sentence but I think I’ll leave the ellipsis there instead, in case you’re sufficiently intrigued to read it yourself. Be warned, though; Don’t Look Now every bit as frightening as Rupert Porter remembers it being.
Obviously I’m giving The Dog Who Came In from the Cold an enthusiastic thumbs up. I’d also like to mention that in addition to reading the book, I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble. I recommend this recording highly, as well.
Click here for Freddie de la Hay’s vital statistics (the sort of information that might be of interest to his handlers at MI6). And in this video, you can join Alexander McCall Smith for a walk through London’s Pimlico neighborhood, the setting for Corduroy Mansions: