My wife is a great fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s works and she was right in thinking I would enjoy his short series concerning the inimitable Professor Dr. von Igelfeld. Three short works of gentle humor, the first of which is titled Portuguese Irregular Verbs. One of my favorite moments comes toward the end of this volume, when Prof. von Igelfeld is visiting Venice and while there, he pays a visit to his friend, Dottore Reggio Malvestiti, Librarian of the Biblioteca Filologica of the University of Venice. Prof. von Igelfeld has been troubled by things he has seen while in Venice and he puts the question to his friend:
‘Is there something wrong with Venice?’ he asked. ‘Please give me a direct answer. That is all I want.’
Malvestiti, about to reveal a further perfidy on Morati’s part, was stopped in his tracks.
‘Venice?’ he asked. ‘Something wrong?’
Von Igelfeld nodded. ‘Yes, Venice. I have seen men in white coats peering into the canal and taking samples of the water.’
For a few moments Malvestiti appeared to be thinking about this and said nothing. Then he sighed.
‘Alas, you are right,’ he said quietly. ‘There is a great deal wrong with Venice. The water is rising. The city is sinking. Soon we shall all be gone. Even this library. . . ‘ He stopped, and spread the palms of his hands in a gesture of despair. Then he continued: ‘We have already lost an entire floor of this library — our entire Slavonic collection. It is now completely underwater.’
Von Igelfeld drew in his breath sharply. Surely the books themselves could not be submerged. Malvestiti, as if anticipating his question, smiled ruefully.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It may seem ridiculous, but we just didn’t have the time to save them. Come, let me show you.’
They made their way down further corridors, lit only with weak, bare bulbs. Then, faced with a small paneled door, Malvestiti pushed it open. There was a staircase immediately beyond the door, and this descended sharply into water some two or three feet below.
‘There,’ said Malvestiti sadly. ‘Look at that.’
Von Igelfeld stared down at the water. Malvestiti had taken a torch from the wall and was shining it on to the surface of the water, just below which he could make out the beginnings of a bookshelf and the spines of books.
‘I can hardly believe it,’ he said. ‘Were you unable to do anything to save the books?’
Malvestiti looked down at the water, as if willing it to retreat.
‘It happened without our realising it,’ he said. ‘Very few people ask for those books, and months, even years can go by with nobody going downstairs. Then, suddenly, an archimandrite working in the library asked for a work on Church Slavonic, and there we were . . . . Now, if you see the mark s.a. on a book’s catalogue card, you know it means that it is sub aqua. It is very sad.
[excerpted from Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. Pp. 120-121.