I watched the premiere last night of the new television series"The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" last night on HBO, based on the books by Alexander McCall Smith. It was quite good (Jill Scott was an excellent Precious Ramotswe, for one!) and was really filled with the palpable love you feel McCall Smith has for Botswana when reading the books.
There is much debate about the appropriateness of McCall Smith's books. As a fairly decent Newsweek article asks, "is it appropriate for an escapist fantasy to be set in a culture where so many people are suffering?" When I first read the books, I had more "issues" with the escapist plot itself than where it was set. To me, it wasn't fair/unfair to set it in an African country, but I did feel slightly disappointed in the narrative as narrative. I've since heard the series compared to "Murder, She Wrote," which is perhaps quite apt. I suppose I was just expecting more, the first time I read it. I did feel, however, quite strongly, the sense of the setting: the love of bush tea, the love of the land, the love of the people.
The Newsweek article responds to criticisms about the setting by observing that ""Agency," like any other fictional story, should be judged on how skillfully it renders its world, not on the degree to which its world reflects reality. After all, the movies and television shows that have depicted Africa as a slide show of human suffering haven't shown the entire picture either." Indeed! It worries me that children grow up only hearing doom and gloom. I read a picture book about a young girl in Lesotho to a class of elementary school children last year, and one child raised his hand to ask me, "But aren't all children in Africa poor?" I would love for this child, and people who see Africa this way, to experience for a second, even via TV, a more positive image of life in African countries. I am ashamed to say I've never visited the continent, but my cousin lives, and is raising his two daughters, in Cape Town.
I think it's funny that I had the most concrete memory of Precious sitting down to tea in my head from reading the books, especially when I read the following in in a 2006 column in the Observer where McCall Smith wrote that "it is not for entirely escapist reasons that people visit and revisit such scenes; the small rituals of life - the drinking of tea and the eating of cake - are really big things in disguise. We need to sit down at the table with others while discussing with them the small, and the major, events of our lives. These activities anchor us in our relationships with others and establish patterns in our lives."
So check it out. Sundays @ 8 on HBO.