Mistaken for a veterinarian and not wanting to call attention to the faux pas, Professor Dr von Igelfeld begins practicing veterinary medicine without a license. After operating on a friend’s dachshund to dramatic and unfortunate effect, the hapless academic finds himself transporting relics for a schismatically challenged Coptic prelate while being pursued by marriage-minded widows on board a Mediterranean cruise ship.
Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of that great triumph of Germanic scholarship, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, had never set foot on American shores. It is true that that he had corresponded from time to time with a number of noted American philologists—Professor Giles Reid of Cornell, for example, and Professor Paul Lafouche III of Tulane—and it is also true that they had often pressed him to attend the annual meeting of the American Modern Languages Association, but he had never been in a position to accept. Or so von Igelfeld said: the reality was he had never wanted to go and had inevitably come up with some excuse to turn down the invitations.
“I have absolutely no interest in the New World,” von Igelfeld said dismissively to Professor Dr Dr Florianus Prinzel. “Is there anything there that we can’t find in Germany? Anything at all? Can you name one thing?”
Prinzel thought for a moment. Cowboys? He was a secret admirer of cowboy films but he could never mention this to von Igelfeld, who, as far as he knew, had never watched a film in his life, let alone one featuring cowboys. Prinzel rather liked the idea of America, and would have been delighted to be invited there, preferably to somewhere in the West.
Then, one morning, Prinzel’s invitation arrived—and from no less an institution that the ideally-situated University of San Antonio. This was a city redolent of cowboys and the Mexican border and Prinzel immediately telephoned von Igelfeld to tell him the good news.
Von Igelfeld congratulated him warmly, but when he replaced the receiver his expression had hardened. It was quite unacceptable that Prinzel should go to America before he did. After all, the Americans might think that Prinzel, rather than he, von Igelfeld, represented German philology, and this, frankly, would never do. Quite apart from that, if Prinzel went first, they would never hear the end of it.
“I have no alternative but to go there,” he said to himself. “And I shall have to make sure that I go before Prinzel. It’s simply a matter of duty.”
Von Igelfeld found himself in a difficult position. He could hardly approach any of his American friends and solicit an invitation, particularly after he had so consistently turned them down in the past. And yet the chance that an invitation would arrive of its own accord was extremely slender.
Over coffee at the Institute the next day, he directed a casual question at Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer.
“Tell me, Herr Unterholzer,” he said. “If you were to want to go to America to give a lecture, how would you ... well, how would you get yourself invited, so to speak?” Quickly adding: “Not that I would ever be in such a position myself, but you yourself could be, could you not?”
Unterholzer had an immediate answer.
“I should contact the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst,” he said. “I should tell them who I was and I should ask them to arrange a lecture somewhere in America. That is what they are paid to do.”
“I see,” said von Igelfeld. “That would no doubt save embarrassment.”
“Of course,” said Unterholzer. “They are experts in finding places for German academics to go and lecture to other people, whether or not they want to hear them. They are very persuasive people. That is how I went to Buenos Aires and gave my lecture there. It really works.”
And indeed it did. The local director of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst was delighted to hear from von Igelfeld the following day and assured him that a scholar of his eminence would be snapped up should he deign to leave Germany. It was only a question of finding the right institution and making the detailed arrangements.
“Rest assured that you will be invited within days,” von Igelfeld was assured. “Just leave it all in our capable hands.”
Thus von Igelfeld found himself arriving in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a charming college town nestling in the Ozark Mountains, seat of the University of Arkansas, or at least of that part not located in the minor campus at Little Rock. When the whole idea was conceived, he had not envisaged going to Arkansas. He had imagined that his destination might be California, or New York, perhaps, but one American state was very much the same as another—at least in von Igelfeld’s view, and it really made no difference. The important thing was that he was going to America, and a good two weeks ahead of Prinzel.
Von Igelfeld’s host greeted him warmly. They had insisted that he stay with them, rather than in a hotel, and so von Igelfeld found himself installed in the sleeping porch of a traditional Ozark farmhouse on the edge of the town, the home of Professor R. B. Leflar. After he had unpacked, he and von Igelfeld sat down on the swing-seat on the front verandah and discussed his programme. There would be visits to the surrounding area the next day, promised Professor Leflar, and the day after that a set-piece lecture had been planned before an open audience.
That night, after dinner, von Igelfeld retired to his bed and looked out through the gauze-covered porch windows. The house was surrounded by mixed forest, oak trees and sycamores, and their shapes, dark silhouettes, swayed in the breeze. And there, he thought, there’s the moon, rising slowly over the trees like a giant lantern. What were they planning for him tomorrow? Would they show him their libraries? Were there manuscripts? What about Leflar’s maternal grandfather, the adventurer, Charles Finger? He had been in South America and may have come across some Portuguese manuscripts of note, which could well be in the attic above his very head. Arkansas, it seemed, was rich in possibilities for the philologist.
The next morning he ate a hearty breakfast with Professor and Mrs Leflar before they set off.
“We’re heading north,” said his host. “We’ll show you a typical hog operation.”
“Most intriguing,” said von Igelfeld. “I am always interested in ... ” He paused. What was he interested in? Philology? Portuguese verbs? “I am always interested in everything.”
They drove out of town, following a road that wound up into the hills. It was a gentle landscape—limestone hills which had been softened by the action of the rain; meandering valleys dotted with farmhouses under shady oak trees. Von Igelfeld had not thought of America as being at all like this; there were no dry plains, no glittering Dallas in the distance, no leafy suburbia with neat white houses. This could have been Bavaria, or even Austria.
Suddenly Leflar turned off the road and followed a dusty track leading towards a large, unpainted barn.
“Here we are,” he said. “They’re expecting us.”
The farmer came out and shook von Igelfeld’s hand. Von Igelfeld sniffed the air; it was distinctly malodorous.
“This way,” said the farmer. “The hogs are in here.”
The farmer opened a door in the side of the barn and ushered von Igelfeld inside. For the next half hour, they wandered between rows of large sties, each surmounted by a large sun lamp and each filled with a squealing mass of pigs. The farmer demonstrated the automatic feeding system and showed von Igelfeld the blood-sampling equipment.
“We’re mighty careful about viruses here,” he said. “You’d know all about that.”
Von Igelfeld looked at the farmer. Did pigs get colds, he wondered?
“You have to be careful about viruses,” he agreed. “I myself always use vitamin C during the winter ... ”
He did not finish. “You’re right,” said the farmer. “Each pig gets sixty IU vitamin C every morning with its food. And then we given them a shot of B group when they’re seven weeks old. Some people are trying a short course of potassium a week before market. What do you think?”
Von Igelfeld shook his head. “You have to be careful,” he said. “I would never use potassium myself.”
The farmer listened intently. ‘You hear that, Professor Leflar? No potassium. I’m inclined to agree with our visitor. You tell those folks down in Little Rock, no potassium—the Germans recommend against it.”
Leflar nodded. “Could be,” he said.
An hour later they set off again. After a brief lunch, they made their way to a chicken farm, where von Igelfeld was shown the latest methods of production by a farmer who spoke in such a way that he could understand not one word. Then there was a call at some sort of animal laboratory, which interested von Igelfeld very little. Then home to dinner.
That night, in the silence of his sleeping porch, von Igelfeld reflected on his day. It had been interesting, in its way, but he wondered why they had chosen to show him all those farms and animals. Animals were all very well; indeed he had once written a small paper on the nature of collective nouns used for groups of animals, but that was about as far as his interest went. Still, this was America, and he assumed that this was what they laid on for all their visitors.
The lecture was to be at six thirty, following a short reception. When von Igelfeld arrived with Leflar the audience was largely assembled, milling about the ante-room of the lecture theatre. Glasses of wine had been provided, and plates of snacks were being circulated by waitresses dressed in black and white.
Everybody seemed keen to talk to von Igelfeld.
“We’ve all heard about your work,” said one man in a lightweight blue suit. “In fact, I’ve got an off-print here which I thought you might care to sign.”
“I’d be happy to do so,” said von Igelfeld. And what about Portuguese Irregular Verbs? he reflected. Were there copies even here in Fayetteville, amongst these charming hills?
The man in the blue suit produced a pamphlet from his pocket.
“I was sent this by a colleague in Germany,” he said. “He thought that I might find it useful. And I sure did.”
Von Igelfeld took the pamphlet. The cover was unfamiliar; all his off-prints from the Zeitschrift were bound in a plain white cover. This one was blue.
He adjusted his reading glasses and looked at the title page.
Further Studies of Canine Pulmonary Efficiency, he read. And then: by Professor Martin Igelfold, Universtiy of Münster.
Von Igelfeld stared at the page for a moment, his heart a cold stone within him. It was immediately clear to him what had happened. They thought that he was Professor Igelfold, Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Münster. Von Igelfeld knew of Igelfold’s existence, as he had seen the remarkably similar name in the newspaper during an anthrax scare. But he had never dreamed that there would be confusion on such a heroic scale! Those foolish, bumbling people at the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst had mixed them up and sent him off to lecture on veterinary medicine in Arkansas! It was a situation of such terrible embarrassment that for a moment he hardly dared contemplate it. And the lecture was about to begin, before all these people—these expectant scientists, veterinarians and dog breeders—and he had proposed to talk about modal verbs in the writings of Fernando Pessoa.
Almost without thinking, he signed the pamphlet and returned it to the other man.
“We’re so honoured to have you here in Fayetteville,” said the man. “We understand that you are the world authority on the sausage dog. We are looking forward to what you have to say to us tonight. Sausage dogs are quite popular here. German settlers brought them with them in the late nineties and have bred them ever since.”
Von Igelfeld stared at him in horror. Sausage dogs! He was expected to talk about sausage dogs, a subject on which he knew absolutely nothing. It was a nightmare; like one of those dreams where you imagine that you are about to take the lead part in a Greek play or where you are sitting down to write an examination in advanced calculus. But he was awake, and it was really happening.
Leflar was at his side now.
“Almost time,” he said. “Should I ask people to move into the hall?”
“Not yet,” said von Igelfeld, looking about him desperately. “I have so many colleagues yet to meet.”
He detached himself from Leflar and made his way over to a knot of people standing near the door. This proved to be a group of veterinary surgeons who welcomed him to their circle and refilled his glass from a bottle of wine which one of them was holding.
It was in this group that one of the guests drew him aside and engaged him in distinctly unsettling conversation.
“I was sorry to read about your death,” said the guest.
Von Igelfeld looked at him in astonishment.
“Yes,” said the guest. “There was a small item in the International Veterinary Review this week reporting the very recent death of Professor Igelfold. There was a glowing obituary.”
Von Igelfeld stared glassily at the man before him, who was surveying him over his drink.
“I did not read it,” he said weakly.
“Not surprising,” said the man. “One rarely has the pleasure of reading one’s own obituary.”
Von Igelfeld laughed, mopping his brow with his handkerchief.
“Very amusing,” he said. “And you are so right!”
“So this is a posthumous lecture,” said the man.
“Well,” said von Igelfeld. “It would appear to be something of that sort.”
The man looked pensive. “I must say that you don’t look at all like your photograph. They published one with the obituary, you know.”
Von Igelfeld gripped at the stem of his glass. “The camera is often deceptive, I find.”
“You were a smaller man in the photograph,” went on the other. “Not nearly so tall.”
“I see,” said von Igelfeld icily. “A smaller photograph, perhaps? Anyway, do you not know that in Germany we sometimes publish obituaries before a person’s demise. It happens quite often. This is because we Germans are so efficient. An early obituary means that there is never a backlog. That, I suspect, is the explanation.”
There was a silence. Then von Igelfeld spoke again.
“You must excuse me,” he said. “I am feeling rather tired.”
“Quite understandable,” muttered the man. “In the circumstances.”
But von Igelfeld did not hear him. He had moved away and was looking about him. The simplest solution was to escape, to vanish entirely. If he managed to get out of the hall he could summon a taxi, go back to the Leflar house, creep in through the back and reclaim his belongings. Then he could make his way to the airport and await the first flight out of town, wherever it happened to be going.
The front door was impossible. Everybody would see him leaving and somebody was bound to come after him to enquire where he was going. But there was another door at the side of the room, a door out of which it looked much easier to sneak. He moved over towards it, smiling at people as he walked past, nodding his head in acknowledgement of their greetings. Then, having reached the door, he discreetly turned the handle and pushed against it.
“Oh, there you are,” said Leflar. “Is everything all right?”
“I am very well,” said von Igelfeld. “I was just trying ... ” His voice faded away.
Leflar glanced anxiously at his watch.
“We don’t have much time,” he said. “The hall has to be used for another purpose in twenty-five minutes.”
“Please don’t hurry,” said von Igelfeld. “The real point of these meetings is that there should be personal contact and I am making sure that this happens by talking to all these excellent people.”
A few minutes later, von Igelfeld looked out over the faces of his audience. They had enjoyed the reception, and the supply of wine had been liberal. He, too, had taken several glasses and had recovered after the shock of discovering that he was dead. Now it now seemed to him that to talk for—what time remained? Ten minutes at the most—about sausage dogs would not be an impossible task. And by now he had remembered that Zimmermann himself had been in such a situation some years before, when he had been mistaken for another Zimmermann and had been obliged to deliver a lecture on developments in exhaust systems, a subject of which he was completely ignorant. And yet had not he done so, and with distinction? With such distinction, indeed, that the resulting paper had been published in the Karlsruher Forum für Moderne Auspuffkonstruktion? If Zimmermann could do it, then surely he could do so too.
“The sausage dog,” he began, “is a remarkable dog. It differs from other dogs in respect of its shape, which is similar to that of a sausage. It belongs to that genus of dogs marked out by their proximity to the ground. In most cases this is because of the shortness of the legs. If a dog has short legs, we have found that the body is almost invariably close to the ground. Yet this does not prevent the sausage dog from making its way about its business with considerable dispatch.”
He glanced at his watch. One minute had passed, leaving nine minutes to go. There would be one minute, or perhaps two, for thanks at the end, which meant that he now had to speak for no more than seven minutes. But what more was there to say about sausage dogs? Were they good hunting dogs? He believed they were. Perhaps he could say something about the role of the sausage dog in the rural economy, how they had their place and how unwise it was to introduce new, untested breeds.
This went down well with the audience, and there were murmurs of agreement from corners of the room. Emboldened, von Igelfeld moved on to the topic of whether there should be restrictions on the free movement of sausage dogs. Should sausage dog breeders not be allowed to export animals with as few restrictions as possible? Again the audience agreed with von Igelfeld when he said that this was a good idea.
There were several other points before it was time to stop. After thanking Leflar and the University of Arkansas, von Igelfeld sat down, to thunderous applause.
Leflar leant over to von Igelfeld as the sound of clapping filled the room.
“Well done,” he said. “That went down very well. Guest speakers are sometimes far too technical for an open lecture like this. You hit just the right note.”
Von Igelfeld nodded gravely.
“I hope I lived up to expectations,” he said modestly.
“Oh you did,” said Leflar. “It was a resounding success. Even if you were somewhat brief.”
From his seat on the aeroplane, von Igelfeld looked down at the Ozarks as they became smaller and smaller beneath him. It was a good place, America, and Arkansas was a good state. He had been invited to return, but how could he, particularly when the news of Professor Igelfold’s death became widespread? Besides, he reflected, he had nothing further to say about sausage dogs; indeed he had already said more than enough.