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Author:
• Friday, April 24th, 2015

Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1963 from a novelist mother, Jeanne Ray, and a police officer father, Frank Patchett. She went to high school at St. Bernard Academy, which is a private catholic school for girls. After graduating, she attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she took fiction writing classes followed by Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 1990 she won a residential fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint Of Liars.

Patchett has written fiction and non fiction books. She received the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Nashville Banner Tennessee Writer of the Year Award in 1994 and in 2002 she won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN, Faulkner Award for her breakthrough fourth novel, Bel Canto, which sold over a million copies in the USA and has been translated into several languages. She lives with her physician husband in Nashville Tennessee.

Bel Canto is set in a nameless Latin American country, where the world famous American lyric soprano, Roxane Coss, is hired to sing at a cosmopolitan reception held in the luxirious mansion of the vice president, Ruben Iglesias, in honour of an influential Japanese businessman, Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa, founder and chairman of the successful electronics company, Nansei. The poor host country has arranged this very costly party to celebrate Mr. Hosokawa’s fifty-third birthday, hoping to attract investment and knowing that he would attend in order to listen to his favourite opera singer, Roxane Coss, whom he has been following in concert halls all around the world.

At the end of Coss’s last aria from Rusalka by Dvorak and at the end of an excellent evening, a rebel group called: La Familia de Martin Suarez – three generals and fifteen soldiers aged between fourteen to twenty recruited from the country side – disrupt the gathering to kidnap the president of the country who is not present because he preferred to stay at home to watch his favourite television soap opera. So instead of president Masuda, the entire party is taken hostage. Later on the women and children will be released and thirty nine men plus Roxane Coss will be retained as hostages for four and a half months.

After the fear and panic subside and after a period of readaptation on both sides when the kidnappers find nowhere to go nor how to deal with the unexpected situation of their failed plan, an amazingly beautiful bond of solidarity, love and friendship between captors and captives and among the hostages themselves develops. This is regardless of outside pressure and the constant visits of the International Red Cross worker, Joachim Messner. This fascinating relationship shows that people can become friendly and compassionate with strangers given the chance, and that nobody can be completely bad beyond retrieval, so there is still a hope for humankind.

As the days and months pass, the very young abductors discover their hidden talents. Ishmael becomes a good chess player, only by intently observing his general playing some games with Mr. Hosokawa – the two being good chess players. Cesar can now sing operatic parts learnt from listening to Roxane’s singing and Carmen is fast learning the various languages taught to her by her lover, Gen. Even the Nansei Electronics vice president, Tetsuya Kato, who is usually dealing with numbers, lets his pianistic talent surface. He is only too happy to be Roxane Coss’s new accompanist after the unfortunate death of her Swedish one.

Roxane Coss becomes the revered idol of everybody. Captors as well as captives succumb to her every whim. She is treated like the diva she really is and in return she delights her audience everyday with her delightful arias from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, arias from Vincenzo Bellini, Paolo Tosti, and Franz Schubert’s Die Forelle. They are all now held captive by her beautiful singing and don’t wish to be released from their abductors. She knows that she is a very special, gifted star and enjoys the bewitching effect she has on her audience.

The Japanese gentleman, Mr. Hosokawa, is for the first time facing real passion after experiencing it only virtually all these years, when every evening at home he listens to the bel canto after a hard day’s work. Now he is living a dream and doesn’t want it to end. What could he have wished for more than living with his adored opera singer, Roxane Coss, and hearing her practising her delightful singing every day. For him it’s a pleasure beyond imagination and is even more enhanced when the spiritual meets carnal desire in the early hours of the morning in the bed of his beloved, Roxane, who shares his sentiment.

Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa’s private Japanese translator, is a professionally gifted polyglot, now working full time translating important as well as trivial matters for everyone, the abductors as well as the abducted. He is surrounded by people of various languages and nationalities: Argentinians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans, Danes, French, Italians, Russians and English. He attains his reward after a hard day’s work when, hidden in the china cupboard, he makes love every day at two o’clock in the morning with one of his captors, his beloved, beautiful, Carmen, who is also madly in love with him.

Bel Canto is a well-written story with subtle, well depicted characters although viewed under a stereotypical eye. There is the polite bowing of the Japanese men, mentioned often in the novel. The French diplomat, Simon Thibault, who is passionately in love with his wife, Edith, and who volunteers to do the cooking because “he’s French. The French know how to cook”. Then there is the ardent and heavy smoker, the Russian Muscovite, Victor Fyodorov, who bores Coss with his irrelevant childhood stories as an introduction to his love declaration for her. There is also the conscientiously serious German Lothar, a vice president of the pharmaceutical company Hoechst, who feels deeply sad about the death of Roxane Coss’s piano accompanist because of a lack of insulin, given that his company is a leading manufacturer of the drug.

All indulgent, happy, leisurely moments have an end in real life and operas by definition have dramatic endings. Since the novel is called Bel Canto, the dénouement of the story is like an opera finale – dramatically moving.

Author:
• Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Peter Bieri, better known by his pseudonym, Pascal Mercier, was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1944. He studied philosophy, English studies and Indian studies in both London and Heidelberg, where he obtained a doctoral degree in 1971 from Dieter Henrich and Ernst Tugendhart for his work on the philosophy of time and in 1981 became an assistant scientist at the philosophical seminar at the University of Heidelberg.

At the German Research Foundation he studied: philosophy of mind, epistemology and ethics. From 1990 to 1993 he worked as a professor of history of philosophy at the University of Marburg in Germany and in 1993 he taught philosophy at the Free University in Berlin.

In the late eighties Bieri started his literary career. He wrote a few books but the breakthrough came with his third book: Night Train To Lisbon, published in German in 2004 and in English in 2007. The novel was translated into many languages, sold millions of copies and was made into a film in 2013.

The main character in Night Train To Lisbon is the learned professor, Raimund Gregorius. He is an only child born to a humble family. His father was a museum guard and his mother a charwoman. Gregorius, who is called Mundus or Papyrus by his students and colleagues, is now in his late fifties, living on his own after his divorce from Florence, a former student, nineteen years earlier. He is a philologist, teaching Latin, Greek and Hebrew with high competence at a Swiss high school in his native city, Bern, where he was himself once a student.

Gregorius is devoted to his work. He leads a dull, solitary life ruled by an immovable self-gratifying routine, until one day on his way to school he rescues an enigmatic Portuguese woman standing on a bridge. From now on nothing will be the same again for Gregorius. He finds himself going to the Spanish bookshop in Hirschengraben where he used to buy books for his former wife for her dissertation on San Juan de la Cruz, in the hope of seeing the Portuguese woman there again. By chance he discovers a Portuguese book with an appealing title: “A Goldsmith Of Words” written by Amadeu de Prado which appeared as a private publication under the name “Cedros Vermelhos” in 1975, two years after the author’s death.

Intrigued by this book, Gregorius asks the bookshop keeper to read and translate some passages from Prado’s notes which he thought, upon hearing them, were personally addressed to him alone on this very peculiar day. He is awestruck by what he hears. He is fascinated by the author. He feels a whole new horizon opening for him. He now abandons his students, leaving behind on the classroom desk even his briefcase with his textbooks that had accompanied him all his life, and walks away.

Once in his apartment, Gregorius looks at Prado’s photo and translates a couple of texts from his book from Portuguese to his own language with the help of his new dictionary and grammar book. Gregorius ponders a while before making his mind up to take a train to Lisbon.

The story is set in motion and Gregorius’ whole life is now put into question. He feels the need to know everything about Prado’s life, about his book, which he will diligently continue to translate. He wants to learn the Portuguese language in order to immerse himself into this bewildering adventure he is about to embark on. Gregorius is not aware that he is undertaking a long quest for self discovery while trying to discover who is the mysterious aristocrat, Amadeu de Prado.

He feels the liberating satisfaction of knowing that for the first time he is about to take his life into his own hands. He realises all of a sudden that at the age of fifty-seven there isn’t much time left to live and he therefore strongly senses the need to change his existence to something different.

Once in Lisbon, Gregorius is determined to start his researches without delay. He meets some people who help him find acquaintances, family and friends close to Prado. One thing leading to another, he breaks his spectacles, goes to the ophthalmologist, Mariana Eça, who introduces him to her uncle Joao Eça who was a resistance fighter with Prado.

He visits Prado’s sister, Adriana, five-years-younger than himself and his sixteen-year-younger sister, Rita, nick-named Mélodie. He also meets Prado’s only two school friends, Jorge O ‘ Kelly, the Irish pharmacist and Maria Joao Avila, Prado’s highly esteemed friend. He goes to see Prado’s former school teacher, father Bartolomeu, and discovers how father Bartolomeu had a great admiration for his astute student, Prado.

Under the spell, Gregorius continues his lengthy search and visits the places and spots where Prado used to go. He even travels to Spain to meet Estefânia Espinhosa, the former resistance fighter, who has now become a teacher. He listens intently to her story like he listened to all the others telling their stories about Prado. And when O’ Kelly asks Gregorius why is he so interested in Amadeu de Prado, Gregorius answers: “I’d like to know what it was like to be him”.

Gregorius has endeavored to know all about this extraordinary person who wrote in his notes about God, about the meaning of life and death, the strict rules of friendship love and loyalty and many other self-reflective philosophical thoughts written in his Goldsmith Of Words. Now for the first time, Gregorius asks himself what would have happened to his life had he chosen to travel to Isfahan and learn Persian instead of choosing classical languages and the safety of home?

After all his assiduous investigations, Gregorious discovers that Amadeu de Prado died a sudden death from aneurysm thirty one years earlier in 1973 and that he was a poet, a goldsmith of words, a would-be priest, a philosopher, a successful physician and a member of the resistance movement fighting the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who ruled Portugal for decades. All the pieces of the puzzle now fit together and the picture becomes clear.

Night Train To Lisbon is an accomplished, competently written and well-structured novel with richly depicted characters. Pascal Mercier, who is a professor of philosophy, has mirrored himself in his two characters, Gregorius and Amadeu de Prado, whose notes and letters are interspersed amid the story and in parallel with the events. Pascal Mercier takes the reader into the labyrinth of metaphysics, thought-provoking and soul searching subjects, beyond courage, friendship, love and death.