Tag-Archive for ◊ Goldsmith ◊

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• 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.

 


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Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment
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• Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Hisham Matar was born in New York in 1970 to Libyan parents. His father worked for the Libyan mission to the United Nations. But in 1979 being against the regime, he left Libya and went into exile in Egypt with his family. After living in Cairo for eleven years, his father was kidnapped and sent back to Libya where he was sent to prison and since 1995 Hisham Matar has no news of his father’s whereabouts. His mother and elder brother still live in Egypt.

Hisham Matar spent his young years in Tripoli and Cairo. He lived in Cairo for four years, and at fifteen went to boarding school in England. Then he studied architecture at Goldsmith college London University and still lives in London, married to American photographer, Diana Matar. He is working on a new novel set in Cairo and London.

In his twenties Hisham Matar worked as an architect and also wrote articles for the London based Arabic daily newspaper, Al Shark Al Awsat. His essays have been published in The Independent, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Times. In 2002 he was a finalist in East Anglia’s Best New Talent Awards for his poems, before preferring prose to poetry.

Hisham Matar’s first novel In the Country of Menwas first published in 2006 and was nominated for The Guardian First Book Award. It was on the short list of The Booker Prize of 2006 and won The Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2007. “In The Country of Men” was a big success and has been translated into 22 languages. Despite its short length it took five years to write.

The novel is narrated by a bewildered nine year-old Suleiman who is trying to decode the adult world that takes place inside his own family and in Tripoli, ten years after the 1969 Libyan revolution. The book starts in 1979, the year before he left Tripoli to go and live in Cairo.

Little Suleiman is confused as would be a nine year old who lives with a depressed, domineering, alcoholic and emotionally unpredictable mother (Mama), a nearly non-existent figure-head of a businessman father (Baba), and suspicious men (the secret police) moving around Tripoli and his neighbourhood.

Apart from Suleiman’s mother, the main character in the story who plays an important part in Suleimen’s life, the story is mainly about men, as the title of the novel suggests. The novel is not only about politics, it’s also about strong emotions, compassions and relationships between people sharing almost the same fate.

The story is poignant. Suleiman who at his age should be living a carefree life, is burdened by the cruel events surrounding him. Like nine year old Michele in “I’m Not Scared” by Niccolo Ammaniti and twelve year old Amir in “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, he is ejected too soon into adulthood due to circumstances and without any mercy.

Throughout the novel there is a sense of danger, fear, betrayal, and a very heavy atmosphere of oppression, that the nine-year old child caught in this claustrophobic world would rather not even attempt to decipher but instead escape to a freer place.

Nevertheless, the story is evoked with great subtlety and compassion. “In The Country of Men” is an interesting novel because it’s about Libya, a country which has encountered many world-wide controversies in recent years and yet remains completely unknown to the outsider.

Very rarely would one come across a book about Libya, its every day life and its regime. In one of his interviews Hisham Matar says : “I would have liked to write a book that had nothing to do with politics… I’m not really interested in politics, but politics was part of the canvas. I had to say something about it, otherwise all the different forces that are shaping these characters would be abstract.”

The characters in the novel are not fully developed but rather sketched apart from the character of Suleimen’s mother who stands out vividly among the other hazy characters, emphasising the endearing love binding the little boy to his mother, love that will remain just as strong even when the little boy becomes a young man in exile in Egypt.

“I look down at my legs, my grown-up legs in their grown-up trousers…. You’re a man, I tell myself. And she (his mother) is coming to see you, to see what has become of her darling boy, her only son. How will she be? …What will she think of me… Then I see her. She is standing next to her suitcase like a girl in the city for the first time… Mama, I say and say it again and again until she sees me. Mama! Mama! When I reach her she kisses my hands, my forehead, my cheeks, combs my hair with her fingers, straightens my collar.”

The style, in its unpretentious appealing simplicity, speaks to the heart on an emotionally realistic level. In one of his interviews, Hisham Matar denies that his novel In the Country of Menis autobiographical. He said it’s pure fiction and that he chose to fictionalise events of his childhood:

“The book is a product of my imagination: a human faculty that many, I am learning these days, are suspect of. This book took me five years to write; I am not yet interested enough in my own autobiography to spend that long writing it down. Besides, knowing what will happen next bores me… I enjoy the pleasure of inventing characters and their circumstances on the page. They remain mysterious even after the work is complete; in some ways even more mysterious. It’s magic.”

“Libya is a silent and silenced country. Somewhere between the covers of my book is a Libya that speaks. But most of all, I hope anyone who reads my novel is entertained and perhaps nudged a little.”