Tag-Archive for ◊ Philosophy ◊

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.

 


Author:
• Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Sam Savage was born in Camden, South Carolina,USA in 1940. He graduated from Yale University in 1968 and received his Ph.d. in philosophy from the same university in 1973. He was also a teacher at Yale for a short time.

Prior to writing, Savage worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, a shellfish fisherman and letter-press printer. In 2004 Sam Savage moved to Madison Wisconsin, USA, where he now lives with his wife.

Sam Savage has written five books to date but he is known for his best selling first novel Firmin, published in 2006 and translated into several languages.

The novel is narrated by a skinny, erudite, sensitive, extraordinary rat called Firmin. He is a very special rodent who can read by an unknown miracle. He is born with an unusually large head and ugly features and is the runt of a numerous litter of twelve siblings. Firmin’s birth takes place in what he calls, “a mausoleum of books, a museum of forgotten treasures, a cemetery of the unread and unreadable”, the basement of Pembroke bookshop in Scollay Square, an old, insalubrious part of Boston which is about to be pulled down as part of an urban reconstruction scheme.

Firmin was born in the sixties to an alcoholic, overweight mother of easy virtue named Flo, who cushions her litter’s nest by making confetti out of James Joyce’s big novel, Finnegans Wake, “The biggest book she could get her paws on”.

Soon after his birth, Firmin learns quickly that he has to fend for himself. He owes his survival to books, becoming figuratively very fond of literature for nourishing his highly curious intellect as well as literally nibbling books when desperately hungry and when he has nothing else to eat.
Firmin finds out that no matter how keen his intellect can be, his stomach also claims its due.

He also finds comfort in his loneliness and in his hunger in the Rialto Theater where he gorges himself watching the “lovelies” – the exquisite naked actresses shown in late night films – as well as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, while at the same time gorging on the food dropped by spectators.

Due to his extensive reading and film-watching, Firmin acquires knowledge and a philosophical, critical mind. He becomes remarkably cultivated and therefore feels more affinity with humans than with rats. In fact he considers himself a human at heart which creates a chasm between him and the other rodents.

After observing Norman, the bookshop owner, for several days, Firmin develops some fondness for him to the extent of wanting to befriend him. Sadly, things go wrong through a misjudgment on both sides when Norman tries to poison Firmin, regarded as a vermin squatting his bookshop. Henceforth Firmin will distance himself from Norman and mention him only by his family name, Shine, since he is no longer considered a friend.

Depressed, forlorn, frustrated and disappointed by being unable to fulfill his dream of communicating with people, despite his hopeless efforts and eagerness, Firmin finds his salvation with his new friend, Jerry, an alcoholic, marginal novelist who hosts him in his humble room above the bookshop before dying in an accident and leaving Firmin once more to fend for himself.

As Firmin is about to pass out under the rubble of his beloved bookshop, he thinks as he always did, how lucky he is to have been a very special rat, enjoying reading and dreaming about books to the point of ecstasy and to the point of substituting himself with the characters from his books or the film stars watched in the Rialto Theater. Even if he was estranged by his own family and disconnected from other rodents, he felt the urge to fulfill his exceptional destiny.

For Firmin, books were his only solace and a mine of enrichment during his short existence. He says: “Even though I consider myself lucky to have lived the life I did, I would not like to be that lucky twice”. Firmin feels inconsolable and caustic. He says: “ O bitter ending! They’ll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me […] Dry and cold was the world and beautiful the words”.

A very imaginative, endearing, touching and original bittersweet novel, funny in parts, about a rat who, during his short life, attains a great deal of culture and knowledge coupled with a vivid imagination. Regrettably all his acquired knowledge, culture and philosophical views are to no avail. A thought provoking subject.

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