Tag-Archive for ◊ resistance ◊

• 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.


• Saturday, January 31st, 2015

Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1950. She is the eldest of three children from a father who was professor of psychology and a mother, professor emeritus of English literature at Cairo University, who later translated some of her daughter’s literary works. Ahdaf Soueif was educated in England and Egypt, where she obtained a BA degree in English Literature in 1971 from Cairo University and in 1973 an MA in English Literature from the American University in Cairo. In England she received a Ph.D in linguistics from the University of Lancaster in 1978.

Ahdaf Soueif worked as an associate lecturer from 1971 to 1979 and then a lecturer from 1979 to 1984 at Cairo University and later as an associate professor at King Saud University in Riyadh from 1987 to 1989. Back to London in 1989 she found employment at Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation. She is a novelist and also a political and cultural commentator. She writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper in London and has a weekly column in the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Shorouk. She writes mainly in English but also in Arabic.

Ahdaf Soueif received the Cavafy award in 2011 and the Mahmoud Darwish Award in 2010. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999 for her fourth novel, The Map Of Love, which became a best seller and was translated into several languages. She was also awarded for Sandpiper by the Cairo International Book Fair Best Collection of Short Stories in 1996 and was shortlisted in 1983 for the Guardian Fiction Prize for her novel, Aisha.

Ahdaf Soueif wrote and published Aisha in 1983, In The Eye Of The Sun in 1992, Sandpiper in 1996 and The Map Of Love in 1999. In 2003 her translation from Arabic to English of I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti was published; then in 2004, Mezzaterra followed by I Think Of You in 2007 and Cairo My City, Our Revolution in 2012.

Ahdaf Soueif was married and has two sons from the late Ian Hamilton, the British literary critic, reviewer, biographer, poet, magazine editor and publisher. She lives between Cairo and London.

The Map Of Love, despite its unfortunate and misleading title, is a political, historical story sprinkled with romanticism, written originally in English and endearingly dotted with Egyptian colloquialisms. The story begins at the end of the 19th century and continues throughout the 20th. The events take place in London, Cairo and New York, where the past connects with the present and when history tends to repeat itself.

It’s the story of the complex history of Egypt during a whole turbulent century of its awakening, its aspirations, revolts and resistance to adversities. The author mentions names of several Egyptian heroes such as the nationalist colonel, Ahmed Orabi, the loyalist, Mustafa Kamel Pasha, the patriot Mohammed Farid and many others who were all fighting, each in his own way, to free their beloved country from the weakened Ottoman rulers who had occupied Egypt for centuries and had been superseded by the colonialist British Empire from 1882 to 1956.

One of the main characters is the newly widowed, Anna Winterbourne who leaves England for Egypt in 1900. Anna falls in love with Egypt as well as with the Egyptian nationalist, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi. She doesn’t know then that nearly a century later, her great granddaughter, Isabel Parkman, the young American divorced journalist living in New York, will fall in love with the handsome world-renowned, half Egyptian half Palestinian, pianist and conductor, Omar-al-Ghamrawi.

Although, nearly a century apart, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi as well as his great grand nephew, Omar-al-Ghamrawi, have four things in common: they share the same blood, they are both charismatic well-known figures, both in love with western women and they both fight strongly for their political beliefs. Sharif Basha wants to free Egypt from the British occupation and a century later Omar is fighting for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East. The depiction of Sharif and Anna’s love mirrored many decades later by Omar and Isabel’s is intentional by the author, as a proof that love transcends time, place and culture.

When in 1997 Isabel discovers an old trunk in her dying mother’s home containing Anna’s diary and letters written in English and Layla’s diary written in Arabic, she informs Omar, in order to get him interested in her and win his attention. Omar is much older than Isabel and has a difficult character. He is divorced and has two children and advises her to see his sister Amal in Cairo who might be willing to translate the Arabic diary and papers for her.

Isabel goes to Cairo. Amal accepts the task and while working to unravel the history of Anna and Layla through the written material and trinkets in hand, Amal discovers that she has common ancestry with Isabel. The story of Anna unfolds gradually but at the same time is intercepted by other stories that are happening a hundred years later. The past and the present run in a harmonious parallel throughout this family saga.

The Map Of Love is compassionately written with an Egyptian spirit, wit and sensibility, the author showing a good historical knowledge and a strong political opinion. The novel provides rich insights into Egyptian political, cultural and social life during all of the twentieth century including some history of the Palestinian and Israeli problem.

In one in her interviews, Ahdaf Soueif says: “The genre I work in is the ‘realistic’ novel. So my characters live in a specific time and a specific place in our real world. And in that time and place things happen – political things or public things, if you like. And they affect the characters and the characters in turn strive to affect them.”

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