Tag-Archive for ◊ Switzerland ◊

• Friday, December 14th, 2018

Amy Tan was born in 1952 and grew up in Oakland, North California, USA. She is the second of three siblings born to Chinese immigrant parents. Her father was an electrical engineer educated in Beijing and a Baptist minister and her mother was from a high-class family in Shanghai.

Tan first attended Marian A. Peterson high school in Sunnyvale California for one year. After her father and elder brother both died of brain tumours within six months of each other in 1966, Tan moved to Europe with her mother and younger brother. She finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa in Montreux, Switzerland.

She studied English and linguistics at San Jose State University and the University of California, Berkeley from which she received a B.A. Degree in 1973 and an M.A. Degree in 1974. In 1987 she also worked successfully as a freelance business writer.

After her father’s and brother’s demise, Tan was told about her mother’s former marriage in Shanghai to a Chinese man and having had twin daughters from him who were left behind when she emigrated to the USA. In 1987, Tan travelled with her mother to China to see her twin half-sisters for the first time.

This event inspired the last chapter in Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was translated into several languages. It was also made into a film, directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1993.

Tan has written several novels, children’s books and non-fiction books and has received many awards. She lives with her husband in San Francisco.

After emigrating from China to San Francisco in 1949, Suyuan Woo, one of the main protagonists of the novel, remembers her idea of a Joy Luck Club from the days of her first marriage in Kweilin, before escaping the advancing Japanese troupes during the second world war. With the help of three Chinese ladies in San Francisco, she creates the American version of the Kweilin Joy Luck Club of Mah Jong.

The four ladies, all first-generation Chinese immigrants, meet in each other’s homes. They play Mah Jong for money as well as unleash some nostalgic, preciously accumulated memories from their native land, brought with them to exile after fleeing either the Japanese invasion of the second world war or the later Chinese communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong.

In their pleasurable meetings, the ladies enjoy gossiping about their children, while gorging on elaborate home-made Chinese food, prepared with great care and thought by their hostess. Later the club expands to include the husbands, represented in the novel as inept fathers as well as husbands and no better than the daughters’ American scheming partners.

The story begins with Jing-Mei Woo, who is asked by her father to be the fourth corner at The Joy Luck Club as a replacement for her mother who died two months earlier.

The novel consists of four parts; like the four hands that each Mah Jong player plays in turn; two parts (the first and the fourth) dedicated to the mothers and the two other parts (the second and the third) to the daughters. Each part is divided into four to keep the Mah Jong symmetry going and all these parts together form sixteen connected chapters, narrated by the voice of the character to whom the chapter is assigned.

The author moves back and forth between the lives of the four mothers and the lives of their four daughters, as well as alternating the mother’s present existence in the USA in juxtaposition to their pre-nineteen forty-nine lives in China with its good days and difficult, turbulent times before their exile.

The story is funny in parts and moving in others. It is written in parallels and from a feminist standpoint, between Chinese born mothers and their complicated relationships with their Chinese-American daughters. These mothers have carried with them all the traditions and superstitions they grew-up with to the new world.

They are always hoping to be able to instil their Chinese culture and beliefs into their daughters while disregarding their daughters’ different mentality, education and affinity to their surroundings and the country they have grown up in, which creates the conflicts between the two generations. The mothers being adamant that: “Chinese thinking is best” and wise and the daughters, who want to break free from their parents stifling insular customs and commence a carefree American life, unconstrained by old Chinese practices and traditions.

Nevertheless, the Chinese mothers are finally proven correct as referred t o in the last chapter: A Pair Of Tickets, when Jing-Mei Woo mentions what her mother told her when she was in her teens, revolting against her Chinese origins, she remembers her mother saying to her: “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese. Someday you will see, it is in your blood, waiting to be let go”.

When, after her mother’s demise, the thirty-six-year-old Jing-Mei Woo goes to China with her seventy-two-year-old father to meet her half-twin sisters for the first time, she realises how Chinese she is. She says: “the minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, my mother was right, I am becoming Chinese”.

In her novel, the author is addressing the problems and dilemmas of the first-born generation of immigrant parents, depicting how they feel torn between two cultures with different values, conflicting outlooks and different habits and customs. A masterfully well written and narrated novel, weaving some stories told by the author’s mother with some fictional ones.

The book is dedicated to the author’s mother and in memory of her grandmother. Amy Tan writes in her dedication: “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more”. That sums it all up.

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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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