Monday, June 11, 2007

Intensive weekend

...and a very intensive weekend it was, too. On my first weekend in Chisinau perhaps I should have gone to see the sights, but between going for runs, studying, practicing the piano, doing some paid work, sleeping and THE BOOK I was really grounded at home.

What book? Actually two books, one of them, Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' I had read before, in English. This was a German translation (and since the 'translated from' was in Japanese I had been unable to identify it as previously read in the bookshop in Vienna). It was a great read - I got into it on Friday night, while listening to Daniel Hope's recording of the Shostakovich violin concertos. (Do my ears deceive me or can Shosty be a bit thin on themes? There seem to be bits of 'D Eflat C B' popping up all over the place, and I could have sworn I heard a bit of his cello concerto as well.) A slightly mysterious book, though not as bizarre as Murakami's 'Wind-up bird chronicle' - this one was more real. I love the descriptions of Japanese life, such as the rituals in the halls of residence, what visitors do in hospital, going out for meals ....The book runs along very (reasonably) happily and it's hard to put it down until you work out whether he's going to achieve what he wants to achieve, or not. Murakami has written lots of books; in terms of believability I prefer this book, but the 'Wind-up Bird' was more surreal which also had a lot of charm. There's usually plenty of sex, but little violence....

But this was nothing, NOTHING, compared to the tour de force of Pascal Mercier's book 'Perlmanns Schweigen'. I don't know why this book has not been translated into English! It was published in 1997 so there would have been plenty of time. Is it the length of the book (over 600 pages with quite fine print)? Is it the fact that the author was a translator, then a linguistics lecturer and now a prof of philosophy, and no-one dares touch his book? My mother could not put it down whilst reading it in Tbilisi, and now I've been the same. I had read his 'Klavierstimmer' before, but this exceeds everything!

Perlmann is a professor of linguistics (imagine...) who has been asked by the company Olivetti to run a 5 week get-together of international linguists in a seaside resort in Italy. There each of five or 6 linguists will produce a paper which will then be intensely discussed. A very prestigious task. Unfortunately Perlmann feels well below par; his wife has died less than 10 months before, and he feels that he is no longer capable to doing his job. It's the fear of being found out as a fraud that drives him almost insane. He manages to organise his presentation to the end of the period, and procrastinates like crazy, in the meantime translating a text from Russian, a language he does not speak (but he's a linguist, and it's amazing what they can do with a dictionary in their hand). Time moves on, anxiety grows and grows, and finally he finds a solution - but suddenly that solution is in danger of causing him catastrophic consequences.

The book is written entirely from Perlmann's viewpoint, based on what he thinks the others are thinking and doing, and how can he get out of this situation. This is masked by physical weakness, not helped by his use of strong sleeping tablets. He gets himself into a total fankle, ending up his conference covered in blood. And the book goes on - as if the end of the meeting is not enough, it goes on and on - because the situation is still not entirely resolved.

The degree of understanding of this guy's mind is amazing - probably most people who work and are treated as 'experts' sometimes have the fear of 'being found out', even if they know all that there is to be known about the topic. In Perlmann's case, this fear becomes almost clinical, and you can feel his racing heart and sweating brow as you move through the book.

In passing the book inevitably touches on aspects of linguistics, as in 'the past is a construct' (people construct their own view of the past, and if they tell it long enough, they believe it themselves), or nuances of the English and Russian languages. That adds considerable interest, though you keep reading to see what is going to happen to Perlmann.

It's a fantastic read - but you'd need to speak good German to understand it and to work your way through all those pages. I see he has written two more books that I have not read....

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