Someone bring me a glass of water and a tissue!
My dear librarian has written me an e-mail!
Who would believe it?
How very thoughtful of you, Tsofit, to include Alone in Berlin in your much anticipated e-mail. Yes, I’ve heard about the book, and had already been sent by illustrious members of our community to get it from the library, “straight away”. However, these eminent figures do not understand how public libraries conduct themselves: first, the librarians read the book (I overheard that somewhere), and then begins a very long waiting period: people wake up at five o’clock in the morning, come rain or come shine, waiting for the paperboy to throw the book review segment of the newspaper onto their porch. With the information in hand, they gallop to the library, to get their hands on the newest, most fashionable book, or at least – to reserve a place on the reading list before anyone else. It is only after the initial enthusiasm settles and a new list gets published that the latest, “amazing” book finally becomes available and one can borrow it at ease. It could take years, really, but we have the time, and the patience (actually, we do not, but everyone is saying that one should have patience, so I go along with that).
I have just finished a wonderful book: Night Train to Lisbon. Did you read it?
It captivated me.
The idea seems completely farfetched, but this book grabbed me from the first moment. Quite remarkable. With all its twists and turns, it has a sense of order, which made me feel safe to follow the protagonist in his extraordinary journey, without being shaken. On the contrary: I was very calm and very much mesmerized.
It is actually a double story: a language teacher follows the footsteps of a Portuguese author, thanks to a book that the teacher accidently receives. The insight of the Portuguese author and his personal life are revealed to us, with its wisdom and heartbreaking experiences.
Even though the philosophy is rather complex, I was never lost, and that, within itself, is a remarkable achievement (philosophy is no easy business, I tell you).
Later I had heretical thoughts. The Portuguese author was not actually saying anything that was not known already, and that all of his insights were, basically, old news. But then I realized that he had a very interesting way of looking at things. Even if in our day and age everything has been told, still, the way in which the author’s thoughts were given was refreshing. It was not spiritual – new age – pretentious nonsense, as is the custom in our times. Now everyone is a guru. The Portuguese author is the real thing.
What was even more interesting was the fact the there is dissonance between the soul of the mav, his questions and conclusions, and the persona in which he is perceived from the outside by everyone else – even our protagonist.
He, who was also a doctor, was an ideal person, an admired genius, but deep down inside he was puzzled, anxious and terrified. He was not weak – not at all! He was just someone who felt lost, a little off track sometimes. What we would call human.
The protagonist, the teacher who leaves everything to follow the trail of the Portuguese author, tries to understand his character. What he was really trying to do was to understand himself through his unconventional hero.
While so doing, he naturally helps the readers to understand themselves.
It is beautiful, and very beautifully written.
I have read a lot of criticism of this book (O. k. – two. O.k. I read one and stopped reading the other, right in the middle. I felt it was too offensive and I do not want some nasty analysis to ruin my special experience. If someone writes like that, then he does not understand the story. At least, not the way I did and that’s his problem – not mine).
One critic based the center of the story on the relationship between the Portuguese author and his father. That is true, but only partially. Parents are the primal foundation that shapes a person’s soul. That is evident. But in our story the mother figure was every bit as important and in many aspects even more so. She was the one who molded her son to become the one he struggled to be: the perfect genius, the best student. It is possible that his high cognitive abilities were already Inherent in him, but it was the mother who, without even knowing it, encouraged him to be that perfect person, and – by doing so – ruptured his soul.
The relationship with the father reminded me the Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Also a powerful book about a dominating father, who himself cracks under the strain of commitment, an inner motive that chains him and imprisons him. A father who beats up his children while crying: he feels compelled to behave like this. It was how he was raised.
The Portuguese author’s father, a judge, neither struck nor stroked his son – he did not talk to him.
It was not because they had had a dispute, or because he was authoritative and alienated or suffered from a serve back condition (as his son mistakenly thought).
The judge did not speak to his son because he was afraid of him.
He was afraid of his child’s capacity to comprehend everything – including his own faults and defects.
The honorable judge was terrified that his son would see him for what he really was: human. He was not aware, of course, that his son felt exactly the same.
The thought was unbearable to him. So he preferred silence.
The way in which the father and son protect themselves against each other, believing the other as a perfect and powerful entity, reveals their mutual blindness – not only to their own insecurities, but to the insecurity of the other.
The enormous effort to project constant success eventually turns into a deathly noose around one’s neck. The faster ambition runs forward with its desires, the faster one buries oneself beneath it.
The dynamic is so tragic, so sad and so real.
This dynamic is nothing short of fascinating.
Everyone wants to be perfect, but this very perfectness, that was meant to be the complete opposite of everything feeble and faltering, strikes a wedge in the fragile connections between people and – in our case – between a boy and his father.
Night Train to Lisbon is a good book. Top quality. A book I would like to own and have in my private library, unsubordinated by fashionable waiting lists. A book I would read again (which I did! The moment I finished it!), although there are other books waiting for me, and it’s not very nice to keep them waiting (especially when they – too – are overdue at the library).
By the way, I do not understand why the author chose a pseudonym – Pascal Mercier – when everybody knows that it’s a pseudonym! I mean, what’s the idea to use a pen name if everyone knows who you really are? (No, Romain Gary and O. Henry are not the same thing). When I read that Peter Bieri is a Swiss writer and philosopher, I realized how this great work was conceived. With all due respect to the critics, Night Train to Lisbon was Switzerland’s most successful book and was translated into 11 languages.
As always, I continue to wait for new recommendations and reactions from you. In the meantime, I still have your list. It is old and very long.
It will take time, to read everything, but that’s o.k.
Like I said earlier, we have time and we are patient people, after all.