This is a slow book. Not much is happening over 572 pages. The worst thing in the protagonist's life has happened already, and has turned out to be false, before the story starts. There isn’t a quest for an mysterious author, as was the case in Mercier’s bestseller and masterpiece Night Train to Lisbon. Rather, this book takes you into the life of Simon Leyland, a translator by trade, a lover of words and languages.
All the people mentioned throughout share that fascination, which leads to many interesting discussions on terminology and the sound of certain words in certain languages. Having studied semantics and language sciences, I thoroughly enjoyed that. I also loved the philosophical touch of the book. I had wished philosophy would play just as big a role as it did in Nighttrain.
What I didn’t like so much were the many anecdotes. There were lots of side characters who were introduced with pretty much all of their life’s stories. And then they were repeated in letters.
By the end of the book, Leyland begins writing his first ever story, rather than translating or retelling other’s stories in other languages. Without giving away too much: it is then that Mercier’s book falls into place and everything makes total sense.
Leyland is probably in his early sixties, and more than once during reading I asked myself if readers of that same age category would enjoy it more than I – being 30 – did now. I don’t recognize the feeling of “being finished with life” in a satisfied way; that’s not because life treated one badly, but just because it’s been enough, one has seen everything, felt everything, and just is nourished.
Raimund Gregorius is a middle-aged (57 year old) teacher of classical languages. One day, while he walks to work, he encounters a young woman on the bridge who seems to be desperate and indending to jump. He saves her. They don't talk, but she writes a phone number on his forehead and tells him that she is Portuguese. Since it is raining, he takes her to the school, where she can dry up and stay in his classroom for the time being. She leaves his classroom without saying anything, instead, she puts her finger on her lips and just disappears. This encounter is a turning point in Gregorius' life. Not long later, Gregorius goes, too, leaving his books and his students behind. He is intrigued by this woman from Portugal and goes to the Spanish bookstore he knows well, since his ex-wife is Spanish. In the Portuguese section he finds a book written by Amadeu de Prado, entitled "A Goldsmith of Words". Being a lover of language and words himself, he asks the owner of the book store to translate a the first paragraphs and he is enchanted immediately. He decides to buy the book together with a Portuguese language course and a dictionary. He spends the night learning basic Portuguese and translating a couple of chapters of De Prado's book. De Prado writes about life and reflects on why people do what they do, and this touches Gregorius extremely. It turns out he is in a kind of crisis himself and decides this is the time to just do what he feels like doing instead of playing his role in society and act like people expect him to act. To leave the life he has been living behind; and start anew. He writes a letter to his headmaster saying he will not be at work for an unknown period, and boards the train to Lisbon. He is dertermined to find De Prado, the man behind the words. When it turns out that he has passed away, he visits people that have known him, talks with them and gets to lean Amadeu through them. The reader follows Gregorius on a quest through history, ideas and reflections on life.
Pascal Mercier is the pen name of Peter Bieri, a Swiss philosopher. This novel contains his philosophical ideas on life and free will. And those aren't just thoughts that I can identify with real well; it is also written beautifully. A book that I will always treasure.