Mercier, Pascal - 'Perlmann's Silence' (translated by Shaun Whiteside)
"It wasn't stage fright. It wasn't the fear of suddenly staring into the audience or straight ahead at the lectern and having forgotten everything. He had suffered from that idea in the past, but it had been over a long time ago. It was something else, something that he had only recognised after a long time and with quiet horror: the very precise feeling that he had nothing to say."
Philip Perlmann is a middle-aged Professor of Linguistics at the forefront of his subject who has been persuaded to head a research seminar in a small seaside town near Genoa during October and November. His wife, a photographer, was eager to accompany him; to catch the early winter light of Italy - they could travel together to Pisa or Florence. But now Perlmann sits in the seaside hotel waiting for the arrival of his fellow academics and longs to escape. His wife is dead, killed in an accident in January, and Perlmann does not want to be here leading a seminar and preparing his own study paper. As his colleagues arrive one by one, Perlmann spends precious working time continuing his study of Russian, a passion which connects him to his dead wife. He grows to understand that he has nothing more to say on the subject of linguistics, but admitting so to his colleagues would be professional suicide.
Nevertheless Perlmann ignores the question of his own thesis and moves on from Russian grammar to an attempt to translate the paper of a Russian colleague, Leskov, who has been unable to obtain an exit visa to attend the seminar. The days pass and Perlmann is paralysed by the conflict between his disengagement from his subject and his fear of his colleagues' contempt. He becomes obsessed with his translation of Leskov's theoretical paper concerning the role of language in the formation of memories. As his own contribution deadline approaches, Perlmann withdraws, he disintegrates mentally and physically, and when there is no time left for him to produce a research paper, Perlmann considers presenting Leskov's work as his own. Having taken irrevocable steps to do so, Perlmann is mortified to receive a telegram from Leskov informing him that he has after all obtained a visa and will be arriving in the next day or so. The obsessed and broken Perlmann considers the murder of Leskov to be his only possible course of action if he is to preserve his, Perlmann's, own identity as the author of this paper on memory and language.
Published (in German) in 1995, PERLMANN'S SILENCE was written before Pascal Mercier's successful novel NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON which was published in English translation in 2008. Perhaps due to the success of that book we now have a translation of PERLMANN'S SILENCE by Shaun Whiteside, who is an excellent choice for this novel set in linguistic academia, having previously translated works by Nietzsche and Freud.
PERLMANN'S SILENCE is not a crime thriller as such and I don't recommend it as a quick, thrilling read. It is a novel – and at 600 pages plus – a long one. I had to slow down, concentrate, and allow myself to be absorbed into PERLMANN'S SILENCE with its academic setting and a central character obsessed with translating a research paper. But I like language and I like a bit of philosophy. Once I put aside "crime thriller" expectations I found this a successful and absorbing book in which Mercier draws a detailed study of an isolated and grieving man, Perlmann, who disintegrates both mentally and physically in the face of his own "silence". This is a silence which encompasses his inability to speak about himself or to communicate his feelings (he constantly urges himself to be "laconic" and lies about his past); his disengagement from his subject; and also his contemplation of death which he refers to as "silence". Being both contemptuous of his academic colleagues whilst also fearing their ridicule, Perlmann's "silence" propels him down a chaotic path towards the absurd argument that he has no option but to commit murder. I said earlier that this book is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense, but I found genuine suspense in Perlmann's journey; in his frantic planning and rehearsal attempts, his second-guessing and indecision which cause him to lurch from calm to impetuous action. Ultimately he hurtles towards his planned crime accompanied by a chain of events of almost farce proportions, albeit a Woody Allen farce.
PERLMANN'S SILENCE has perhaps not received as good a reception as NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON, but I enjoyed it and found it to be a well written and original book about language and memory and how one man's emptiness and loss of "self" leads him into chaos and into planning the extreme act of murder. It may not end as you wish it to but that too is the nature of PERLMANN'S SILENCE.
Lynn Harvey, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.