Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier




Steady and predictable Raimund ‘Mundus’ Gregorius has his life turned upside down one day when he meets a beautiful woman on a bridge. Fifty seven year old Gregorious, a classical languages teacher at a school in Berne, decides it is time to evaluate his life. On impulse he abandons his classroom during the middle of the day’s teaching and embarks on a journey of discovery.

By luck or providence, whilst browsing in a second-hand book shop, Gregorious picks up a book written by a Portuguese doctor, Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado, who died over thirty years ago.  The book, A Goldsmith of Words, is written in Portuguese – a language Gregorious does not understand. The book shop owner translates the first page and Gregorious immediately feels the words speak to him.

Gregorious begins to learn Portuguese in order to translate the slim book containing the philosophical jottings of Prado, who, as well as working as a doctor, became involved as a resistance fighter during the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Gregorious takes a train to Lisbon to unravel the threads of Prado’s life.

Although Gregorious makes the bold decision to take control of his life it feels as though he has exchanged his own uneventful, mundane existence to live it through Amadeu Prado. His desire to understand the complex life of the doctor appears to control his new existence as he meets Prado’s family and friends to learn what it was really like to be Prado. However, as Gregorious slowly settles into his new life, and reflects on the past, memories of a spontaneous younger self emerge. He realises he wasn’t always so unadventurous and begins to alter the way he has perceived himself for so long.

The philosophical musing of the sometimes self-indulgent Prado can be a challenging read but reveal some thought provoking insights. I have an interest in meditation and often reflect on the meaning of life, which was why I selected the book  to read. Because of this I paid particular attention to the sections regarding Prado’s thoughts. That said, some parts took a second reading to grasp their meaning. Although Mercier has tried to reveal Prado in small chunks, parts are a little long which very occasionally slows the book down.

In Night Train to Lisbon Peter Bieri, himself a philosopher writing under the pseudonym of Pascal Mercier, has managed to merge reflective thinking with a classic novel of intrigue, love, passion and adventure mixed with a dose of humour. It is not a book with peaks and troughs but maintains a steady pace. Although it sometimes needs patience and slow digestion – more easily absorbed in a quiet place – I found it very enjoyable.




Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

half of a yellow sun

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five ordinary people through a decade of Nigerian history. After receiving independent federation rule in 1960 the country was thrown into civil war in the late sixties when Biafra, a state in Eastern Nigeria, was granted secession.

The characters are introduced during a time of peace and plenty. Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, educated and wealthy, live very different lives. Olanna is introduced as kind and thoughtful as she reassures an elderly lady at the airport that the plane carrying her son will stop on the runway. Olanna gives up her luxurious lifestyle in Lagos to live with her lecturer lover, Odenigbo. Kainene, strong, wilful and less beautiful than her twin, helps their father to run the family business and becomes involved with an Englishman, Richard, who has a fascination for Igbo art.

Odenigbo, a university lecturer in Nsukka, entertains friends where food and alcohol flow and lively intellectual debates ensue. His strong political views cause Kainene to refer to him as Olanna’s ‘revolutionary lover’.  Ugwu is Odenigbo’s thirteen year old houseboy who loves to cook for Master and his guests while absorbing fragments of their lively discussions.

Biafra’s secession in 1967 brings a Nigerian blockade and eventually war; the mostly Muslim dominated north against the Igbo population in the south.  The world, with the exception of Tanzania, refuses to recognise the State of Biafra.

The novel moves successfully between the early sixties and the late sixties to provide a contrast between the indulgent lifestyle of peace time and the famine and hardships that inevitably come with war. The early imagery of Ugwu’s pepper soup and spicy jollof rice reinforce the horrors of eating roasted bush rats to stave off starvation.

As the war progresses, Odenigbo, Olanna and daughter Baby have to leave their home in Nsukku. Their descent into poverty forces them to live in a single room of squalor, join food queues for any scraps they are able to receive and the need to hide in air raid shelters, which they share with an assortment of small creatures. Relationships that were easy when life was good are put under enormous strain when food is scarce and the people they love are brutally murdered. Kainene has a different experience of the war as she sets up and organises refugee camps for all of those forced from their homes. Her life with Richard is stable and he tries hard to integrate and become accepted by the Igbo people. Ugwu faces challenges as he explores the natural inquisitive passions of a teenage boy.

Half of a Yellow Sun is named after the emblem for Biafra, worn on the sleeves of soldiers fighting the war. This three year war has been consigned to distant memory for most of the world and the word Biafra synonymous with starving, large bellied children in Africa.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has done an excellent job of bringing the war back to the attention of the world whilst telling a beautifully written story. The account of history, which members of her family experienced, is related through these five wonderful characters in a moving and empathetic manner. She has captured the human condition well: during times of suffering some find a deep inner strength whereas others flounder and surrender, unable to cope. The changes in each of the characters also reinforce that although we often have little control over external circumstances we do have a choice in our personal response to them. An inspirational read

Failing memory or just half asleep?

One definition of mindfulness:  “The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”.

I find that with each passing birthday since graduating to the wrong side of fifty I can’t forget anything or lose an item without thinking that I’m getting old and losing my memory (and my family readily agree). It’s true that I have a particularly irritating issue with my mobile phone. Due to an absence of pockets in my clothing I’m constantly moving the phone to different locations and then not remembering where I last left it.

forgetful-woman-19493586Now where did I leave that damn phone…and this is not a picture of me!

I know friends that have a similar problem with their reading glasses – and yes, I am aware that reading glasses are the need of the ageing! But when I look back at my younger days, I used to ‘lose’ things then. All the time. I was never accused of getting old. My adult children frequently dash around the house while getting ready for a night out because they can’t remember where a particular pair of shoes are, or they can’t find their Oyster card.

I have gone along with the annoying quips of ‘Alzheimer’s’ and ‘old age’, even to the extent of believing it myself, until I recently read a book by P.D. Ouspensky called Conscience – the search for the truth. At the very beginning of the book Ouspensky links consciousness with ‘self-remembering’. This means being aware of yourself, and the things that you do, which is analogous to that of mindfulness and present moment awareness. These topics are very trendy at the moment but from what I can understand it’s very similar to the basic concept of what my mum used to call ‘paying attention’.

Where am I going with all this you wonder?

I believe there is a strong correlation between a lack of mindfulness and what we perceive as forgetfulness. Blaming old age for poor memory is hasty and offensive. I believe it’s not that we lose things, we are simply unaware of where we put them.

Returning to P.D. Ouspensky. We can only become more conscious of our actions if we are aware of ourselves while performing these actions. Ouspensky relates an experience of his own where he made a conscious effort to be aware of himself for a period of time. He was aware of walking along a few streets and arriving at the tobacconist for his cigarettes and then, two hours later, he suddenly ‘woke up’ and remembered himself again. He knew that during that time when he was unaware of himself he had accomplished so many things: called at his flat, telephoned the printers and written two letters. He knew he had completed those tasks but he wasn’t aware of himself whilst doing them.

memory-illustration-head-thinking-other-related-keywords-43900973Where is awareness?

I decided to try this little experiment. I would be conscious of myself and aware of my journey from home to Tesco. A ten minute car ride. How difficult could it be? To answer that question I suggest you try it for yourself  – it is very difficult. The first few minutes I remembered with absolute clarity. A silver Mercedes let me go first on the roundabout (thank you Mercedes driver) and the lights were red when I approached the traffic lights and a young woman and child crossed the road. The child wore a red jumper…then five minutes later I arrived at Tesco only to realise I had been planning what I would have for dinner for the next few evenings. I can’t even remember the point at which I stopped being aware of myself driving.

The interesting point is that the small details about the car that stopped for me and the colour of the child’s jumper were not deliberately remembered but because I was aware of them so clearly I recalled them easily.

So this brings me back to the misplaced phone. It is obvious that my mind is unaware of where I leave it rather than forgetting where I’ve put it. Is this any better I ask myself? I’m either getting old and senile with my memory cells dying at an alarming rate or I spend my days in a semi-somnambulistic state unaware of what I’m doing!

I will make every effort to keep a track of where I place my phone and will update you of my success on the next blog. (I’m absolutely confident, now I know the theory, that I can put it into action).