Don’t be put off by the less-than-enthusiastic comments by Amazon readers on Pascal Mercier’s Perlmann’s Silence. It’s wonderful. For reasons of our own, we have also been reading a lot of A. S. Byatt recently – far too much A.S. Byatt. What a difference there is between the self-regarding imagination of Byatt and the subtle, agile, humane imagination of Mercier. We’re tempted to launch into wild generalisations about the difference between the British sensibility and the European – no, no let’s leave it at that.
Reflecting on the work of his unfashionable Russian colleague Leskov early in the book, Perlmann, a renowned authority on linguistics, thinks, “What was impressive was how good Leskov was at describing things, much better than most of the other people working in the field. It made one realise the extent to which, before any kind of theory, the important thing was to describe our experiences very precisely with language” (p. 51). Sounds simple, even simple-minded? Now the book takes you on a hair-raising plummet into the depths of that apparently simple thought. Perlmann is experiencing, to his terror, a dreadful emptiness at the heart of his being. The catalyst is the sudden death of his wife, but he sees that the emptiness, the absence, was there even before she died. He has, he finds, literally nothing to say, not on his work in linguistics, not to his daughter, not even to himself. He has the impression that his memories of the past, even of his wife, cannot be relied on. Instead of preparing a paper for the linguistics conference at which he’s the star turn, he spends his time translating Leskov’s work, pursuing Leskov’s argument that our memory of the lived past is based around a self-image that is linguistically-created, by the telling and retelling of stories. He pursues that self-image for himself by obsessively reading a “chronicle of the twentieth century” with pictures of the famous events of the century, through which, he thinks, he might “reappropriate his own life by imagining what had happened in the world outside while he was still alive.” (68) All this time, the deadline for his presentation is looming over him and the reader in a cloud of sick panic. Things get worse and worse. He plagiarizes Leskov’s work and then plans to murder Leskov when he turns up unexpectedly at the conference. There is a terrible black comedy in the description of his laborious planning of the murder and the banal twists of bad luck and coincidence that hinder him. From here on the book is a genuine thriller, the reader horribly engaged in the tortuous processes of Perlmann’s thought, his fears and his transient reliefs.
Music is a constant theme in the book, Perlmann having been a gifted pianist who abandoned his studies in a period of “irrevocable clarity about the boundaries of his talent” (86). Perhaps the best analogy for the book is that of a Beethoven symphony, full of anguish, tension and sorrow, but also of a rich and consoling humanity.