Looking for a thriller about linguistics that will have you in a frenzy of apprehension? Look no further than this terrific book (and don’t take any notice of the less-than-favourable comments on Amazon).
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).
Language should describe experience. 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 an expert on language. But he finds he has, literally, nothing to say, not on his work in linguistics, not to his daughter, not even to himself. 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 the impression that his memories of the past, even of his wife, cannot be relied on. He is struck by 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. But he has no stories. While he was working on linguistic theory he lost his connection with the world of meaningful human speech. How can he get his life back?
Instead of preparing a paper for the linguistics conference at which he’s the star turn, he spends his time translating Leskov’s work. When he arrives at the conference venue, with only days to go, he still hasn’t written his own paper. Instead, he’s 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 for his paper then plans to murder Leskov when he turns up unexpectedly at the conference. Anyone who’s familiar with the academic world will find all this immensely enjoyable. Who wouldn’t murder a colleague to preserve his own prestige? And there’s 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. Will he kill Leskov? Will he deliver his paper? Will he be horribly shamed? Will he come up with something brilliant of his own?
Like Night Train To Lisbon, it’s a novel of ideas, and perhaps more forbidding at first sight. It’s certainly less filmic. I liked it better, though, for its humour and its humanity.