Before I left on my big trip to the Balkans in 2010, I had coffee with my friend Christoph who asked me: „Which book are you taking?“ I replied: „Apart from my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe? None.“ He looked at me in utter disbelief and silence. When he found words again, he said that he couldn’t allow that to happen and came up with an idea. He wanted to give me a book that I could take, and when I was done with it I was to exchange it for a new book, and I was to do that with every book, and bring him back the last one. I loved the idea and agreed.
Now a lot of things about this plan did not work out. For one thing, Christoph never managed to get me a book before I left, so I bought one myself. It was Pascal Mercier’s novel Perlmanns Schweigen (Perlmann’s Silence). I was, and am still, in love with the same author’s work Night Train to Lisbon, and while I didn’t find Perlmann’s Silence to be quite as brilliant, it was a book I thoroughly enjoyed. It is about a linguistics professor who has run out of ideas and is trying to deal with pressure in the academic world, with his own terms of achievement and success and with language on the whole.
I put Christoph’s and my name on the title page in each book, along with all the places where I’d read it. That way, when I would leave the book anywhere, people would know where the book had been and that it was connected with the bond of friendship between two people.
So Perlmann’s Silence took me through Hungary, on trains and busses between the capital Budapest, Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the beautiful Lake Balaton. In Veszprém, a gorgeous little town not far from the famous lake, I couchsurfed with a family – th only time during my entire trip. They had a beautiful house and three precious children and showed such deep heartfelt warmth towards me that I don’t think I could ever forget them. I had finished my novel and asked Gabor, the father, who spoke both English and a little German, if he’d like my book and if he had another one I could take. He gave me Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.
What is special about it is that Gabor is the translator of this book into Hungarian. He came across it in the US, and felt it should be known to a wider public in Hungary. Ishmael consists mainly of philosophical dialogue between a nameless narrator and his teacher, a gorilla by the name of Ishmael who can communicate via telepathy. When I first heard of the plot, I wasn’t sure what to think about it, but upon reading the book, it raised questions that had me buried deep in thought. I finished it very quickly – just two stations, as you can see in the picture – and writing about it now I realise how much I would like to read it again. All the great philosophical issues of our time and maybe every time were in there: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why did life come to be this way? It is a book that will have you contemplate your life and life as a concept, and try to place yourself as an individual in your surroundings more clearly.
Gabor had asked me to send the book back to him after reading it (although he had allowed me to write the two names and the stations of my journey in the book), so I couldn’t exchange it for another. In Maribor in Slovenia I thus went into a bookshop that had some English books and bought a novel called Guernica by Dave Boling.
Now while I am a big fan of historical events brought to me in literature, I am not a big fan of people from a completely other culture doing it. Dave Boling is American, and to be honest I haven’t bothered researching how he came to write about that famous Basque city that was bombed by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. While I found the novel enjoyable on the whole, I couldn’t quite take the sentiment as seriously as I could have if the author had been from Spain (if not from the Basque country!). It was a quick and easy read though. I left the book in Koper in an internet cafe – I had bought the next one in one of the greatest English bookshops I have ever been to in Ljubljana, and I will talk about it in part 2 of the Books that shaped my Travels.