Raimund Gregorius is a 57-year-old classics teacher. Nicknamed “Mundus” by his pupils, he travels from his native Switzerland to Portugal in pursuit of a striking woman who scribbles a telephone number on his forehead after stepping back from a suicidal leap, and to seek the author of a slim volume of philosophical ruminations he is given by a bookseller.
Such serendipitous coincidences continue when he arrives in Lisbon. The author is dead, but in a plot device familiar from A S Byatt’s Possession, Mundus gradually reads the essays while seeking out the author’s relatives, friends and acquaintances. In the process, he gains a new perspective on his own life – quite literally so when, in a particularly clunky development, he gets a new pair of glasses.
Mundus is a likeable character, and his escape from a life of duty to explore his stifled inner self is an engaging premise. Mercier’s novel has already sold two million copies since its publication in German four years ago, but it is hampered by an inelegant translation. Even so, this cannot explain the absence of narrative tension, or Mercier’s grandiose style (eyes shine “like black diamonds” and words are “worn grooves of babble [which] incessantly flash”). They make the novel particularly ponderous.