Life is like a journey on a train. Sometimes it feels as if it were standing still although in reality we are advancing at the usual pace without noticing it because the landscape by the wayside is so uniform or dark. Sometimes we seem to be rushing through such an incredibly varying scenery that we get dizzy looking out of the window of our compartment. The big question is: do we prefer travelling through unspectacular and secure spheres or are we ready for some adventure and nausea? The novel Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier that I picked for today’s review deals with such choices and what makes us take them.
Pascal Mercier is the pen name of the Swiss writer and philosopher Peter Bieri who was born in Berne, Switzerland, in June 1944. After his studies of philosophy he pursued a scientific career becoming a full professor of philosophy at the Free University of Berlin in 1993. His debut novel Perlmann’s Silence (Perlmanns Schweigen) came out in 1995 and was followed by Der Klavierstimmer (The Piano Tuner, still untranslated into English) in 1998. Night Train to Lisbon (Nachtzug nach Lissabon) was released in 2004 and soon became an international best-seller. Pascal Mercier’s latest published fiction work is Lea (still untranslated into English) from 2007.
The protagonist of Night Train to Lisbon is 57-year-old Raimund Gregorius who has been teaching ancient Greek, Latin and biblical Hebrew in a grammar school in his birth town Berne for decades. He is a creature of habit and a model of reliability paired with precision avoiding the imponderables of life best possible. He doesn’t enjoy travelling out of fear to get lost or to lose his already very poor eyesight and delights in ancient languages for their invariability which gives him security. Everything changes on a rainy morning when Raimund Gregorius encounters a woman about to jump from the bridge that he crosses every day on his way to school. To his question about her native language, she answers only one word: ‘português’. In his ears it sounds like music that adds to the mystery surrounding the deadly pale stranger.
The daily routine is broken and in class Gregorius’ mind wanders off to questions about the rich future lying ahead of his students. In the middle of his lesson he leaves school without a word knowing inside that he won’t return. He strolls through the city of Berne and ends in the Spanish bookshop where a humble grey book printed in Lisbon in 1975 attracts him: UM OURIVES DAS PALAVRAS – A GOLDSMITH OF WORDS. The owner of the shop translates the first passages for him and he is hooked. Its Portuguese author Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado expressed his thoughts in a way that makes Gregorius feel as if the words were directed at him alone:
‘Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us – what happens with the rest?’
The book and its author intrigue Gregorius. It doesn’t suffice him to translate the text with the help of his sound knowledge of Latin and a Portuguese self-study course for beginners. After only one night immerged into the thoughts of Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado he knows that he must find out more about the man and his life. He needs to go to Portugal, but for a moment he hesitates because it means giving up his settled and secure existence. Then his mind is set and he takes the night train to Lisbon not knowing what he will find, nor what he is really looking for. In Lisbon he plunges into the history of Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado and that of Portugal during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. He investigates the life of the mysterious medical doctor from a noble family, traces and meets people who knew him, sees places where he was at some point, and learns about events that made him the person who eventually brought to paper a goldsmith’s words. Putting together all those pieces of the puzzle, he reveals an ever completer picture of Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado. At the same time Gregorius analyses and questions his own life as a school teacher without ambitions and as a divorced man without passion.
Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon is no light read. It’s a philosophical novel about the search for identity, for the outer events of a life and seized as well as missed opportunities moulding a personality. In addition the text is interspersed with Portuguese phrases that Gregorius translates with ever more ease as his studies of the language advance. The story is absorbing like a thriller with the difference that on the way through the book we aren’t hunting for a dangerous killer, but for the life story of a person never catching more than just a small glimpse of it at a time.
Some may find Night Train to Lisbon too meditative and/or too intricate a novel, but for me it was a real treat. It’s definitely among the best books that I ever read in my life. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it more than warmly to everyone with a philosophical vein.