Friday, 8 November 2013

Book Review: The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque
During World War II Portugal was for many the last stronghold of peace and freedom in Europe, moreover one situated at the Atlantic Ocean. It’s no wonder that the country, although under the terror regime of António de Oliveira Salazar at the time, attracted countless refugees from the war-torn and Nazi-infested continent. The harbours must have been crammed with all the desperate trying to escape to America or any other place abroad presumed safe though known to be unwilling to let them in. In The Night in Lisbon Erich Maria Remarque (who fled to the USA too) lets one of those driven by fate seeking salvation in Lisbon tell his story to a fellow-sufferer.

Erich Maria Remarque was born as Erich Paul Remark in Osnabrück, Germany, in June 1899. He studied to become a teacher when World War I broke out in 1914 and he was drafted into the army. After the war, in 1920, his first novel titled The Dream Room (Die Traumbude) was published. His most famous novel up to this day is All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) which was first released as a book in 1929 and earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Peace 1931. In 1933 Remarque’s books were banned and publicly burnt in Germany. Exiled first in Switzerland and as from 1939 in the USA he continued his career. In 1945 the best-selling novel Arch of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe) came out in English first. The Night in Lisbon (Die Nacht von Lissabon) appeared in 1962 and is the writer’s last finished novel. Erich Maria Remarque died in Locarno, Switzerland, in September 1970.

As the title suggests, The Night in Lisbon is set in the Portuguese capital, but its major part is taken up by a story within the story of a refugee with false identity who doesn't trust his memory and tells the first-person narrator about his and his late wife’s flight through Europe. The time period is before and during World War II when many citizens from areas under Nazi-German control or influence did everything in their power to escape from persecution and terror. The man who asks the narrator to stay with him during the night and to listen to his story in return for – saving – two ship tickets to the USA is a critical journalist from Osnabrück who after having been denounced by his Nazi brother-in-law Georg and detained in a concentration camp for a while fled to France in 1934. For five years he lived as an illegal alien, but then he inherited valid papers from another refugee known under the name Josef Schwartz. This gave him the (risky) opportunity to return to Germany and see his wife Helen. After only one night it was time for him to leave again because it was too dangerous in Osnabrück. Without even telling her husband, Helen decided to accompany him. They went to Switzerland first and moved on to Paris when Georg managed to trace them there. The beginning of the war in September 1939 put an end to their relatively happy existence. What followed were arrest, separation, detention camps and flight. With French police and Gestapo as a constant threat and Georg on their heels their odyssey brought them to Marseille. There Helen’s secret reasons to flee from the oppression of Nazi-ruled Germany as well as from her controlling brother Georg became so obvious that the husband could no longer ignore them. There Helen’s secret reasons to flee from the oppression of Nazi-ruled Germany as well as from her controlling brother Georg became so obvious that the husband could no longer ignore them. The following events which led to the murder of Georg drove the couple from Marseille and across the Spanish border in a hurry. Eventually they safely arrived in Lisbon, but for Helen the city of hope was the final destination.

The Night in Lisbon is a dense and easy-to-read novel which gives a gripping insight into the typical fate of refugees during World War II as the famous author himself experienced it to some extent. The whole novel is elaborate with a good flow and always to the point. Even the framing plot reflects the constant restlessness of people on the run, when the two men who made it to Lisbon are ever again driven away from a pub or bar at closing time and forced to find a new place to stay at for the rest of the night. The main story of the flight is a well-balanced series of dramatic events and their psychological effects on the protagonists, in brief the trying ups and downs of a life without a place or trustworthy people to resort to. All characters are nuanced and feel very authentic.

With thousands of people erring through the world in search of a safe place to settle down or just of a future worth living, Erich Maria Remarque’s The Night in Lisbon could hardly be more up-to-date. For us who we are living in countries which haven’t seen a war on their territories for many decades and which prosper despite all lamentations about the crisis, books like this are important to see how hard and shattering it is to be forced to leave your own country and not be welcome anywhere. It’s even worse if you need to fear for your life as the refugees of World War II. All things considered The Night in Lisbon is a very instructive and valuable read calling for humanity and understanding like all works of Erich Maria Remarque. I highly recommend this one.


  1. I've been reading two posts about refugees in Lisbon during WWII in one evening. Interesting.

    See Guy's post here:

    1. Thanks for the tip and the link Emma! David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts about an American couple in Lisbon during World War II sounds like an interesting read, especially as a counterpoint to Remarque's The Night in Lisbon which is written from the point of view of the refugees. Guy's review is great - I should really make it a habit to visit his site, but as late I didn't have much time to look around the internet...

  2. Edith: I should clear it up, but The Two Hotel Francforts covers about a week period during which two couples wait to board the SS Manhattan. Highly recommended.

    I just bought this book (it arrived yesterday) so it's a nicer coincidence to see your review here. Remarque seems to be remembered for AQOTWF but obviously there's more out there.

    The David Leavitt book includes a scene with desperate refugees who cannot get out and don't have the necessary paperwork, but the main story is about the 2 couples who spend their last days in Lisbon together. It would probably prove to be a nice reading companion for this book.

  3. I see now that Emma meant she read two posts during the course of an evening NOT that The Two Hotel Francforts is about an evening in Lisbon.

    1. Thanks for your comments Guy! Yes, I noticed that The Two Hotel Francforts is a very different story from The Night in Lisbon, but in a way it's also the same - at least to me it seems that they are the two sides of one coin: World War II in Lisbon.

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