Night Train to Lisbon: A Scholar on the Run
Pascal Mercier’s best-seller-now-film takes on questions of identity and the meaning of place
"Rich, dense, star-spangle[d]", says Harper’s. "One of the great European novels of recent years," said a reviewer in Page des libraries. "The best book of the last decade," according to Bücher.
It’s hard to take such blurbs too seriously. But since Pascal Mercier’s new novel has elicited such accolades, it’s worth asking if this 436-page book lives up to the hype.
And this it does – up to a point.
It dares to tackle some very complex philosophical questions – of identity and how the choices we make construct our lives; of perception of the self and others; of words and how they are used and abused by powerful and powerless alike. These seem to be the predilections of "Pascal Mercier", the pen name of Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri, with a specialty in the philosophy of mind, epistemology and ethics.
Still, some of its long meandering passages seem a bit turgid, which may be the result of Barbara Harshav’s uneven translation from German, or the shockingly sloppy editing. Nevertheless, the underlying story – of a stuffy Swiss scholar who discovers an obscure book by an unknown Portuguese aristocrat – serves well as a portmanteau for many philosophical themes.
The story starts on a rainy day in the Swiss city of Bern with the protagonist – a classical philologist with the improbable name of Raimund Gregorius – on his way to the Gymnasium (secondary school) where he teaches. On his way, he sees a Portuguese woman on a bridge, who seems poised to jump. Nearing her, he clumsily spills his briefcase onto the sidewalk; she turns, stoops down, pulls a felt-tip marker from her coat and writes a telephone number on his forehead, apologising that she has no paper.
A moment decides everything
Reflecting on this encounter later in the day, Gregorius is deeply moved: "That was the moment that decided everything." All at sea, he decides to leave his old life behind. He walks out of his classroom, wanders the city and eventually stops at a used bookstore, where he comes upon the book that drives the story: the enigmatic, privately-printed reflections of Amadeo Inácio de Almeida Prado.
In the opening lines of Amadeo’s book, Gregorius hears "sentences that stunned him, for they sounded as if they had been written for him alone." On a whim, he decides to take the night train to Lisbon, and it is here that most of the story unfolds, interspersed with a lot of self-reflection and lengthy excerpts from the mysterious memoir.
Following the trail of the book, Gregorius finds out that Amadeo was, until his untimely death in 1973, a medical doctor. Born during the dictatorship of António Salazar, Amadeo had a comfortable upbringing but was driven by intense thoughts about the meaning of life and existence itself.
As a student, he was "a hothead, a rebel, and a boy with a quicksilver intelligence" who was "willing to challenge everyone, even the devil, even God." As a doctor, he was esteemed by all who knew him – until he saved the life of a member of the Secret Police and people turned against him. Remorseful, he joined the Resistance.
Rich descriptive voice
Gregorius himself is an interesting character, although Mercier paints him with a broad brush: disheveled, reserved, staid. He is a "true scholar", according to the Gymnasium’s rector; but he is also quite provincial in outlook: He dislikes travel, despises flying and prefers his old black-and-white television set. "For someone like him," Mercier tells us, "the city he lived in was like a shell, a cosy cave, a safe haven." Gregorius is so inexperienced and set in his ways, that when first exposed to a word of Portuguese, he is mesmerised – and almost comes across as a naïf.
Mercier’s descriptive voice is rich: As Gregorius begins his train voyage, he sees "desolate little railway stations slid past, milky, diffuse light bulbs, illegible place-names, parked baggage carts, a head with a cap in a railway halt, a stray dog, a rucksack half-concealing a blonde mop of hair."
Later, in a Lisbon neighbourhood, he is invited inside: "Hesitatingly, he entered the house that smelt of mould and rancid oil. He felt as if he had to push through a thick wall of nauseating smells to reach the door where the man was waiting, a fresh cigarette between his lips."
In Almeida’s home: "the immaculately shining parquet floor consisted of rosettes in a variety of different kinds and tints of wood and extended as far as the eye could see. …. And in the corner by the window was a grand piano, covered with a heavy throw of black brocade laced with shining old and silver threads… [and] endless shelves of books built into the ochre-coloured walls."
There could have been more of these moments, as they add so much life to a story, bringing the reader deep into the world Gregorius is discovering.
But when Mercier tries his hand at communicating Almeida’s depth of feeling and acuteness of insight, he seems to go a bit off the rails.
For example: "Of the thousand experiences we have, we find language for one at most and even this one merely by chance and without the care which it deserves. Among all these unexpected experiences are those that are hidden and which have given our life. Its shape, its colour, its melody."
But again, this could be the translation, or the sloppy editing, which here made near nonsense by breaking a sentence in two.
Or, later, "On the way [to getting to know another], the eye is diverted and blurred by all the wishes and fantasies that make us the special, unmistakable human beings that we are. Even the outside world of an inside world is still a piece of our inside world, not to mention the thoughts we have about the inside world of strangers and that are so uncertain and unstable that they say more about ourselves than about others."
Still, while somewhat convoluted, these are thoughts worth pondering. And it is this quality that makes the book worth a try, forcing the reader to confront questions about the self, about life, and about how to live – perhaps for the very first time.
There have been other interesting philosophical novels in recent years – Sophie’s World by Norway’s Jostein Gaarder (1991) and Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation (1992) – but Mercier’s is the most recent and its questions the most rewarding. ÷
The new film Night Train to Lisbon, with
Jeremy Irons, is reviewed on p. 29 of this issue
Night Train to Lisbon
by Pascal Mercier
London: Atlantic Books, 2007