Book: Night Train to Lisbon
Author: Pascal Mercier
Review: Kirk Bowman, associate professor of international affairs at Georgia Tech and author of “Peddling Paradise: The Politics of Tourism in Latin America“
For reasons that I do not fully understand, I am haunted by Lisbon. From the first time I walked the cobblestone hills and participated in the chaotic rhythm of life in Portugal’s capital, I have sensed an unmistakable tug of belonging.
Since then, I have read the brilliant Portuguese writers Saramago and Pessoa as well as historical fiction that takes place in Lisboa. Richard Zimler’s “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon”, set in the early 16th century, and Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Night in Lisbon”, set during World War II, are both worthwhile. But my favorite book of 2013 is Pascal Mercier’s “Night Train to Lisbon”.
Mercier is a philosophy professor turned novelist, and it’s easy to see. The book is full of big – if not original – ideas of honor and deceit and language, as well as middle-aged men struggling with realizing that they haven’t fulfilled their dreams.
The story follows a grim, gifted and predictably proper language teacher in Switzerland, Raimund Gregorious, whose greatest achievement is long-term constancy. A chance meeting with a Portuguese woman on a bridge and the discovery of a mysterious book published in Lisbon transfix and transform him, and soon he has abandoned everything to travel to Portugal and uncover the mysteries of the book and its author.
The author is a dazzling medical doctor whose father is an equally talented judge. After reading the book, Gregorious struggles to piece the family’s history together by interviewing people close to the long-deceased doctor. The key events take place during the heart of the Salazar dictatorship, and both doctor and judge face heart-wrenching decisions about who they should save, who they should punish, who they dare love and how to reconcile the safety of family and friends with the urge to fight the horrors of the Salazar regime.
The book is full of lengthy philosophical sections that could turn off some readers, but I found a dreamy, sleepless cadence. Mercier manages to create a thriller and an homage to Lisbon in a book full of philosophy, weaving in such perfect insights of Pessoa as, “The field is greener in its description than in its greenness.”
The book is wonderful, but please avoid the movie adaptation – one of the worst films ever made.