Night Train to Lisbon
Original German cover
|Publisher||Carl Hanser Verlag|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|Pages||438 pp. first paperback English Edition|
ISBN 978-0-8021-4397-6 (English Paperback)
Night Train to Lisbon is a philosophical novel by Swiss writer Pascal Mercier. It recounts the travels of Swiss Classics instructor Raimund Gregorius as he explores the life of Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese doctor, during António de Oliveira Salazar's right-wing dictatorship in Portugal. Prado is a serious thinker whose active mind becomes evident in a series of his notes collected and read by Gregorius.
The book was originally published in German as Nachtzug nach Lissabon in 2004 and was first published in English in 2008. The novel became an international bestseller. Danish film director Bille August adapted the book into a 2013 film of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons as Raimund Gregorius.
Raimund "Mundus" Gregorius, 57 years old, is a teacher at a Swiss gymnasium in modern-day Bern. He is an expert in ancient languages (ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew) and a man very comfortable in his routine. One morning on his way to work, he saves a mysterious Portuguese woman from what he assumes is a suicide attempt. Although the woman disappears shortly afterwards, their chance-encounter marks the beginning of Raimund's journey. Later that day, he visits an antiquarian bookshop where he discovers Um ourives das palavras (A Goldsmith of Words (may refer to Gil Vicente formidable playwright and poet of the Portuguese Renaissance who had possibly been a goldsmith), a book by Amadeu de Prado who ponders the philosophical issue of going back in time and making various different choices, resulting in a completely different life. Raimund is immediately intrigued by the author's somber musings. The book is in Portuguese, a language Raimund doesn't speak, so he begins translating with the help of a dictionary. Sensing a kindred spirit in Amadeu, he is suddenly gripped by the fear of not living his life to its full potential. The next morning, he abandons his teaching position, turns his back on Bern and sets out for Lisbon. There, he begins investigating the fate of the Prado family.
Amadeu de Prado is a doctor during the Salazar Dictatorship (1928-1974). He has an expressed interest in literature and begins questioning his world, his experiences and the words contained in conversation and written thought. His life and thoughts are strongly influenced by living under an oppressive regime. Maria João Ávila, a girl he adores since childhood, seems to be the only person Amadeu can relate to. His father, a stern man and a judge loyal to the government, later crumbles under the pressure of his conscience and commits suicide. Amadeu, who is by now an accomplished and well-liked doctor, saves the life of Mendez, the "Butcher of Lisbon" and Chief of Secret Police. In the public eye, Amadeu's actions mark him down as a traitor, resulting in him being shunned and secretly joining the resistance to ease his conscience. After his premature death (aneurysm), Amadeu's notes and journal entries are edited and published by his sister Adriana. She owes her life to Amadeu and religiously devotes her energy to preserving her brother's legacy.
During his stay in Lisbon, Raimund meets the ophthalmologist Mariana Eça. She prescribes him new glasses when he breaks his old ones in an accident. Mariana's uncle, João Eça, was a member of the resistance. Raimund visits him several times to talk about Amadeu.
Raimund also manages to track down Jorge O'Kelly, a pharmacy owner and Amadeu's best friend who helped him join the resistance, and Estefânia Espinhosa, a woman with an exceptional memory that both men were in love with, even though she was Jorge's girlfriend at the time. She later fled the country and became a professor of history at the University of Salamanca.
The dictatorship lasted until 1974 and relied heavily upon a brutal secret police force, the PIDE. Salazar died in 1970, two years after handing over power to Marcel Caetano who continued his policies until 1974 when the Carnation Revolution overthrew the regime.
The story ends with Raimund returning to Bern. Raimund, who has been suffering from spells of dizziness for a while now, submits himself to a physical exam. At the train station, as he's about to leave, Mariana sweetly asks him not to leave and to stay for her.
Night Train to Lisbon spends considerable time contemplating ideas, exploring on one hand Gregorious' contemplation of self and the other de Prado's journal and philosophies. Epigraphs include Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Second Book, I, “De l’inconstance de nos actions” and Fernando Pessoa, Livro do Desassossego. Mercier uses various activities and subthemes to help explore these deep, self-reflective subjects including "night journeys, insomnia and dream-filled sleep, of being stuck in place yet somehow adrift, and confusion about life's purpose." With this introspective approach, Mercier is able to review concepts of "who we are, how we control our experience of life, and how fragile that construction is."
Like the depiction of the city of Lisbon as mysterious and intricate, the text of Night Train to Lisbon is intricate and complicated, sometimes withholding information from the reader. Multiple reviewers also pointed to the thriller qualities the novel takes on despite the philosophical focus of the themes.
Anne Phillips in The News-Gazette noted that Night Train to Lisbon was "reminiscent of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind and commented that "mystery romance and political intrigue" keep the pages turning. Robert Moyle of the Herald Sun also points out how engaging Night Train to Lisbon is, pointing out how easy it is for the reader to identify with Gregorius. Daniel Johnson of The Telegraph placed Mercier, with this novel, amongst the best European novelists alive.
- Paul, Steve (June 9, 2008). "Suggestions for all you Night time readers". The Kansas City Star. (Accessed in NewsBank Database (Requires Subscription))
- MacKin, Laurence (February 14, 2009). "The Irish Times: Go Read". Irish Times. (Accessed in NewsBank Database (Requires subscription))
- Moyle, Robin (June 7, 2008). "Riddle in Portuguese". Herald Sun. Melbourne, Australia. (Accessed on NewsBank database (Subscription required)
- Johnson, Daniel (24 Feb 2008). "Throwing in one life to look for another". Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 24 April 2011.
- Phillips, Anne (August 9, 2009). "Works mix, ponder illusions and reality". The News-Gazette. Champaign-Urbana, IL. (Accessed in NewsBank database (Requires subscription))