Pascal Mercier

"Night Train to Lisbon"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte FEB 6, 2008)

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Life for 57-year-old Raimund Gregorius could not be more mundane or predictable. Having taught the Classics in the same Swiss lycee in Bern for close to 30 years, his workdays are timed and choreographed down to the minute. One day, a chance encounter upsets this delicate equilibrium. He runs into a distraught woman on a bridge who in a matter of a few minutes, moves him deeply and leaves behind one word through which he remembers her: “Portugues.” All day, Gregorius is haunted by images of this woman and in the evening, he stops by a bookstore and happens to pick up a book written by a Portuguese doctor: Amadeu de Prado. The bookseller translates a few passages for him and Gregorius is stunned. “He thought he heard sentences that were for him alone,” Mercier writes. Sentences such as these: “Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us--what happens with the rest?” Gregorius is eager to answer this question.

So in a dramatic moment, this routine-bound middle-aged teacher decides on a whim to follow his heart and travel to Lisbon to find out more about the life of the book’s author, Amadeu de Prado. Through many chance encounters and through the help of strangers only too willing to help him, Gregorius slowly pieces together the life of this author who turned out to have been a doctor. He meets Prado’s two sisters, his lovers, teacher and old friends and slowly a portrait emerges: that of a man with rock-solid principles, who stuck by his doctor’s profession, saving Rui Luis Mendes, a Salazar sympathizer, against all odds, only to incur the wrath of his patients for the action. In order to absolve himself of the act, Prado joined the resistance but he found himself a misfit: someone who was not ready to sacrifice one life for the greater cause.
As the portrait of Prado slowly emerges, so does one for his father-- Alexandre Horacio de Almeida Prado. Crippled by severe vertebral arthritis, the Senior bore the pain stoically while serving as a judge in the Salazar regime, and eventually took his own life. The dynamics between father and son explored later through a series of unread letters each one writes to the other, serve for some of the most striking passages in the book.

Night Train to Lisbon is definitely not a book to be read lightly-- in fact some of its prose starts to bear down too heavily too often. There are places when it even seems as if Mercier is too much in love with his own flowery writing to fully restrain himself.

Despite this shortcoming, it is gratifying to watch not one but two transformations unfold in the story. Not only does Prado, the enigmatic Portuguese doctor come into sharper focus but so does Gregorius--as he tries to piece together the meaning of his own life.  “Buried under all the mute experiences are those unseen ones that give our life its form, its color, and its melody,” Prado writes in his book. Through Mercier’s talent, these mute experiences are brought to life in full, glorious color. Even if the ride might be a tad too slow and strenuous for some, many will find Night Train to Lisbon a journey worth embarking on.

Deeply introspective, Night Train to Lisbon often makes one question the meaning of life. Prado makes a wish in his book: “to stand once again at that point in my life and be able to take a completely different direction than the one that has made me who I am now.” Who among us has not wished for a chance at such renewal--to be granted a clean slate on which to rewrite at least a part of our lives? (Translated by Barbara Harshav.)

  • Amazon readers rating: 3.5 starsfrom 18 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Night Train to Lisbon at Grove Press

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About the Author:

Pascal MercierPascal Mercier was born in 1944 in Bern, Switzerland. He is a professor of philosphy and lives in Berlin, Germany. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014