Raimund Gregorius, the central character of Night Train to Lisbon, is a stuffy Swiss professor of classical languages. His world is defined by his books and his routines.
He lives a comfortable, predictable life, a life into which the new never intrudes. That is, until he interrupts a strange woman’s apparent suicide attempt. Their chance encounter leads Gregorius to an unusual book.
Of course, the book changes his life.
In Night Train to Lisbon, Pascal Mercier has written (originally, in German) the kind of novel I like to read. In a world filled with bad novels, really bad novels, and experimental neo-non-post-novels, it’s a treat to find a good, old-fashioned literate novel, one with layers of thought expressed in clear but evocative prose.
The book Gregorius finds is an obscure Portuguese volume, Um Ourives das Palavras (A Goldsmith of Words), by an unknown Lisbon writer, Amadeu Prado.
The bookseller translates a key passage for Gregorius:
Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us — what happens with the rest?
Prado, it seems, has written a book in which he will “dig for all the buried experiences. To be the archaeologist of himself.” Soon, Gregorius finds himself packing a bag, abandoning his life, and taking the train to Portugal. What is he looking for? What, whom, will he find there?
The novel relates Gregorius’s travels: his physical trip to Lisbon, his investigation of the life of the late Amadeu Prado, and of course his existential journey into himself. With obvious symbolism, Gregorius travels from the overcast winter skies of Switzerland to the just-emerging springtime of Portugal — from the gray of his own repressed life to the bright sun of Prado’s.
In a lesser novel, this and all the other blatant symbols — for example, Gregorius sheds his old, heavy eyeglasses for a stylish pair with a sharper prescription — could be rather too conventional and manipulative. I was inclined to let Mercier get away with it all, for the sake of the book’s slow and artful revelation of Prado’s experiences.
As he searches out and comes to know the key figures in Prado’s life — his sister, his teacher, his closest friend, the women he loved, and others — Gregorius travels more and more deeply into the world and thoughts of a remarkable and remarkably troubled man.
Gregorius’s train trip to Lisbon, and his later travels in search of Prado and of himself, echo the key metaphor of the book, Prado’s conception of life as a mysterious journey:
I LIVE IN MYSELF AS IN A MOVING TRAIN. I didn’t board voluntarily, didn’t have the choice and don’t know the name of the destination. One day in the distant past I woke up in my compartment and felt rolling. It was exciting. I listened to the pounding of the wheels, held my head in the wind and savored the speed of the things passing by me. I wished the train would never interrupt its journey. By no means did I want it to stop somewhere forever.
But as time and life go on, Prado realizes that the possibilities that seemed so endless at first inevitably become the single track that is the sum and the consequence of all that has gone before:
I became aware: I can’t get off. I can’t change the tracks or the direction. I don’t see the locomotive and can’t see who’s driving it … I can’t change the compartment. In the corridor, I see people passing by and think: Maybe it looks completely different in their compartment than in mine. But I can’t go there and see, a conductor I never saw and never will see has bolted and sealed the compartment door. I open the window, lean far out and see that everybody else is doing the same thing.
Prado’s life –brilliant student, gifted doctor, reluctant resistance fighter — was so different from Gregorius’s, yet they share with all the rest of us the inescapable limitation: Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us — what happens with the rest?
Near the end, Gregorius recalls Prado’s words to Father Barolomeu, the tutor of his youth:
There are things that are too big for us humans: pain, loneliness and death, but also beauty, sublimity and happiness. For them we created religion. What happens when we lose it? Those things are still too big for us. What is left for us is the poetry of the individual life. Is it strong enough to bear us?
Night Train to Lisbon is a very good novel because it is full of life’s existential questions, including this last, the most important one.