Dec/Jan 2008

Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon

Amy Rosenberg

It’s fitting that Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, which first appeared in German in 2004, has been translated into fifteen languages. The novel, as mesmerizing and dreamlike as a Wong Kar-wai film, with characters as strange and alienated as any of the filmmaker’s, is in fact preoccupied with translation, with all that can be lost or gained in the process. But more than that, it is concerned with the power of language to forge and dismantle people’s experiences, desires, and identities.

Raimund Gregorius, a fifty-seven-year-old Swiss philologist, dwells on questions of language as he embarks on a quest to understand the life of a Portuguese doctor—a potentially dull premise, but Mercier (who teaches philosophy in Berlin under his real name, Peter Bieri) is a master at mixing ideas and plot. The story’s suspense arises in the opening scene, when Gregorius, treading a well-worn path to the high school where he teaches Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, is stopped by a mysterious woman who speaks one word of Portuguese to him—in fact, the word PortuguÍs. Later that day, Gregorius, described as “the most reliable and predictable person in [the] building and probably in the whole history of the school,” walks out of his classroom in the middle of a lesson, obtains a book by the doctor who will become his infatuation, and boards a train to Lisbon. In short, because of a single word, he vacates his staid existence and enters the unknown.

The book that compels him to do so is Dr. Amadeu de Prado’s ruminative autobiography, a volume reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Gregorius slowly translates the text into German and tracks down the people it describes, piecing together Prado’s story: his aristocratic but unhappy childhood, his intensity and discipline as a young scholar, his rigid moral code, and his participation in the resistance movement against Portugal’s right-wing dictator, Salazar. The more facts he uncovers about Prado, the more he hopes to achieve an intimate understanding of what it was like to be Prado. Yet his actual discoveries are the insignificance of the facts of his own life and a greater awareness of what it is like to be himself.

When a character undertakes this level of soul-searching, the temptation to over‑ philosophize can be difficult to resist, and at times, Mercier succumbs, as with his drawn-out life-as-a-long-train-ride metaphor (think “Allegory of the Cave” transferred to a moving locomotive). But there are enough unforgettable moments of crystalline, even poetic, insight—like the recap of the seventeen-year-old Prado’s stunning graduation speech, in which he declares, “I revere the word of God for I love its poetic force. I loathe the word of God for I hate its cruelty”—that the novel ultimately draws its strength from its philosophical musings.


March 10, 2010
9:32 pm

Thanks for your summary. I wouldn't have gone to the trouble. Badly translated into English. What era are we supposed to be in? 2000 apparently, but with constant flashbacks to 40 years ago. There was no discernible difference. In fact this was an appalling book. I groaned whenever Adriana proffered yet more pages from Amadeu's collection. Nevertheless, I liked his ponderings. They were the only meaningful parts of this dreadful book.


April 24, 2010
2:41 pm

I have read the Portuguese (Brazilian) translation of this book, which is ok, very pleasant reading. I agree with you that the book is about language and the translation of experience into words. The fascination Gregorius feels about the sound of Portuguese indicates his urge to find a language that allows him to translate the unexpressed experiences of his own life. His two nicknames may indicate that, as Mundus is the systematic view of himself and the world, Papirus is a rough piece of paper covered by strange characters of a dead language.


March 28, 2011
2:58 am

As a Brazilian living in the USA, I was intrigued by this book about a Swiss professor embarking on an adventure in Lisbon, a city I fell in love with 30 years ago. Not only was I touched by Gregorius' fascination with my native language, but many times I felt the book was speaking directly to me, Profound and fascinating, I did not want it to end. I might like to read the Portuguese translation as well.

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