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 Português. 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.