This is a book that is one that will be hotly debated and generate interesting discussion, but it is also one that leaves little room for middle ground views. It definitely has the Marmite effect – you either love it, or you hate it! Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon has been translated into fifteen languages, and there may lie the problem, for to quote that famous phrase ‘it was lost in translation’.
Raimund Gregorius is a divorced fifty-seven year old Swiss Professor of classical languages whose life is defined by routine and his love of books. It is during the opening chapters that we empathise with the character of Gregorius, and an inciting incident offers the promise of a compelling read. As Gregorius walks to work at school in the city of Berne he comes across a woman apparently about to commit suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. Although he succeeds in saving her, he is surprised when she writes a telephone number on his brow and utters the one and only word that he will hear from her ‘Português’. The woman accompanies Gregorius to school but walks out of his classroom and disappears. This is the catalyst for Gregorius to question his existence and he is overwhelmed by a desire to leave his old life behind and start a new one. He embarks on a journey that takes him across Europe to Lisbon clutching a book by Portuguese author and Doctor, Amadeu de Prado. Gregorius is intent on discovering more about the fate of Prado, who was persecuted under Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar’s regime, but ends up on a voyage of self-discovery that sees him question the decisions that he has made throughout his life.
This is a multi-layered novel with some interesting themes and clever writing devices from Mercier, who is in fact a Swiss born Professor of Philosophy called Peter Bieri, when he uses the voice of Prado to impart some heavy philosophical concepts and thought provoking passages. Whilst the book could probably be seen as ‘just another mid-life crisis’ narrative, it also does highlight questions such as ‘is life pre-destined?’, or ‘can a chance encounter give us the courage to rise above the environment in which we are born?’ What happened to the woman on the bridge? Sadly we never find out anymore about her, and for some of us this would have made for a more interesting story!
If you want an intelligent read with strong character analysis then this book is for you. One of my friends harshly stated that ‘the best thing about the book was the title’! Ultimately you will have to pick up the novel to decide for yourself and you might then find out why, with over two million copies sold worldwide, it has become such an international best seller.