Night Train to Lisbon, Pascal Mercier, Germany, 2004

Night Train to Lisbon, Pascal Mercier, Germany, 2004

Pascal Mercier is the pseudonym of Peter Bieri, who is a Swiss philosopher, and Night Train to Lisbon is an amazing investigation of life and love and what it is to be human.

I came to Mercier’s book via the film of the same name, which was beautifully imagined and crafted and which motivated me to hunt for the book. However, the film and the book are two completely different experiences. While the film concentrates on a number of situations in the book and then runs with them in directions that may, or may not, be parallel to Mercier’s initial plan, the book delves into philosophical questions of self and relationships, and places poetic thought front and centre.

The action of the book centres around an ancient-language teacher in Bern – Raimund Gregorius. Gregorius (as he is known throughout the book) is in his late 50s and has always lived a carefully planned life firmly based on routine. Then, after saving an unknown Portuguese woman from committing suicide, he surprises everyone, including himself, by walking away from his place of employment and taking the night train to Lisbon. However, before leaving Bern, he buys a book by Amadeu de Prado – also Portuguese – in a second-hand bookshop. He has never heard of de Prado, but he is attracted by the deep, often dark, thoughts that attempt to unravel the mystery of who we are and why we are.

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Was it possible that the best way to be sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else? (Page 98)

In Lisbon, armed with de Prado’s book and a Portuguese dictionary, he connects with members of de Prado’s family and several of his friends, all the time while delving deeper and deeper into the life and the thought patterns of an extraordinary man. Gregorius learns that Amadeu’s father, a judge, was severely crippled with a form of arthritis and that Amadeu himself worked as a doctor during the dictatorship of Salazar – a time of great suffering and torture – and he sees how both experiences impacted Amadeu’s writings.

As the picture of Amadeu de Prado becomes clearer, it also becomes multifaceted, as each person with whom Gregorius speaks remembers Amadeu in a different way. Yet Gregorius understands that each memory is a valid picture of Amadeu. The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which come closer to the truth? (Page 141)

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When Gregorius finally returns to Bern he knows that he is no longer the same person who left.
When was anybody himself? When he was unchanged? As he saw himself? Or as he was when the passion of thoughts and feelings buried all lies, masks, and self-deceptions? Usually it was others who complained that somebody was no longer himself. Perhaps this is what really meant: he’s no longer as we would like him to be? (Page 411)

This is a beautiful book that, to be truly appreciated, probably needs to be read several times.

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