For most people a great deal of life is spent following the same routine. For some, there is a certain amount of safety and comfort that can be derived from the security of knowing exactly what you will be doing when, while others feel seriously constrained and trapped for the same reasons. While those who fall into the latter category usually feel like they are missing out on something more exciting, the feeling that life is passing them by, those in the first instance can go years in complete contentment.
However, if at any point in their lives those same people ever experience an event that jars them from that routine, or causes them to have a moment of introspection beyond what they would normally exert during their day - the results can be severe. If you have completely sublimated all of the dreams and hopes that you once may have had, suddenly waking to that fact is a lot worse than being aware of it all along. What had previously been a comfort, suddenly becomes an unbearable burden that threatens to suffocate you.
In Pascal Mercier's Night Train To Lisbon, published for the first time in English by Grove Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, Raimund Gregorius has been teaching classical languages (Latin, Classical Greek, and Biblical Hebrew) at the same school in Berne Switzerland for decades. Day in and day out he has followed the same routine of teaching school, watching his students through the shield of his thick lensed glasses, and wearing his crumpled corduroy suits.
But then a chance meeting with a Portuguese woman one rainy morning on the way to work has him start to worry at the edges of the veneer of his routine like its a dead patch of skin. His love of language has been limited previously to those that are as dead as his life has been staid and ordered. There is something about this woman though, that her voice - the way she pronounces the word for her mother tongue in her native language - makes Portuguese sound like water to a man wandering in a desert.
Looking for something, and not quite sure what, perhaps the woman who had mysteriously appeared and disappeared the day before, Gregorius finds himself in a Spanish bookstore. Attracted to a particular book by the way another person treated it with some reverence, he picks it up. It's in Portuguese, and not being able to read a word of it he has the bookseller translate the title, A Goldsmith Of Words, and translate the opening lines for him.
What he hears, sentences that describe how inadequate language can sometimes be for describing experiences and emotional turmoil, sounds to him like they had been written about how he'd been feeling since his chance encounter the day before. Language, that had always stood him in such good stead for so many years, has failed to decipher the unease or describe the emotions he'd been feeling. It can't even offer an explanation as to why, yesterday, he simply walked out of his classroom in the middle of the afternoon double period, leaving his books and brief case behind, and not been back since.
Thirty years ago he had turned down an opportunity to live in Iran and tutor the child of an industrialist, irrational fears of the desert heat blinding him had kept him in Berne teaching dead languages. Now he finally leaves Berne behind, with Lisbon as his destination, and a desire to find out about the author of this book. He knows part of what fuels his desire to make this trip into the unknown was his inability to make a similar trip in the past.
In Lisbon a series of chance meetings brings him into the circle of people who surrounded Doctor Amadeu de Prado. The picture that emerges is that of a child of privilege, a brilliant student in school, and a doctor who will not refuse serve anyone, and in fact treats many poorer clients for free. Prado, like Gregorius, has something happen that forces him to re-evaluate his life and position. Up until 1974 Portugal was ruled by the dictator Salazar, and near the end of his regime rule had actually passed into the hands of his secret police as Salazar descended into senility.
One day a man collapsed just outside Prado's offices, heart failure, and his companions rushed him into the office in the hopes that the doctor could keep him alive long enough for an ambulance to come and get him to a hospital. He was the head of Lisbon's secret police, a man notoriously responsible for the death and torture of thousands of people. Prado knew all of this, and he could have easily let him die, without any stigma being attached to him, but he claims he couldn't because of his loyalty to his medical calling.
It was this experience which caused him to pen the lines that had so appealed to Gregorius about language failing to properly encompass the feelings that people can have. On a more direct note the good doctor makes it his business to join the forces of the resistance against the dictator in order to try and assuage his guilt for having saved the life of one of the oppressors.
Night Train To Lisbon is a fascinating examination of the things that make us who we are and how fragile that construction really is. Are we really, it asks, only what we make ourselves, or are there external elements that must be considered? It's also about the need for passion in your life, or at the very least some sort of emotional commitment to what it is you do. Gregorius has spent decades teaching the classic languages, and has revelled in their lack of passion that their formal construction can impose on his lessons.
But what has been the result of that life so far? True he is a well respected scholar within the Berne community, but is that compensation for a marriage that fails after five years due to his being so bloodless and cold towards his ex-wives enthusiasm for art? Insomnia plagues him, and he is constantly beset with fears that he will go blind to the extent that he lets it dictate his activities. In what must be a deliberate irony, Gregorius teaches Latin, the father of the Romance languages while suppressing the romance in his own life.
There isn't even any room in his life for introspection until the moment he has his chance encounter with the Portuguese woman that rainy morning. That it takes a trip to the sunnier climate of Portugal, a direct contrast to the grey cold winter of Berne, for his life to thaw, and for him to discover what it is to have emotion in his life only is appropriate. When you think about it, what could be more romantic, then the intellectual son of a wealthy family taking up the fight against a dictator. The fact that the country just happens to be one where the native language is one of the Romance tongues is just icing on the cake.
That Doctor Prado happens to be a figure of mystery at the start of the Night Train To Lisbon gives him the aura of romance even before we and Gregorius start to learn about his life. That he turns out to have been idolized even by his teachers when he was younger only adds to this portrait. Even though we find out from his own writing that he too sublimated his real desires to suit the needs of his family and position, there still remained a fierceness to his beliefs conspicuously absent from Gregorius' life.
One thing that Mercier is very careful about in this book is to make sure we know there is nothing romantic about being in the resistance against a dictator. One of the people who Gregorius befriends was so badly tortured that his fingers are now not much more than useless appendages dangling form his hands. At their first meeting he calmly informs Gregorius that his tea cup can only be half filled. The reason for this become obvious when he removes his hands from the pockets they have lain hidden in, and they tremble continuously.
Night Train To Lisbon is the story of a journey of self-discovery, and an analysis of the ways is which people control their experiencing of life. I discovered that it took me a while to get involved with the story, but that once I entered into the rhythm of Mercier's writing style it was easy to be drawn into the events that unfolded. He wants the reader to take the time necessary to sift through and appreciate the thoughts that are being expressed by both Gregorious and Prado and you have to be willing to accept Mercier's conditions.
For those who want a good, intelligent read that's an excellent analysis of character and poses some fascinating questions about life and love, you won't go wrong with Night Train To Lisbon by Pascal Mercier.
(Originally posted January 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.