***Disclaimer: this is not intended to be a review, so don’t expect one. This is just a way to share a few thoughts.***
The book: Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
The edition: Atlantic Books paperback, 436 pages.
Reasons for reading: it was on my husband’s bookshelf when I needed something to read. Moreover, it kind of fitted in my idea of reading about places I go to, and we go to Lisbon a great deal.
Synopsis: professor Raimund Gregorius leads a completely ordinary, completely routine life, where nothing is out of place and nothing ever changes. Until one day he has two chance encounters, the first with a mysterious Portuguese woman, the second with a just as mysterious Portuguese book. And suddenly everything changes: he walks out of his classroom in the middle of a lesson and leaves on a night train to Lisbon on the very next day. The story follows his encounters in Lisbon, trying to discover more about the author of that Portuguese book, and never fully accepting his own sudden change of habits.
My thoughts: this is first of all a book about a middle age crisis, and I had no patience with that. I didn’t really care for Gregorius’ fears and expectations. On another level, it is a book about metaphysical questions, which both Gregorius and Amadeu wonder a lot about. Not really my cup of tea.
And while the author spiced all that up with the mystery chase through Lisbon (which did remind me of The Shadow of the Wind, although the chase here was much less intriguing), it was not enough to make the book rise above a pass mark.
On yet another level, though, it is a book about the power of language, and that did strike a chord (see the quotes below). Gregorius is a classical scholar, only ever studying ancient languages, and suddenly he faces the new challenge of learning Portuguese, of discovering how a language works in the real world and on the real world. That much was good, if somehow unrealistic (learning a language overnight? Come on!).
Read this if: if you like novels such as Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game and possibly Camus’ The Stranger (but I’ve never read the latter, so I’m not sure).
In the author’s own words (chosen quotes):
Gregorius was never to forget this scene. They were his first Portuguese words in the real world and they worked. That words could cause something in the world, make someone move or stop, laugh or cry: even as a child he had found it enigmatic and it had never stopped impressing him. How did words do that? Wasn’t it like magic? But at this moment, the mystery seemed greater than usual, for these were words he hadn’t even known yesterday morning.
Now, in the middle of the street noise and surrounded by people who were conversing or letting the spring sun shine on them with their eyes shut, when he leafed through the dictionary and began to translate, he sensed that something great and really unprecedented was happening to him: he was occupied with the written word amid voices, street music, and coffee steam. But you, too, sometimes read the newspaper in the café, Florence had objected when he explained to her that texts demanded protecting walls that kept the noise of the world away, at best the thick, solid walls of an underground archive. Come on, newspapers, he had replied, I’m talking about texts. And now, all at once, he no longer missed the walls, the Portuguese words before him merged with the Portuguese words next to him and behind him.
“So the word is the light of man,” he said. “And so things exist properly only when they are grasped in words.”
“And the words have to have a rhythm,” said Gregorius. “A rhythm as the words have in Saint John, for example. Only then, only when they are poetry, do they really shed light on things. In the changing light of the words the same things can look quite different.”
Silveira looked at him.
“And therefore, when faced with three hundred thousand books, one word is missing, it has to make you dizzy.”