Pascal Mercier’s “Night Train to Lisbon”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

Image of Pascal Mercier’s “Night Train to Lisbon”

Lisbon Calling

We speak about the book that changed our life, the encounter that sent us down a path, the person who turned us around. It is at such moments we say we become who we are, and we can no longer, as Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson discovers, return to the life we left.

Raimund Gregorius is a teacher of classics — he says he prefers dead languages — at a secondary school in Bern, Switzerland. One morning on the way to school in a torrential downpour he sees a woman about to jump off a bridge into a river and rushes to save her. After he stops her, she writes a phone number on his forehead with a felt pen, a number, she tells him, she cannot forget and had to write it on his forehead until she found paper. Inexplicably he takes her to school and brings her into his classroom to the students' astonishment, leaving the number on his forehead. It is not Mundo, the affectionate name they give him, who does such things. She is, she tells him, Portogese.

Phone calls need to be answered Avital Ronell writes, and Gregorius has no choice but to answer this call. He goes to a bookstore in search of something Portuguese. ("There were the people who read and there were the others," Gregorius feels and whenever he needs to address a problem he seeks out a book.) He discovers a privately-printed book, meditations on life in the vein of Montaigne, by Amadeu de Prado, a Lisbon physician. The book sends him to Lisbon to find out more about this man whose words seems to speak to him. Gregorius seeks out those who knew Prado, one person inevitably leading to another, often someone he does not know anything about, and in the process discovers the unwritten history of Portuguese resistance to Salazar. "How could it have happened," Gregorius asks himself, "that a single Portuguese word and a phone number on his forehead...involved him...in the life of Portuguese people who were no longer alive?"

In the parallel universe of Amadeu de Prado, Gregorius realizes he had put his own life on hold. He follows the logic of interruption to flesh out the traces of Prado, but everyone who knew Prado knew a different Prado. We are various, Gregorius realizes, and many. He is no longer the Mundo the school knows. "Mundo needed walls," he thinks, "Now he didn't need walls." He searches his own selves, starting with memory (another call to be answered) and remembers things about himself he had forgotten or did not know. He returns to a Bern that is not the city he left nor the man he left there.

At one point in Lisbon, Gregorius puts the books he has with him on a bookshelf where he is rooming. They are, he thinks, "Books for the next stretch of the way." Gregorius is drawn to discover who Prado is because Prado, like Gregorius, "consisted so much of language." Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese writer, is on the shelf. If Amadeu de Prado is the guiding presence who puts Gregorius on the night train to Lisbon, Pessoa is the writer who takes Pascal Mercier to this book.

 

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case and has written on film and art as well as literature.