Sunday, May 31, 2009


Night Train to Lisbon, Pascal Mercier, Grove Press, 2008, 438 pp
(Originally published by Carl Hanser Verglag, Munich, 2004, translated from German by Barbara Harshav.)

I began reading this philosophical novel two days after my mother passed away. I had purchased it off a Buy One-Get One Free table at a Border's in Ann Arbor based on the title and a blurb from Isabel Allende: "A treat for the mind. One of the best books I have read in a long time." During the three months that my mother was recovering from and then dying from two strokes, the only thing that consoled me in the least was buying books.

This book was strangely perfect for the time. The author is a Swiss professor of philosophy and an accomplished writer, though for a book about beautiful sentences, his sentences are awkwardly constructed, at least in translation. But the dreamlike pace, the sense of delving into a person's past to attempt an understanding of that person, was suited to my fragile emotional state. When you watch someone whom you have known all your life unravel before your eyes, the mystery and the wonder of who a single human being really is plays out hour by hour.

Raimond Gregorious teaches classical languages at a Swiss school. He is outwardly the dullest man, buried in routine and almost as dead as the languages he has loved all his life. A chance encounter with a Portuguese woman leads him to a forgotten book in a Spanish bookstore. The introduction to this book of philosophical essays propels him out of his sorry life and into a journey to Lisbon, onto a quest for understanding and through all the great questions of identity, love, loyalty and meaning.

The book moves very slowly after its rather explosive beginning and along with my state of deep exhaustion, put me to sleep about every twenty pages. Then about halfway through it jelled into a sort of mystery/thriller about the life of the Portuguese author of the book that Raimond had bought. From that point on I read voraciously and finished it in a day.

Promises fulfilled and broken, dreams and goals left incomplete or unrealized, varieties of love and friendship, but most of all layers of identity in every person and the impossibility of really knowing anyone including oneself, are the ideas behind this story. Possibly Mercier bit off more than he could make digestible in one book, but it is a laudable effort. I would not go so far as to say that this book changed my life, but it had a huge effect and I will remember it.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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