Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon
Author: Pascal Mercier (Translated by Barbara Harshav)
Grove Books, 2008
438 pages

This is a good example of a book that I probably would have never read if not for the recommendation of my friend Katarina from Vienna. When Katarina and I get together (a couple of times a year when she comes to Indy), we always talk about the books we've read lately and make recommendations to each other, and sometimes buy books for each other. She bought me this one in May, but I only just now got around to reading it (books tend to pick me, not the other way around! Night Train to Lisbon picked me after six months of sitting on my shelf.)

The author is Swiss, and so is the main character, Raimund Gregorius, also known as "Mundus" to his students. He teaches ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin) at a school in Bern and is most likely some sort of genius. That is, he's brilliant, but not exactly the most "emotionally intelligent" person. His flashbacks to a failed marriage are testament to his aversion to -- or inability to have/maintain -- intimate relationships.  (In that respect, he kind of reminds me of the main character in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces - and if you haven't read that, you must.)

Perhaps this is why he does what he does when he rather serendipitously meets a Portuguese woman one rainy morning on his way to school. Something about meeting this random woman makes him realize he's (at age 57) getting old. This chance encounter, along with a book written by a Portuguese man named Prado that he finds in a used bookstore in Bern, propels him to leave his predictable life. He quits his job and runs away to Lisbon.

As he reads Prado's book, Gregorius is driven to find out more about the man. His adventures in Lisbon lead him to various people in Prado's life - former teacher, sisters, best friends, lovers, and fellow revolutionaries during the Salazar regime - and he finds himself getting deeper into Prado's world. Prado himself was a sort of genius, not really unlike Gregorius.

At first, I couldn't put the book down. That Gregorius chucked it all to go to Portugal was admirable to me. I mean, who doesn't dream of doing something like that? Only most of us just dream it, and then we get back to reality. Yet as Gregorius chases these "new" dreams, he leaves "old" ones behind . . . such as his long-time dream of living in Persia (not Iran, but Persia.)

About midway through the book, it started to bore me. If not for a couple of the characters (namely the old revolutionary in the nursing home), I might have given up without finishing. I also wanted to see the book circle back around to the Portuguese woman in Bern who started this whole thing. As to that, I was disappointed. Good writing (or good translation), though.

This is the type of book one could expect to read in a university class on Modern European Fiction. Maybe discussing it with other readers would help me appreciate it more. I will say that the book has me wanting to go back to Portugal. I'd like to see more of Lisbon and some of the other places mentioned in the book like Finisterre and Coimbra, and Salamanca, Spain. And I'd like to learn more about Portuguese history.

I know it was a big success in Europe and I appreciate the effort. However, I'm an American with ADHD who did not have the luxury of a classical education. I need to go back to something light and breezy now. :-)