Friday, 23 April 2010

Book Review: Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon is the third novel of Pascal Mercier, and was originally written in German. Sometimes you can tell when reading a book in translation that it is not in the language it was created for - with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I could tell from the first chapter. However, in Night Train to Lisbon I didn't notice that it was a translation until the end, meaning that this doesn't distract from the novel at all.

It centres around a German teacher called Raimund Gregorius, living in Bern, Switzerland. Gregorius' life is repetitive, and safe, and yet a chance encounter with a Portuguese woman shakes him out of his monotonous life. He walks out of his class, and ends up in a bookshop where he finds a book of essays by a Portuguese author, Amadeu de Prado. Setting off on an impulsive trip to Lisbon to find out more about the writer and his life, he meets a number of people connected to Prado and gradually finds out more and more about his life - as a doctor, brother, friend, resistance worker and philosopher. Delving into the past he looks back on his own life, the choices he has made, the relationships he has forged and lost, and wonders at what a man's potential really is.

I found this book hard work at first. Gregorius seems a dry, rather unemotional character, and it was hard to get attached to him. My overwhelming feeling towards him was pity, that his life seemed so joyless and empty. However, his interactions with the people in Lisbon, those who knew and clung to Amadeu de Prado, his compassion for them, makes him a far more likeable figure. He has the distance of an outsider, and releases them from the past by listening and asking, and finally, seeing what they cannot.

Amadeu de Prado is much easier to be interested in. He is fiery, passionate, pursues ideas with all he has, and engages in complex lifelong relationships with others. The contrast between Prado, and the man obsessed with his life, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel.

Part of the reason I found Night Train to Lisbon hard work was that it is narrated by Gregorius the whole way through. He is a thoughtful, considering figure, not an action hero. I could feel the distance between him and the other characters and needed to leave the book every few chapters to be in a more lively world. It's not a light beach read or even one to cosy up with in bed. It takes thought and effort. However, it is worth persevering with, and it is rewarding when you finish it.

Overall I would recommend this to someone looking for a thought-provoking book. I can certainly see myself going back to it as I'm sure there is more to it than I got from the first read. This book has depth, and is well worth your time, just don't expect it to be easy.


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