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Book Review: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

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Let me say from the outset that Night Train to Lisbon is perhaps one of those books in which I cannot make up my mind, whether I like it or not. There were points about the book that I especially liked, but there were also aspects of the book that I found not to my liking. Thus, overall, I am ambivalent about this one.

Night Train to Lisbon follows the adventures of Raimund Gregorius, who is a teacher at a Swiss Gymnasium. One rainy day, he encounters a woman who seems to be getting ready to jump off a bridge. Fearing that she is committing suicide, he goes to her and prevents the jump. He immediately learns that the woman is a foreigner, and when he asks her what language she speaks, she replies português. The woman does something strange; she writes a phone number on his forehead. Enamored by the strangeness of the woman, and the exotic nature of the pronunciation of português, he decides to check out a used-book store where he comes across a book that consists of a collection of notes of a certain Amadeu de Prado.

And guess what? The overall impact of the weird encounter with the weird woman sets him off to this adventure. What was originally a very predictable and repetitive lifestyle was broken. Gregorius just takes off and leaves the school. He buys a train ticket to Lisbon, thus, taking the journey from Bern, which is what the title is referring to.

After arriving in Lisbon, he sets off on this treasure hunt, trying to find out who this Amadeu de Prado is. It turns out that he was a doctor, who lived during the Portuguese authoritarian regime, who was loved by the people until he treated one of the authorities, which caused him to be ostracized by the people. Because of that, he secretly joined the resistance, with hopes of redeeming himself.

Gregorius tries to meet all of the people that were related to Amadeu: his friends, his sister, a girl who had a crush on him, his professor, et cetera. At the same time, he tries to read the collection of notes that he has in the form of the used book he got in Bern. Little by little, Gregorius — and by extension, the reader — pieces together this puzzle that slowly reveals the totality of the personality behind the name of Amadeu de Prado. We learn of the social and emotional struggles and conflicts that Amadeu had, such as his atheism, his love triangles, his relationships with his parents. There is plenty to mention here, that I think it would just be better to pick up the book and read about it for a more accurate picture.

So that shouldn’t be a bad plot for a novel. Except there are things that I did not understand.

So, first of all, what was the role of the woman in the beginning? The woman was about to jump from a bridge, and was rescued. After that, she doesn’t appear at all in the novel. Gregorius decides to buy a train ticket to Lisbon, he decides to break his seemingly unbreakable routine of living in Bern (we are told later that his wife Florence took vacations without him because he hated flying), not because of the woman who left a phone number on his forehead, but because of a book he bought from a used book store. How incredible is that!

Secondly, I never understood why Gregorius kept continuing in his personal investigation regarding Amadeu. Who exactly was Amadeu to Gregorius? It wasn’t the case that he was some very important figure in history. No, he was just a doctor who had some emotional problems and had a gift for writing.

I find a disconnect between the reviews that I have seen about this book and my own personal experience reading it. This book has been compared to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, which I have also read in the past. What is common between both books is that there is the main character who embarks on an investigation about an author of a seemingly rare book. In Shadow of the Wind, the main character also picks up a book, and finds out that there is nothing else he can find out about the author. It seems that the book he found was the only book the author wrote.

The similarity ends here, however. In Shadow of the Wind, there is a reason why the main character continues on the expedition, that being, apparently, because there is an antagonist, the Devil, who seems to be hunting down every copy of every book the author has written so he can burn them. In Night Train to Lisbon, I see no motive for continuing the pursuit, aside from the inference that something clicked in Gregorius’ head that he decided to break his routine and embark on an adventure.

So overall, after having ambivalent thoughts about Night Train to Lisbon, I decided that I do not like it. Maybe it’s the hype I think it doesn’t deserve that induces this negative reaction, but I think it’s a book that doesn’t live up to its reputation. 3 out of 5 stars.

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  • Jan (the Netherlands)

    Night train to Lisbon: I read many many books in my life, this is the most beautiful book I ever read…
    I have no idea, I could not explain it but my comment stays…..

  • Elisa

    I do believe this was the worst, most over-hyped book I’ve read in my life. You are far too kind to give it this ambiguous review. It doesn’t even deserve to be named in the same sentence as the classic masterpiece of our time, Shadow of the Wind.

  • maria

    Amadeu was a life Gregorius was never able to live. His life was full of vitality, it had meaning and what was Grogorius’s? Gregorius is just a man on a journey of self discovery. He reaches a point in his life where he needs inspiration, change, energy and Amadeu’s life gives him the encouragement to continue his own journey. Clearly there was common ground between the two of them, which is why Gregorius continues with his pursuit.