Night Train to Lisbon

Can there be anything more absurd than this:
to be moved by a wish that has no conceivable object?

Amadeu de Prado
The Goldsmith of Words

I confess to picking up this novel because its title is similar to a short story of mine. I’ve certainly read books for less reason than that, but I’m glad of this bit of serendipity because I found Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier to be a worthwhile read.

This novel has two protagonists. There is the main character about whom the story is told, and there is the man who has become the main character’s obsession. Through a curious string of events rising from a moment of coincidence, a staid Swiss language teacher is introduced to the writings of deceased Portuguese doctor Amadeu de Prado through his book called The Goldsmith of Words. Transported by the thoughts in this work — exchanging his dead languages and thoroughly known texts for the living words of the memoir — the language teacher quite literally walks away from the school where he teaches and travels to Lisbon to learn all he can about the man whose words have so captivated him.

His quest is both fruitful and frustrating. Everyone who knew the man seemed to have kept some scrap of his writing. One of the priests at his school kept the valedictorian address de Prado wrote as a boy fifty years before. One person even has a recording of his voice. All of these scraps give the protagonist further insight into his quarry.

I began to wonder just how credible a character could be if everyone who knew him thought he was wonderful. As I read on, however, I learned that the man was also sometimes despised, and this, too, drove his character.

Most specifically, he is despised for two medical interventions he must take, doing exactly what he was trained and obligated to do, but for very different reasons shunned as a consequence. And while he saved the lives of these two people, one of whom deserved to die, he also refused to take the life of a person who knew too much to live.

This novel is built around the enduring, and perhaps fanciful, notion of “the book that changed your life forever.” In many ways it reminded me of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which is another fine novel about the consequence of a single book in a character’s life.

“Pascal Mercier” is the pseudonym of Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri. Night Train to Lisbon has sold more than two million copies, having enjoyed a huge success in Europe but suffering from little recognition in the U.S. If you enjoy novels about ideas and characters (rather than about “splosions”), you should consider picking up this one.

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