Book Review: Readings
This unlikely, labyrinthine but ultimately intriguing tale by Swiss writer Pascal Mercier is already a bestseller in Europe
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Feb. 29, 2008
Night Train to Lisbonby Pascal Mercier
translated from German by Barbara Harshav
Grove Press, 438 pp., $25
What would it take for you to suddenly abandon your decades-old, entrenched daily routines and set off on a journey of unspecified discovery? For the staid, middle-aged linguistics instructor Raimund Gregorius, it's a chance meeting with an enigmatic Portuguese woman and the subsequent discovery that same day of a book, A Goldsmith of Words, by physician/philosopher Amadeu de Prado. Within hours, he's hastily packed and on the overnight train from Bern, Switzerland, to Lisbon in search of Prado and his legacy. So begins this unlikely, labyrinthine but ultimately intriguing tale by Swiss writer Mercier that became a sensational bestseller in Europe upon its publication there in 2004. Gregorius arrives in Lisbon and soon discovers that Prado is long ago deceased. He begins piecing together the doctor's story by tracking down friends, relatives, and acquaintances, all the while attempting to learn the new language. Their recollections are interwoven with passages from the book and with Prado's personal letters to provide an overarching tapestry of the man's life. A brilliant scholar, Prado's writings address some of the most basic existential issues concerning love, family, friendship, and loyalty both to oneself and those closest to us. These universal themes are often confronted through the prism of the book's subtext, the repressive Salazar dictatorship which ruled Portugal for decades. Resistance to the brutal regime would effect Prado profoundly, and his actions in dealing with members of the resistance movement would alienate him from friends, family, and community. For his part, Gregorius is a cerebral man-of-words and the master of several languages. It's therefore not surprising that the story is carried along by a torrent of verbiage, with Prado's writings acting as a source of inspiration and obsession for Gregorius. The passages are often uncanny in the way they parallel the unfolding of events in his own life. While they are integral in helping Gregorius piece together the Prado puzzle, these passages all too often distract from the flow of the narrative. Perhaps there was some naivete in expecting certain elements of the story to come full circle, or perhaps that's just a reflection of this reader's own entrenched routines.