Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier | Book Review

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

Mercier, P., Night Train to Lisbon, London: Atlantic Books, 2009

“In the years afterwards, I fled whenever somebody began to understand me. That has subsided. But one thing remained: I don’t want anybody to understand me completely. I want to go through life unknown. The blindness of others is my safety and my freedom.”

Mercier, P., Night Train to Lisbon, London: Atlantic Books, 2019

Magical. Profoundly moving. Overwhelmingly beautiful. Compelling exploration of consciousness and the inner life.

Night Train to Lisbon delights with the written word, very vivid descriptions of the places and characters. The author takes us on a long but a wonderful journey full of thoughts and insightful analysis on death, loneliness, courage and friendship looking at the surrounding world through the prism of many people and from a different time perspective. It is like having a long-awaited meeting with a fellow human being whom one listens with an unsurpassed curiosity and fascination.

“Is the soul a place of facts? Or are the alleged facts only the deceptive shadows of our stories?”

Mercier, P., Night Train to Lisbon, London: Atlantic Books, 2019

Pascal Mercier offers an astonishing philosophical narrative about the possibility of truly understanding another person, the ability of words to define our very selves and making a journey into the depths of our shared humanity. Night Train to Lisbon compels a reader to look inwards.

“Sometimes I go to the beach and stand facing the wind, which I wish were icy, colder than we know it in these parts. I wish it would blow all the hackneyed words, all the insipid habits of language out of me so that I could come back with a cleansed mind, cleansed of the banalities of the same talk.”

Mercier, P., Night Train to Lisbon, London: Atlantic Books, 2019

The protagonist, Raimund Gregorius, is a professor of classical langauges  at the college in Bern who one day abandons his old life to set out on a train journey to Lisbon. He carries with him a book written by Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese doctor whose writings explore the ideas of loneliness, death, friendship and loyalty. These notes introduce a philosophical dimension into the narrative which echo Gregorius’s own thoughts and reflections. This book is used by him as a tool for self-discovery and journey inwards.  As he speaks to the people who knew Prado, Gregorius feels he has a lot in common internally with Prado.

One of the themes in Night Train to Lisbon is the exploration of alternate lives, than the one we have chosen, through words, conversations and the life of another man. The narrator poses a question to the reader to imagine what would happen if you questioned everything about your life and started a new existence.

Interestingly, the city of Lisbon is not only a geographical place where most of the narrative takes place, but it is also a character in the book. The occurring question throughout is about the role the place plays in our lives and its impact on who we are and what we can do in our lives.

I would recommend this book to a sensitive reader who enjoys philosophical meanderings about the meaning of life, literature, existentialism, ideas, words and identity. 

It is not an easy read, there are not many dialogues, there is no staggering action. However, if you feel that this is the time to reflect about your role in the world, you should get on the train to Lisbon with Gregorius and Prado. This journey will change your life.

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