Book Review, “Night Train to Lisbon”

Night Train to Lisbon
by Pascal Mercier
Translated by Barbara Harshav
Grove Press, 2008
392 pp

“Last Train to Lisbon” was going to be read in a book club a friend of mine belonged to. The club started it, then decided to drop it. Another friend started reading it and has yet to complete it.

The criticisms were consistent: it was too long; it was too windy; it was too dense; the memoir writing was too tedious and philosophical; there were too many characters; there were too many scene shifts.

Well, I’m here to say. I finished the novel. In fact, I read it twice. What can I say? I was an English teacher. I love a challenge.

On the surface, the story is really quite simple: an aging philology teacher finds a book of memoirs in a book store. He starts to read them. The author of the memoirs was a Portuguese doctor and a resistance fighter during the Salazar dictatorship.

Gregorius, the teacher, has found his fantasized soul mate in this resistance fighter, Amadeu Prado, a brooding and tortured aristocrat, a “goldsmith of words” who destines himself “to rescue the silent experiences of human life from their muteness.”

Gregorius fills out the completed narrative of Prado’s life after he visits the aristocrat’s aging family and friends and reads the various memoir entries and letters of Prado.

In a quick drive-thru summary of Prado’s adventures, we find out that he befriends an anarchist, saves a member of Salazar’s secret police, performs an instant tracheotomy on his sister, joins the resistance movement, discovers the passion of his life in his anarchist friend’s girlfriend, another member of the resistance.

The girlfriend, Estafâna Espinhosa, is targeted to be killed by the resistance as a potential turncoat. Prado rescues her and takes her to Spain. The deep bonding friendship between him and the anarchist, Jorgé O’Kelly, is never the same.

Prado eventually dies from an aneurysm.

Gregorius, of course, doesn’t find all of this out at once. The story of Amadeu Prado’s life isn’t totally revealed to him until after Gregorius completes his Odyssey-like journey to Lisbon to talk to all of Prado’s relatives, friends, and teachers.

It is through Prado’s life that Gregorius discovers and virtually relives a life of passion he never allowed himself as a fifty-eight year-old dull ancient-language teacher in his turtle-neck sweater, sport coat with elbow patches, and rumpled corduroy pants.

For Gregorius, Prado is the ultimate “übermensch”–spontaneous, intellectual, introverted, visceral, the warrior, the lover, the loyal son, the man of letters (Prado’s philosophical wanderings in his memoirs, by the way, become, more often than not, distractions for this reader, but, technically, form the psychological bonding Gregorius develops for Prado).

So, there are two central narratives we are dealing with here: Gregorius’s metamorphosis and Prado’s rich and varied life as loyal caretaker and friend, warrior, lover, and thinker. And both narratives form a bond connecting them on their journeys of “long cherished wishes,” to search for the “unreachable wholeness” of the “rounding-off, perfecting experiences,” as one of the characters says.

It is a last chance for Gregorius to round-off his own heretofore inert life by scouring the landscape of a man who, in spite of his own unfulfilled ambitions, lived inside the bone-marrow of life at its most intense levels. If Gregorius wasn’t able to have it in own life, he is willing to live off the scraps of recounted memories and letters of someone else.

And Gregorius is even more willing to take a last-minute risk of spontaneity by walking out of the school where he teaches, packing his clothes, and taking a train to Lisbon.

Gregorius, at fifty-eight, and Prado’s life both represent the ontological search for meaning, purpose, and wholeness. Prado does this in his memoirs while Gregorius renews his own connection to life vicariously through the letters and recalled memories of Prado’s sisters, a teacher, and friends in Lisbon.

There are clues in Gregorius’s life that spontaneity had been brewing in him for a very long time. He recalls, for example, that his mother always wanted to see the sea before she died. He also remembers the time when he climbed out of a classroom window and goes to a market where he steals from a vendor. When he was teaching, he sympathetically recounts the story of a young man who secretly made phone calls to people all over the world.

And there are small didactic messages he received from his ex-wife that he constantly remembers on his trip to Lisbon. He recalls, in one devastating moment of awareness, that the man his wife was giving a compliment to was not him—this compliment formed the basis of his asking her to marry him. On one occasion, he even asked her if he was “boring.”

But it is Prado’s life, the wished-for “doppelgänger” life of Gregorius that engages here. Gregorius, after all, is only the messenger, the dusty old philology teacher who is given, we can only assume, a last chance to live through the life of someone he passionately would have loved to have been.

“But those who do not observe the impulses of their own minds must, of necessity, be unhappy.” Gregorius reads these words of Marcus Aurelius and knows, in his heart, that Prado’s life may be his last chance to “observe”those “impulses.” And observe, he does.

Amadeu Prado was born into aristocracy. Historically, the Prado family could be traced back to the era of Alfonso III, a king of Portugal.

Prado’s father is a Supreme Court judge suffering from chronic pain resulting from curvature of the spine. He eventually commits suicide. “They will blame it on the pain,” the father says in a letter. We can only assume, here, that Prado’s father felt a remorse of conscience in not standing up against the Salazar regime or that he could not bare the pain of knowing that he had doomed his son to a profession his son had never really had a passion for. And he may have become distraught at never having been able to move out of the center of his own conformity.

In any event, it is clear that there were larger existential issues at play in the father’s decision to end his own life.

Every character in Prado’s life is profoundly affected by him. His sister, Adriana, develops a life-long obsessive attachment to her brother’s memory by keeping the “blue-tile” house a mortuary of Prado’s life—his den, his books, his desk, his letters, and an old tape recording of his voice She even stops the clock at the exact time that Prado died.

Jorge O’Kelly lives out his life as a pharmacist after Prado purchased the store for his friend. O’Kelly’s loyalty to Prado remained strained after Prado discovers his passion for Estafânia, O’Kelly’s girlfriend and the woman he targeted to be executed as an untrustworthy resistance fighter—a ruse, more than likely, to cover up his own rage in realizing that Prado was Estafânia’s real passion.

In a clumsy, but passionate meeting with Prado during the Estafânia episode, the two make a fumbling attempt to embrace. Adrianna tells Gregorius that she saw her brother sobbing after Jorgé leaves. The depth of Prado’s love for his anarchist friend becomes even more objectified when Prado refuses to air out the room of the cigar smoke left by Jorgé.

On one of his many visits to Prado’s friends and relatives, Gregorius goes to Salamanca and talks to Estafânia, a history professor at the University. She tells him that on the escape trip to Spain, she tells Prado, “you’re too hungry for me.” She saw in Prado’s passion a destructive force she did not want to be part of. From that moment, she tells Gregorius, Prado “had lost his dignity”and “had shut me out of his soul.”

Prado’s life leaves an indelible mark on everyone he came in contact with. Mélodie, his other sister, played in a small group of Mao-capped violinists on street corners as an eight year old. She says of her brother, “hard to love a monument”; the priest, Bartolomeu, in a nursing home, tells Gregorius that Prado had “an irrestistable melancholy, that he “couldn’t celebrate, frolic, let go,” and that the precocious Prado, at seventeen, had delivered a revolutionary commencement speech; and Maria, the young lower-class girl Prado had an intimate platonic friendship with as an adolescent.

In the final chapter of the novel, Gregorius returns to Bern; he has accomplished his goal of immersing himself in Prado’s past. He continues to suffer from dizzy spells. The narrative ends before the reader finds out the results of the tests he is going to have in Bern.

I assume we have to infer here that Mercier, the author, had intended to continue the “dopplegänger” theme or at least wants his readers to fear that Gregorius will meet the same medical fate as Prado. The mystery, of course, is that the riddle of Gregorius’s final days is not to be easily solved.

In the end, “Last Train to Lisbon” has all the ingredients of a romantic classic: a love triangle, war, intrigue, a strong dose of the interior life, suffering, unconsummated passion, memory. It’s all there.

Whether or not our American commuter society will have the patience to wander through this dense novel is another question. It’s a big novel, in the old “classics” tradition, a tradition that many of us still get hooked into, but one that appears to be on its last legs.

Mercier gave it his best shot.

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