Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier

When I handed him the syringe, our eyes met for a split second.  How I loved him at that moment, my brother! With the enormous force of his inflexible iron will, he struggled against the wish to simply let the man on the examining table die, the man who almost certainly had the whole merciless oppression of the state on his conscience.

Since my trip to Portugal last year, Lisbon has never been far from my mind and to try and allay it’s constant pull I finally picked up Pascal Mercier’s the Night Train to Lisbon.
I sunk into it, enjoying the comfort of the simple, elegant prose.  I loved Mundus, his pragmatism in his routines, his thoughts about his own life and his ex wife and his fear, which he overcomes with understated strength to change his life.

A chance meeting with a Portuguese  lady on a bridge he crosses ever day on his way to work, knocks him out of orbit and wakes up in Mundus the realisation that he is inside a shell, made up of what other people have made him, and which he, unthinking and uncomprehending, allowed himself to become.
After inexplicably walking out of his lecture, Mundus comes across a book by Amadeu Prado, and feverishly translates pages of it.  The more he translates the more it seems the book is talking directly to him, and he leaves his solid dependable life, and embarks on a spontaneous trip to Lisbon to find out more about Prado, receiving only the approval of his optometrist, Constantine Dioxiades.

In Lisbon Mundus tracks down Prado’s relatives and friends and constructs the life of the man whose book, as it’s translated, reveals to Mundus so much about his own life.
Prado is a larger than life character, pulling and pushing people within his orbit as he tries to write himself clear of his demons.  Prado’s life is revealed, piece by piece by those who knew him, his adoring sister, his closest friend, his one true love, a comrade in the resistance and his former teacher.  His life is like a wave, leaving devastation imprinted in the people washed up in it’s wake.  His notes, which Mundus translates like a disciple, show a mind trying to dissect it’s existence to find clarity and peace.  His speech at the end of the time at the Liceu, is a perfect dissection on the word of God, written with absolute clarity and thought.

I read other reviews of this and people complained a lot about the grammar and translation.  Going back to the book I was surprised to see it for myself, whereas I had assumed I had misread sentences they were just wrong.  While you can skim the sentence and get it’s true meaning, it happens far too frequently, which is disappointing.

Fortunately for me this, in the end, didn’t detract from a wonderful story about facing an inner battle, to change your life in an instant, to throw away everything you hold dear, that keeps you secure and comforted.
It is the anxious, nervous excitement before you travel.  Mundus is me, but I am starting ahead of him, I want to escape before my shell is formed.

And all of a sudden, he understood: what had started as the temptation to hold onto something familiar after the last houses of Bern slipped away, had become more like a farewell as the hours passed.


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