Monday, 24 August 2009

Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
There are lots of different reasons why a book fails to delight. Four principal ones are:
a) It's the wrong book for the reader
b) The reader fails to understand something fundamental to the book
c) The writer fails to communicate something fundamental
d) The reader's expectations aren't in tune with what the writer is delivering.
I haven't decided which category this novel should be in yet.

I bought the novel because Waterstones had a 'three for two' offer and, having gone in to buy two novels in a hurry, this seemed an intriguing third. I had enjoyed Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (which has a similar plot thread) and Sansom's Winter in Madrid, so I suppose I was on an Iberian trail. I love mysteries and I love books about books, so it seemed ideal, but, when I finally got round to opening Night Train to Lisbon, I found the central plot strand tenuous and too like other books I've read recently - Shadow of the Wind obviously, but also Homecoming by Bernard Schlink (author of The Reader) which has the same central theme - a lost book that leads the main character to some strange discoveries about his family origins. Homecoming is much tighter and more absorbing (and more profound) than this. Then there's The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - a gothic novel with a strong narrative drive, that retells the story of Vlad the Impaler from a new perspective. Finally there's The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, which I found very difficult to read and eventually abandoned. But they all celebrate the book as a magic artefact that will whisk the reader away on an enchanted (and sometimes perilous) journey.

In fact Night Train to Lisbon's whole plot could be summed up by the first line of the Orhan Pamuk - "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed." Jolted out of his routine by a Portuguese woman who appears to be about to commit suicide, Gregorius - a scholar of ancient languages - abandons his students, and goes into a bookshop to buy a book in Portuguese. He finds a privately published volume by Amadeu de Prado, which engrosses him so utterly he takes a train to Lisbon where he begins to track down the writer and the characters in the memoir.

Pascal Mercier is a professor of philosophy and there are long sections, purporting to be written by de Prado, which discuss the nature of fear, the reliability of memory, our relationships and the very meaning of existence. I enjoyed reading it, though I got rather bored with the philosophical sections after a while and disappointed when the search didn't really arrive anywhere. It all seemed rather pointless - true the classics professor learned things about himself as he unravelled the story of Amadeu de Prado, but that alone was not rewarding enough for a reader who has ploughed through more than three hundred pages in a state of hopefulness. I was left without satisfactory information about some of the key individuals in de Prado's story - the hero/narrator fails to engage properly with the other characters, remaining an observer and recorder, and what seem to be crucial plot strands are never tied up and remain dangling and there are too many coincidences. At the end the reader is left at the door of the clinic where Gregorius is about to undergo some tests, without a single hint as to whether the results are going to alter the fabric of his life in any way. Nothing was resolved and there was 'no closure' as they would say across the Pond.

But, even though I found the ending flawed, the book interested me and it is certainly a serious 'novel of ideas' as the jacket promises - and there is some good writing, a rare enough treat these days. I don't feel guilty about giving away the plot or the ending, because neither are vital to a reading of this novel - it's all about process and the accumulation of knowledge, about the choices we make when deciding how to live our lives. It's not about fate or circumstance, the novelist seems to be saying - it's down to us.


  1. Totally agree about the ending - loose ends are one thing, but you shouldn't be left thinking 'why?'. What about the mystery Portuguese woman and the telephone number? Having said that, I was intrigued and enjoyed reading the book....

  2. I can't comment on the ending because I gave up on this book after 200 pages (with another 230 still to go). I agree with this post in that I also found the philosophical sections boring. Having read this blog, I'm also glad I didn't wait to find out how the woman and phone number from the start would be tied back in at the end!