Today Karin Salvalaggio takes us to Switzerland, and a convention-defying read in which a chance encounter changes the direction of a man’s life.
Night Train to Lisbon, by the Swiss author Pascal Mercier, is an uncompromising novel of incredible complexity. The central character, Raymond Gregorius, changes the course of his life in the wake of a chance encounter with an enigmatic Portuguese woman. Though I’ve not read the book in years the opening scene is still etched in my mind. Raymond is a divorced professor of dead languages, whose life has come to a dead end. On a stormy morning he sets out to the Swiss grammar school where he teaches classics only to come across a woman on a bridge who is about to take her own life. She changes her mind when Raymond speaks to her and instead writes a phone number on his forehead with a ballpoint pen so she can remember it. Raymond finds it impossible to return to his routine. He abandons his students in the middle of a lesson and goes in search of something that will give him a lasting connection to the language the woman had spoken – Portuguese.
It is in a second hand bookstore that another chance encounter occurs. It is there that Raymond comes across a novella called A Goldsmith of Words by a Portuguese doctor called Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado. Using a dictionary, Raymond translates the volume word by word. He is instantly transfixed. A man Raymond has never met before is speaking to him across time and space. Above all he is asking Raymond the central question – Given we can live only a small part of what there is in us – what happens to the rest? Raymond leaves his tidy little life behind and sets off on a night train to Lisbon to find answers. It is on this journey that Raymond learns of Portugal’s brutal past under the Salazar’s dictatorship and discovers the secret history of Amadeu, an honorable man who gave up everything fighting in the resistance.
Raymond Gregorius was slowly wasting away in Switzerland, but he finds a renewed sense of purpose through Amadeu, whose life story is told in a series of conversations with his surviving friends and loved ones. In this book we see one man reborn and another man resurrected. Night Train to Lisbon has been described as a novel of ideas that reads like a thriller. Pascal Mercier is a pseudonym for a literary outlier, a Swiss philosopher named Peter Bieri. Given his background it’s hardly surprising that he has produced a work of fiction that defies convention.