Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav, is about the paths we take in our lives, the regrets we carry, and the desire to connect with something or someone outside of ourselves.  Raimund Gregorius is a Swiss classical languages teacher in Bern, who has cloistered himself among his texts and his classes to the detriment of his marriage and his social life.  He’s governed by a routine existence that is abruptly changed one morning on the way to the lycée.  His love of language and learning takes him on an unexpected journey into the language and heart of Lisbon as seen through the eyes of Amadeu de Prado, a young doctor caught up in a test of his principals like none other at the time of the Salazar dictatorship.

“Gregorius took off the glasses, and covered his face with his hands.  The feverish change between dazzling brightness and threatening shadow pressing with unusual sharpness through the new glasses was a torment for the unprotected eyes.  Just now, at the hotel, after he had woken up from a light and uneasy afternoon nap, he had tried the old glasses again.  But now the dense heaviness felt disturbing, as if he had to push his face through the world with a tedious burden.”  (page 111)

Through a mix of text from Prado that Gregorius translates and the teacher’s interactions with Prado’s family and friends, a tale of hunger, deprivation, and principals emerges that will keep readers on their toes.  The parallels Mercier draws between Prado and Gregorius are uncanny, and yet, the men are so different from one another in how they choose their paths.  At the same time, both men are swept up in a hunger for more life and more connection, especially given how both their fathers had suffered and how little they knew them.  In many ways, it seems as though part of that hunger is fed by the “absence” of the father — though not their physical absence — and the expectations that absence placed on these men as they grew older.

Who could in all seriousness want to be immortal?  Who would like to live for all eternity?  How boring and stale it must be to know that what happens today, this month, this year, doesn’t matter:  endless more days, months, years will come.  Endless, literally.  If that was how it was, would anything count?”  (page 170-1)

Gregorius begins his journey in Lisbon with Prado’s book in his hands, seeking the truth of the man who wrote such inspiring words — words that spurred his desire to drop his old life and journey into a new world.  There moments when he loses himself, bumping around Lisbon and falling into the life of Prado so much so that he forgets texts that he lived and breathed in for years.  But even in returning to Bern, Gregorius is out of place; it is no longer comfortable or it does not feel like home.  Both Prado and Gregorius reach a certain precipice in their lives, and how they handle it is so similar; it is like a mirror image of the past facing the present.

Mercier explores the compartmentalization of our own lives and how we can not really know others as intimately as we can know ourselves, but even that is questioned as we can also fall into deceiving ourselves about our own abilities, emotions, and more.  Memories are fleeting and often distorted, but to uncover an unvarnished truth about the past, all sides of the story must be sough out to find the truth in the middle.  Beyond that there are questions of whether one should be sacrificed for the many or the good cause and what exactly the fear of death is about.  Night Train to Lisbon is a methodical and deep account of two men with their own convictions and perceptions about life and what it is that are challenged by the world around them.  Deeply moving, profound, philosophical and engaging.

About the Author:

Peter Bieri, better known by his pseudonym, Pascal Mercier, is a Swiss writer and philosopher.  He studied philosophy, English studies and Indian studies in both London and Heidelberg.  Mercier cycling team is a former French professional cycling team that promoted and raced on Mercier racing bikes. Together with the Peugeot cycling team, the Mercier team had a long presence in the cycling sport and in the Tour de France from 1935 until 1983.

About the Translator:

Barbara Harshav translates from French, German, and Yiddish, in addition to Hebrew. Her translations from Hebrew include works by prominent authors such as Michal Govrin, Yehudah Amihai, Meir Shalev, and Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon. She teaches in the Comparative Literature department at Yale University.

This is part of my own personal challenge to read more books set in or about Portugal.

This is my 27th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Poetry as Gold. . .

Welcome to the Savvy Verse & Wit blog tour for National Poetry Month in the United States, but here on the blog, I consider it more of an international celebration.

If you have signed up to celebrate poetry this month, there are still some dates open, just check the schedule and let me know what date you’d prefer.

This past week I was reading Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav, and I came across a commentary about recreating the Portuguese language to make it clearer and truer to its origins: “The waiter, the barber, the conductor — they would be puzzled if they heard the newly set words and their amazement would refer to the beauty of the sentence, a beauty that would be nothing by the gleam of their clarity. … At the same time, they would be without exaggeration and without pomposity, precise and so laconic that you couldn’t take away one single word, one single comma. Thus they would be like a poem, plaited by a goldsmith of words.” (page 26) This passage reminded me of how poets — and fiction writers — often seek out ways through language to make images, characters, situations, emotions, and more clear to the reader — drawing connections between images that may, at first, seem to have nothing to do with one another, but through a juxtaposition or other means provide the reader with some insight or generate within him or her a deeper understanding or emotional response.

As I’m sure many of my faithful readers know, I read and write poetry, but they probably also know that I love Yusef Komunyakaa‘s work in particular.  “Facing It” is one of my all time favorites, and I think part of it is because I can picture exactly what he’s seeing as the Vietnam veteran in the poem describes his first experience with the Vietnam War Memorial.

Facing It

My black face fades,   
hiding inside the black granite.   
I said I wouldn't  
dammit: No tears.   
I'm stone. I'm flesh.   
My clouded reflection eyes me   
like a bird of prey, the profile of night   
slanted against morning. I turn   
this way—the stone lets me go.   
I turn that way—I'm inside   
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light   
to make a difference.   
I go down the 58,022 names,   
half-expecting to find   
my own in letters like smoke.   
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;   
I see the booby trap's white flash.   
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse   
but when she walks away   
the names stay on the wall.   
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's   
wings cutting across my stare.   
The sky. A plane in the sky.   
A white vet's image floats   
closer to me, then his pale eyes   
look through mine. I'm a window.   
He's lost his right arm   
inside the stone. In the black mirror   
a woman’s trying to erase names:   
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

In particular, I love the parts of the poem where he describes reflections in unique ways, especially when the reflection eyes him like a bird of prey and the names that “shimmer on a woman’s blouse” but remain on the wall as she walks away. In addition, the poem reflects on the practice of rubbing the names onto paper from the wall as a form of care and caress — “she’s brushing a boy’s hair.”

Sorrow 2 -- Vietnam Wall

In many ways, poetry not only tells stories, but creates them with their readers and generates an emotional response that can be carried over to friends, families, or even book clubs. These are the types of poems that I consider “gold.”

What makes a great poem for you?