Book Review: Night Train to Lisbon: Pascal Mercier. (Incidentally, Mercier is not the real name of the author – it is Peter Bieri, a Swiss philosopher. The book was written in German, published in 2004 and translated into English in 2008.)
Disbelief about perceived reality, the various ways to understand the world – these philosophical questions have long been valid themes for fiction. Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance of Robert Persig and now Night Train to Lisbon of Mercier are more direct attempts to address these issues through fiction. This is a welcome development for light readers like me, who will not readily tackle the philosophical treatise on these subjects. This is the first importance of this novel.
The second is the beauty of the structure of the novel. The journey of an aging Swiss professor to Lisbon, to understand the life of a brilliant doctor-thinker, to live the life of another, is an apt tool to study how we perceive ourselves, and how other people perceive us. What comes up is the fact that we are not even aware of how our thoughts about ourselves form in our mind.
I found an incident in the novel especially powerful in our context – though it is only a minor subtext in the novel. The professor changes his glass frame. This leads to changes in his clothes, to match the new frame. His habit of ignoring his looks changes due that single change in his life – the changing of glass-frame. Imagine how alert we have to be when we are confronted by ever more glamorous and polished looks.
There are hundreds of major-minor themes in the novel. Fear of death, of oblivion, the role of religion, the nature of loyalty, the various types of love and the way parental love and expectations shackle us – these themes are dealt with in detail. The way city of Lisbon, the light and shadows, the streets and the buildings are used as metaphors by Mercier is amazing.
Till a certain age, we postpone doing a lot of important things. It is only when the reality that time left is short strikes us, we frantically look to ‘live life’ the way we always wanted to. But by then it is too late. To me that is the message of the novel. It is a grim warning, but there is little I can do about it. The novel left me thinking – and a little sad.