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• Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Peter Bieri, better known by his pseudonym, Pascal Mercier, was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1944. He studied philosophy, English studies and Indian studies in both London and Heidelberg, where he obtained a doctoral degree in 1971 from Dieter Henrich and Ernst Tugendhart for his work on the philosophy of time and in 1981 became an assistant scientist at the philosophical seminar at the University of Heidelberg.

At the German Research Foundation he studied: philosophy of mind, epistemology and ethics. From 1990 to 1993 he worked as a professor of history of philosophy at the University of Marburg in Germany and in 1993 he taught philosophy at the Free University in Berlin.

In the late eighties Bieri started his literary career. He wrote a few books but the breakthrough came with his third book: Night Train To Lisbon, published in German in 2004 and in English in 2007. The novel was translated into many languages, sold millions of copies and was made into a film in 2013.

The main character in Night Train To Lisbon is the learned professor, Raimund Gregorius. He is an only child born to a humble family. His father was a museum guard and his mother a charwoman. Gregorius, who is called Mundus or Papyrus by his students and colleagues, is now in his late fifties, living on his own after his divorce from Florence, a former student, nineteen years earlier. He is a philologist, teaching Latin, Greek and Hebrew with high competence at a Swiss high school in his native city, Bern, where he was himself once a student.

Gregorius is devoted to his work. He leads a dull, solitary life ruled by an immovable self-gratifying routine, until one day on his way to school he rescues an enigmatic Portuguese woman standing on a bridge. From now on nothing will be the same again for Gregorius. He finds himself going to the Spanish bookshop in Hirschengraben where he used to buy books for his former wife for her dissertation on San Juan de la Cruz, in the hope of seeing the Portuguese woman there again. By chance he discovers a Portuguese book with an appealing title: “A Goldsmith Of Words” written by Amadeu de Prado which appeared as a private publication under the name “Cedros Vermelhos” in 1975, two years after the author’s death.

Intrigued by this book, Gregorius asks the bookshop keeper to read and translate some passages from Prado’s notes which he thought, upon hearing them, were personally addressed to him alone on this very peculiar day. He is awestruck by what he hears. He is fascinated by the author. He feels a whole new horizon opening for him. He now abandons his students, leaving behind on the classroom desk even his briefcase with his textbooks that had accompanied him all his life, and walks away.

Once in his apartment, Gregorius looks at Prado’s photo and translates a couple of texts from his book from Portuguese to his own language with the help of his new dictionary and grammar book. Gregorius ponders a while before making his mind up to take a train to Lisbon.

The story is set in motion and Gregorius’ whole life is now put into question. He feels the need to know everything about Prado’s life, about his book, which he will diligently continue to translate. He wants to learn the Portuguese language in order to immerse himself into this bewildering adventure he is about to embark on. Gregorius is not aware that he is undertaking a long quest for self discovery while trying to discover who is the mysterious aristocrat, Amadeu de Prado.

He feels the liberating satisfaction of knowing that for the first time he is about to take his life into his own hands. He realises all of a sudden that at the age of fifty-seven there isn’t much time left to live and he therefore strongly senses the need to change his existence to something different.

Once in Lisbon, Gregorius is determined to start his researches without delay. He meets some people who help him find acquaintances, family and friends close to Prado. One thing leading to another, he breaks his spectacles, goes to the ophthalmologist, Mariana Eça, who introduces him to her uncle Joao Eça who was a resistance fighter with Prado.

He visits Prado’s sister, Adriana, five-years-younger than himself and his sixteen-year-younger sister, Rita, nick-named Mélodie. He also meets Prado’s only two school friends, Jorge O ‘ Kelly, the Irish pharmacist and Maria Joao Avila, Prado’s highly esteemed friend. He goes to see Prado’s former school teacher, father Bartolomeu, and discovers how father Bartolomeu had a great admiration for his astute student, Prado.

Under the spell, Gregorius continues his lengthy search and visits the places and spots where Prado used to go. He even travels to Spain to meet Estefânia Espinhosa, the former resistance fighter, who has now become a teacher. He listens intently to her story like he listened to all the others telling their stories about Prado. And when O’ Kelly asks Gregorius why is he so interested in Amadeu de Prado, Gregorius answers: “I’d like to know what it was like to be him”.

Gregorius has endeavored to know all about this extraordinary person who wrote in his notes about God, about the meaning of life and death, the strict rules of friendship love and loyalty and many other self-reflective philosophical thoughts written in his Goldsmith Of Words. Now for the first time, Gregorius asks himself what would have happened to his life had he chosen to travel to Isfahan and learn Persian instead of choosing classical languages and the safety of home?

After all his assiduous investigations, Gregorious discovers that Amadeu de Prado died a sudden death from aneurysm thirty one years earlier in 1973 and that he was a poet, a goldsmith of words, a would-be priest, a philosopher, a successful physician and a member of the resistance movement fighting the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who ruled Portugal for decades. All the pieces of the puzzle now fit together and the picture becomes clear.

Night Train To Lisbon is an accomplished, competently written and well-structured novel with richly depicted characters. Pascal Mercier, who is a professor of philosophy, has mirrored himself in his two characters, Gregorius and Amadeu de Prado, whose notes and letters are interspersed amid the story and in parallel with the events. Pascal Mercier takes the reader into the labyrinth of metaphysics, thought-provoking and soul searching subjects, beyond courage, friendship, love and death.

 


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  1. 1
    Sunanda Krishnamurty 

    Night Train to Lisbon: a critique By Sunanda Krishnamurty

    This is an extraordinary book which raises many philosophical questions. It is not a book that can be read easily. It is complex in ideas and heavy in style.

    There are two protagonists in this book: Raimund Gregorius, and who through his quest tries to tell us about the second protagonist Amadeu de Prado, who is long dead. Gregorius does this partly from the book and the notes of Prado, and also by meeting people who knew Prado, including his sisters and old colleagues.

    The plot of this novel is unusual. Gregorius was leading a conventional and predictable life as a teacher of classical languages in a high school in Bern. He was considered to reliable and dependable by his students and colleagues. But a brief encounter with a Portuguese speaking woman, leads Gregorius to change his life. He comes across Prado’s book, abruptly leaves his old life in Bern behind and takes a train to Lisbon. I suppose there are many people who want to change their lives, but circumstances do not permit it. Gregorius manages to do this, he just takes off.

    The book is about one man’s search to learn about another man, and to understand his own life in that process. As Gregorius reads Prado’s book, he gets more and more interested in Prado’s life, and the long search begins. He wants to know what it was like to be Prado. He learns that Prado was a well-established doctor who lived in the era of the totalitarian regime of Salazar. As a doctor, he had treated the head of the secret police, but was torn between his duty as a doctor and his hatred towards the regime. He faced much criticism and joined the resistance. Prado was also a poet.

    Gregorius meets Prado’s sister Adriana, who got the book published after Prado’s death and who guards his memory fiercely. He meets Prado’s other sister, Melodie; a colleague from the resistance who had been tortured by the regime, and who refers to Prado as ‘the godless priest’; Maria, Prado’s great love; Estefina, who could have given him the chance to be free and live according to his wish.

    Prado is an extremely complex character. He appears to be self-confident, but felt the criticism of others acutely. He was fanatic about the correct use of words, but he was also a man of action. He was free of conventional religious beliefs. He was loyal person, ‘….Loyalty was his religion’

    The novel sometimes reads like a treatise on philosophy, not fiction. I stumbled over many of the sentences trying to understand the major questions being raised. There are so many conversations, and Prado’s discourses and his inner thoughts, his questions about the meaning of existence, of religion, of God. It was heavy reading, I was often confused, and I was often tempted to give up! However, I am glad that I got a chance to read it.

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