The Book about the Book about the Book…

Night Train to Lisbon coverSome books demand to be discussed. I’ve just finished one.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier has just been translated and published in this country, though it’s been a sensation in Europe for several years. It’s a complex, entertaining novel for thinking adults, written not by a novelist but by a Swiss philosophy professor, Peter Bieri. The story concerns 57-year-old Raimund Gregorius, a set-in-his-ways professor of dead languages who on the very first page encounters a young woman about to jump off a bridge and before the day is over walks out of his classroom, out of the school in Bern where he has taught for thirty years, and gets on a train to Lisbon to find out everything he can about a little book he’s found in a secondhand bookstore.

It’s a novel that’s structured on two big myths.

First, it’s one of those books about finding a life-altering book. We all know it can happen, and we love stories about it. Most recently Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind was that kind of novel, in a tradition that includes that other “book about a book,” Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, where Harry Haller finds a life-altering booklet that changes his life because it’s about him.

The second structure of Night Train to Lisbon is the myth of piecing together another person’s life. It’s the act of biography, which as Mercier shows is essentially impossible because we can never really know another person.

While the present-day narrative in Night Train to Lisbon centers around Gregorius finding out about the Portuguese author of his book, the other story is what he discovers, the assembled storylines of the past about Amadeu de Prado. It’s a novel about putting together the pieces of a story. The characters are first learned about in their tragic, romantic youth, then the reader actually meets them as old people, when the drama is long over. The present-day action of the novel consists of geriatric interviews with the survivors.

This fascinating you-are-there approach to assembling the story reminds me of Laura Restrepo’s journalist narrator in The Dark Bride, interviewing in old age the surviving characters in the story of Sayonara, the beautiful, nameless Indian girl who becomes the legendary goddess of the colored-light district in the little Colombian town of Tora.

This is also very much the same technique of one of Spain’s most exciting contemporary novelists, Javier Cercas. His international success, Soldiers of Salamis, has the author himself assembling the research (with a little help from his girlfriend), writing the “book-within-a-book” which is the reconstructed story of a Spanish Civil War incident, and then searching through the present-day nursing homes of France trying to find the elderly surviving soldier of that incident, the quiet, nameless hero who in the midst of war chose not to pull the trigger.

Night Train to Lisbon combines the timeless story of finding the book that changes your life with an ultra-modern deconstruction of the novel into mock-realistic interviews, and in the process creates the first genuinely philosophical novel I’ve read in years – a meaty book with lots of honest questions and thoughtful rewards for an adventurous reading group.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "The Book about the Book about the Book…"

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  1. srodgers@wlsmail.org' sara says:

    The plot sounds like Italo Calvino’s book If On A Winter Night A Traveler.

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