I recently finished Night Train to Lisbon, by the Swiss author, Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav. This is another book about a quest. In most ways, Henderson and Gregorius could not be more opposite: Henderson a flamboyant, wandering millionaire seeking the meaning of life, and Gregorius a scholar of Greek and Latin, nicknamed Papyrus because of his dry, papery ways. Gregorius is of working class origins. He has lived his whole adult life as a high school teacher in Bern. And yet, as Night Train to Lisbon opens, a strange encounter is a catalyst for Gregorius to drop precipitously out of his former life and start on a quest for the Portuguese author of an obscure, privately published book A Goldsmith of Words, a book that purports to explore the fragmented, buried, kaleidoscopic experiences that make up a life.
The passion to learn about this mysterious author, the conceit of a book within a book, and the appealing figure of Gregorius all captured my imagination and sustained me through the 438 pages of this novel. This book is almost too full of intriguing sentences, most attributed to the mysterious Portuguese author, Amadeu de Almeida Prado. Here are a few:
“Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us–what happens to the rest?”
“The real director of life is accident–a director full of cruelty, compassion and bewitching charm.”
“The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which come closer to the truth?”
And one of my favorites:
“Life is not what we live; it is what we imagine we are living.”
These sentences, each exemplary in its own way, give you a flavor of this intriguing if not entirely successful novel. I am eager to read his next book.