Written by Pascal Mercier, "Night Train to Lisbon" takes place in Bern, Switzerland, where protagonist Raimund Gregorius, lives the same, perfunctory, life every day. Raimond teaches at a secondary school, where he is an expert in archaic languages. He is well-read, intelligent and very well respected, but his life is defined and in many ways, constrained by his profession. Until one day, must go. He must take the night train to Lisbon. And he does.
Gregorius is compelled to go to Lisbon to learn about another man’s life and how different each life can be. He is led to discoveries that drastically impact his perspective and knowledge of the world. His journey to Lisbon is based off his prevailing question, “Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?”
Although Amadeu Prado - the man Gregorius seeks to discover- is dead, Gregorius finds himself in Lisbon, discovering the history of the Salzarian Dictatorship and the intricate, but also painful, relationships Prado had during his lifetime. He realizes that Prado was a man who was deeply questioned because he questioned all fundamental pillars. To some, Prado was thought of as a “godless priest,” to others, he was considered an intellectual and an activist whose “religion” was practicing loyalty.
Throughout the book, Gregorius reads Prado’s philosophical letters. They convey the value of religion and religion’s ability to create beauty and community. The letters also criticize the establishment, such as is the case with the one below:
“I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need their beauty and grandeur. I need their imperious silence. I need it against the witless bellowing of the barracks yard and the witty chatter of the yes-men. I want to hear the rustling of the organ, this deluge of ethereal notes. I need it against the shrill farce of marches…. I revere the word of God for I love its poetic force. I loathe the word of God for I hate its cruelty. The love is a difficult love for it must incessantly separate the luminosity of the words and the violent verbal subjugation by a complacent God. The hatred is a difficult hatred for how can you allow yourself to hate words that are part of the melody of life in this part of the world? Words that taught us early on what reverence is?”
Gregorius and Prado both represent man’s search for purpose. Maybe we find purpose in other people’s discoveries. But, wholeness is found through the immense depth achieved only through experience.
Although the book comments and questions the meaning of life, individual purpose and value, it also criticizes politics and questions religion all the while placing value in moral establishments. As an individual who aligns with agnosticism, "Night Train to Lisbon," perfectly described many of my feelings and verbalized how religion is something that can drastically add so much value to this world, but can also cause so much pain and ignorance. "Night Train to Lisbon," if anything, will leave you questioning the bigger picture.
And if we have left you hungry or curious about Portugal, check out Portuguese recipes here: