Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon (translated from German by Barbara Harshav) was a smash European bestseller in 2004. Widely regarded by critics as one of the first great works of literature of the twenty-first century, Night Train to Lisbon is certainly the type of book you would expect a philosophy professor to write: dense and self-consciously intellectual. But Mercier is also a talented novelist; and what could have easily been a ponderous tome of abstract contemplation is instead the wonderfully rich story of one individual's life becoming enmeshed with another's, and how it is that knowing another is the best way to know oneself.
The main character is a brilliant but dull philologist named Raimund Gregorious. A mild-mannered man in his late fifties, Gregorious is governed by habit and experiences the world primarily through the prism of his scholarly interests in ancient languages and Classical literature. A marriage to a former student lasted barely five years, as his wife soon found him insufferable. All this nevertheless changes one morning in the rain, when Gregorious approaches a young Portuguese woman seemingly ready to leap off a bridge. In that singular instance, he is transformed. Later that day, he abruptly ditches class, seized by a sudden, overpowering interest in Portugal. A random find at a second-hand bookstore solidifies this new fascination into something tangible. As the multilingual bookseller translates A Goldsmith of Words, a self-published work by one Amadeu de Prado, Gregorious, despite knowing no Portuguese, is drawn to the obscure little volume in a way he cannot quite articulate. Leaving his four-decade career behind mid-semester, Gregorious embarks on a long train ride to Lisbon, where he hopes to learn more about the mysterious doctor who had defied a dictator.
Amadeu de Prado had died of an aneurysm in 1975. In addition to A Goldsmith of Words, left behind is a collection of various individuals, ranging from family members to teachers to former freedom fighters, each with their own memories of the passionate, charismatic Prado, who once shocked his entire graduating class and several priests with a blasphemous speech called "Reverence and Loathing for the Word of God." Adrift in a strange land and unwilling to return to his monotonous life in Bern, Gregorious's journey will take him back through time, to the days of the Salazar regime (1932-1974), when dissent could land you in the Tarrafal concentration camp in Cape Verde. Prado came into the resistance late in his life, driven by a desire for redemption after doing his duty as a physician and saving the life of a notorious member of the secret police. Prior to that, Prado, for all his personal magnetism and need to emphasize with others, was an intense, deeply thoughtful man who believed that of "the thousands experiences we have, we find language for one at most and even this one merely by chance. . . Buried under all the mute experiences are those unseen ones that give our life its form, its color, its melody." As a philologist, ancient texts in dead languages have always been Gregorious's one real love. But words are inherently human; they are a human invention.
Gregorious couldn't resist and wrote: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.Amadeu de Prado was called a "godless priest" while he was alive. (And correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe his first name means "beloved of God" or "God's love" or something of that nature.) He sought to get at the hidden nature of things and people and find words for the wordless. To truly know oneself, one must be able to articulate and give voice to hidden aspects of the soul, for the image we have of ourselves may be only a painted cover. The book must be opened.
Silveira picked up his Bible and read these opening sentences of the Gospel of Saint John:
"So the word is the light of men," he said. "And things exist properly only when they are grasped in words."