Translated from German by Barbara Harshav
“Hurtling through the dark, Night Train to Lisbon is a rich tale, wonderfully told, propelled by the mystery at its heart.” (Publisher’s blurb)
This international bestselling Swiss novel, which has sold over two million copies, is not the novel I was expecting. From the quote above, I was expecting a thriller with pace. Something that makes 436 pages whizz by. Well, it’s nothing like that. If fact, I would have DNF’ed, had I not discovered the film with Jeremy Irons playing the lead …
But before I get to the film – which may well be the first I’ve seen that was better than the book – a quick summary of the plot. Raimund Gregorius is a middle-aged Classics scholar, a staid, reliable man who teaches at the place where he spent his schooldays. Extraordinary circumstances, involving him persuading a woman not to jump off a bridge, lead to him discovering a book containing the thoughts the Portuguese aristocrat, Amadeu de Prado. This produces “a silent explosion that changed everything”. Gregorius suddenly finds himself boarding the night train to Lisbon in pursuit of de Prado. He has to get to know this man who has turned his world upside down.
He is surprised to find that the man, whose philosophising (much of it quoted in the novel) has affected him so deeply, lived a life utterly incomparable with his own. De Prado lived during Salazar’s dictatorship, he became a doctor and involved in the resistance. There were times when compromise was essential, when the doctor’s oath took precedence. This cost him personally. As did the woman – his best friend’s girl – with whom he fell deeply in love. As Gregorius tracks down De Prado’s surviving friends and relatives, he discovers a man who is deeply mourned by his sister, and remembered with affection, even by those who have reason to regret his acquaintance. Such a colourful life, a meaningful existence, unlike Gregorius’s eventless, pedestrian life teaching Classics. (Which, when you see the reaction of those he left behind, isn’t as worthless as the self-effacing Gregorius may think.)
The two do, however, have one point in common besides the affinity in their thought processes. Their brains are physically sick. (Well, it is a cerebral novel.) De Prado died of an aneurysm. Gregorius is threatened by a brain tumour. With which he comes to terms during his Portuguese adventure, returning to Basel for treatment. The ending is left open …
This open ending is reproduced in the film, although the question asked is not the same. Because there was a need for more drama, and the question asked is will he stay in Lisbon, or will he go because of a potential love interest. There is no hint of a brain tumour.
There are other changes and to be honest none of them annoyed me. The fundamentals of the story remained the same, even as subplots and characters were excised. This did leave plenty of time for De Prado’s philiosophising, in voiceovers as I expected. How else could this be incorporated? Film reviews have in places been scathing about this as it makes the film feel dated. Fair enough, but this isn’t a novel that can be converted to cinema with pyrotechnics, and I didn’t mind the voiceovers at all. In fact, converting this story to a visual medium did it a great favour. It concentrated the terror and dangers of living in a dictatorship which somehow disappeared in the snail’s pace of the novel. Finally Jeremy Irons played a great Gregorius.
Would I have finished the novel without the film? No. Would I have watched the film, billed as suspense, international, downbeat and introspective, without the novel. Also no. Yet I have finished both. A strange kind of symbiotic relationship, don’t you think?