Night Train to Lisbon
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128 of 135 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2008
I'll admit that the book might not sound that interesting. A schoolteacher having a sort of midlife crisis picks up a book of philosophical essays that somehow speak to him that were written by a Portuguese doctor who died 30 years ago, drops everything in his life, starts to learn Portuguese and translate the book, and travels to Lisbon to interview people who knew the writer. The writer was an intense personality who made a deep impression on the people around him, who are more than happy to talk about him, if only to bring him back to life a little through their reminiscences. As the book progresses, layers are pulled back and the protagonist penetrates deeper into the life and thoughts of the writer, eventually coming to understand his tragic end.

As dull as the book may sound, I couldn't put it down. I found it to be a thought-provoking meditation on life, arranged in such a way that one was eager to see what would happen next. At the same time I can understand why there were a number of negative reviews here. This book has a kind of European sensibility to it that might not appeal to the typical American audience. But if you are looking for something a bit different, I recommend giving it a try.

Note: I read the original, not the translation. The language of the original seemed to me to be kind of fancy and a bit overblown, and thus perhaps hard to translate without losing some of its elegance. But I glanced at the translation and it at least seemed pretty readable.
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112 of 124 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2008
I'm a bit surprised by some of the negative reviews this book is getting. What a wonderful novel, thought provoking and beautiful, about the power of language and it's ability to draw out the mysterious depths of a human life. Mercier has created such a haunting character in Mundus, his anxieties about the future and the past are heartbreaking and all too familiar. I found it to be thouroughly engrossing, one of the best written novels i've read in quite some time; emotional, romantic, evocative, and- unlike some novels of its kind- not preachy, but searching, earnest. It possesses such a sadness and such a hope... in a world where entertainment ((even the novel nowadays, what a shame)) is so deeply mired in 'what happens next', Night Train to Lisbon's unapologetic introspection is a welcome change of pace.
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2008
I was overwhelmed by this book. It is a psychological novel that explores one man experiencing a sudden change of heart about the meaning of his circumspect life. He finds a book that speaks to his deadened soul and searches out details of the author's life in a quest to know about someone who might have found the way to a meaningful life.
My response to this book reminds me of my response to the great novelists Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky. I am admittedly a middle aged introspective and idealistic person with the past experience of having my moorings suddenly cut. My flailing about in an effort to then find meaning in a life suddenly without the solidity of my belief in family, marriage and church was painful and illuminating. This book described my interior experience. Besides appreciating the echo of my experience, I loved the prose, the place descriptions and the meandering plot line. This book understands the random beauty of life and of relationships.
Although I read this book as a library loaner, I must have a copy for my library.
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140 of 166 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon May 25, 2008
Published in German in 2004, Pascal Mercier's NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON only just reached our shores in an English translation this year. Hailed as an international literary sensation (over two million copies sold worldwide) and blurbed nearly into the Western literary canon on its dust jacket, this book will almost certainly garner a collective yawn from those Americans who open its covers. Most, I suspect, will likely never finish. They will instead discover that what looks to be a mysterious story of spies and resistance to ruthless dictatorship is something far less and so slow to develop they may want to sue the reviewer from Germany's Die Welt who blurbed, "One reads this book almost breathlessly, and can hardly put it down..." One can only imagine this line being recited by Mike Myers in an old SNL Sprockets skit.

Not to say that NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON is without its merits. However, one needs to approach this book with a certain tolerance and patience as well as a literary frame of mind, comparable perhaps to tackling something by Stendahl or Henry James or Edith Wharton. The story line is of itself simple enough, if rather improbable. Raimund Gregorius is a lifelong instructor of ancient languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew) at the same Swiss lycee in Bern where he himself had been a student. Nicknamed satirically as Mundus by his students and derisively as "the Papyrus" by his Gymnasium colleagues, Gregorius is Mr. Chips writ large: divorced, dryly unemotional, sheltered, over-intellectualized - more a walking dictionary than a human being, and reaching his life's end.

Crossing a bridge on his way to the lycee on morning, he approaches a mysterious young woman who appears to be contemplating suicide. She steps back, only to write a phone number on the teacher's forehead. She soon disappears, but not before Gregorius learns she is Portuguese, and that fact leads him the same day to a Spanish bookstore where he encounters a book in Portuguese entitled A Goldsmith of Words by Amadeu Prado. After laboring to translate and read excerpts of Prado's book, Gregorius decides one afternoon to leave his school, his students, and his city for Lisbon where he hopes to perhaps find the mysterious woman on the bridge and the story of Prado's life.

This setup takes perhaps thirty pages. The rest concerns Gregorius's slow self-realizations about his own life as he gradually pieces together the triumphs, tragedies, and lost loves of the tortured soul who wrote the rambling essays in A Goldsmith of Words. As he proceeds to uncover Prado's story, he research calls forth memories from among those who knew him and he inadvertently restores the broken web that connected many of them. Prado's story alternates occasionally with the backdrop of Gregorius's, and the whole is frequently interspersed with what are supposed to be excerpts from Prado's book and letters to his sister, father, and lost loves. These last range from boring to insufferably self-possessed, filled with homiletic screechings and weary aphorisms that interrupt the book's story line and flow. "We humans: what do we know of one another?" Or "The world as a stage, waiting for us to produce the important and sad, funny and meaningless drama of our imaginations."Or "Life is not what we live; it is what we imagine we are living." Or my favorite: "Human beings can't bear silence; it would mean that they would bear themselves." Hard to bear, indeed.

Not surprisingly given the book's title, trains and train rides loom large in the story. They variously serve to represent flights to freedom or away from one's old life as well as periods of introspection or contemplation of significant life decisions. At one point, the entirety of a human life becomes encapsulated in Prado's use of a train trip metaphor with an unseen but presumably divine conductor. At another stage, a train trip has unmistakably Freudian overtones that lead to tragic consequences.

In the end, NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON is a story about relationships - families, friends, parents, children, siblings, lovers - and regrets. It is also a story about the influence of random, uncontrollable events and how people's choices in responding to those events affect their lives. Despite its pseudo-philosophical meanderings, Mercier's book is a modestly intriguing exploration of two over-intellectualized souls searching for their path through life and ultimately realizing what they've missed by living almost exclusively in a world of words and thoughts. The "goldsmith of words" dies in the gilded cage of his own construction.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2008
I found myself deeply engaged in this book, curious to follow the adventure of Gregorious on his late-middle life journey, literal--to Portugal from Switzerland where this master linguist did not know the language, and metaphorical--to new realms of self knowledge as he sought to understand the author, Prado, of a book of meditations that so touched his life. Equally, I was curious to follow the unfolding of the heroic life of Prado, a brilliant thinker and physician who juggled duty and dutiful rebellion under the repressive regime of Portugal's Salazar. Gregorious learns that repression need not be external, nor that external repression need not be internalized.

For me, this was one of those rare books which I took my time to read and to savor, for it became quite personal for me, and I did not really want it to end.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
A German friend of mine recommended this book. In Germany, it has been a great hit. I was hooked from the start. If you like foreign movies, dramas, listening to people, and don't crave only movies with special effects, multi-sensory input, and the fantasy of multi-tasking, this book might be exactly what you'd like to curl up with on a chilly Sunday morning or night.

It starts out with a stodgy classics professor who is walking home on his regular route. He lives a life of routine, rarely examining what, why or how. On this walk home, he meets a woman in distress, throwing some papers off a bridge. This event is the beginning of a change in his life. He also stops in a bookstore and the owner gives him a beautiful, self-published book by a Portuguese doctor named Prado. The book is this man's epiphany. He wants to know Prado, really KNOW Prado. He takes the night train to Lisbon, and so the search begins.

As the author is a philosophy professor in Berlin (or so the book jacket states), there is quite a bit of philosophical journeying in this book of fiction. I loved it. I loved every page. I hardly ever mark up my fiction books but I found myself high-lighting phrases and re-reading passages. The search, the mystery, the events, the people, the journeying outward and inward all serve to make this book a modern masterpiece.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2010
I have just finished reading this wonderful book, so linguistically fascinating, so rooted in language and its use. For me it was a very rich journey - but then I am 60 years old and a teacher of language and literature and so it speaks directly to my own experience.

I have seldom found a book to be as moving as this one. It is brilliantly constructed from a slender beginning - but then, one of its premises is that things happen by chance, just happen, for no particular reason. From what tenuous thread of chance do events in our own lives hang? Mundus's experiences turn out to be a development of that idea.

The book will sustain reading and reading time and time again, and I believe the most suited readers will be ones approaching retirement who will instinctively know what Mundus, and Pascal Mercier, mean and feel. The themes of the book are chance, possibilities, guilt, responsibility, communication, causality, life, death, justice, love, poetry, politics, the inhumanity of man.... the grand classics... They are so brilliantly dealt with, so expertly wrapped, so intriguingly told that I was kept as if anchored to my reading of the story and I felt like buying a ticket to Lisbon myself now, immediately.

The thing is : it's as easy as that : just go ahead : do it. You only live once. Experience the movement of life and get close to people. Engage.

I wept at the end of this book; I really did not want it to end.

There are some niggles about the translation, printing errors, words missed out etc.. but these are totally without any ultimate effect on the poetry and power of this book. Addtionally, its imagery and geographical accuracy are very powerful and you really feel you are in Bern, Lisbon and Salamanca.

The bottom line is : if you're near 60 or contemplating retirement, this book is a MUST READ. Five stars. Superb......
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon June 23, 2009
After a surreal encounter with a Portuguese woman, and the gift of a mysterious book in Portuguese, Raimund Gregorius, 57-year-old teacher of ancient languages, abandons his profession in Bern and flees to Lisbon.

The Portuguese book consists of notes by a poetic aristocrat, Amadeu de Prado.

Gregorius has always loved the cold immutability of dead languages, but he plunges into sultry Portuguese with the recklessness of a virgin desperate for experience. Happily he's a gifted linguist who can learn a new language in no time.

The story of the Swiss bibliophile unfolds along with the story of Amadeu de Prato, who died over 30 years back. Gregorius becomes obsessed with reconstructing the man's life. This involves emotional encounters with family, friends, girlfriends and members of the Resistance under Salazar. Prato lived life with a white-hot passion in all his many roles - respected doctor, Resistance fighter, seeker and lover.

NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON could only have been written by a philosophy professor. The narrative encompasses the great questions in life. And there are echoes of Plato, Heidegger and Eastern philosophy in the soul searches of the main characters, who are subject to existential rages and Byronic melancholia.

Is this as brilliant a work as the reviewers quoted by the publisher say? Certainly the book contains some wildly beautiful writing. But for my taste, it goes on too long and wallows a bit in its themes and symbols.

There are four allusions in the book to Georges Simenon, and I wish the author had borrowed some of his terseness. He does seem to be inspired by Simenon's THE MAN WHO WATCHED THE TRAINS GO BY, which is pointedly mentioned. Comparing the two books might be interesting. I've just ordered the Simenon from Amazon.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2012
Night Train is a literary novel, meaning that nothing much happens but the quality of the writing and internal worlds portrayed therein are so compelling that you want to read on. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking. In places, such as Prado's address as a 17-year old, you want to go back again and again. Most of the story is in flashback as the main character tries to uncover the riddle behind a book he has discovered in Bern. It is this, and a chance meeting with a Portuguese woman that make him abandon his job and home and take the train to Lisbon. Mercier is a professor of philosophy and the writing reflects that. The philosophical elements are somewhere between Nietzsche and Christopher Hitchens, modern existentialism casting back to Portugal before the Carnation Revolution. He is clearly a deep thinker and, like Nietzsche, this book is an exploration of self, of the soul, an excavation of the joys and tragedies of life.

On the downside, many would find so much flashback irritating as almost all of the story is progressively revealed this way. On the other hand the writing is original and captivating which is more than compensation. Incidentally, much credit should go to Barbara Harshav for a really good transation from the original German. I recommend this highly for those who want something different.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2008
I was amazed to read the negative reviews of this wonderful book. One reviewer (and probably others - had I the patience to wade through them all) called it "kitchy": a reference to a term used frequently in the book. Since the reader learned the nuance of one word in the course of reading NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON, the time spent reading was not totally lost.
I picked this thought-provoking book up at my local public library and look forward to giving copies to my nephews and to my wonderful stepdaughter this Christmas. It is a book that touched my soul in the way that SIDDHARTHA and STEPPENWOLF did nearly forty years ago when I read them as a young draftee.
There are few books that can both entertain, inspire, and educate. This is one of those rarities. Surprisingly, it brings my mind to the book SHANE. When I saw the movie as a child, I identified with Brandon de Wilde, the boy. When I read it as an adult, I had magically transformed into Shane.
I hope the young people who receive this book as a gift from me will read it and reread it as they grow older and more experienced. I think they will grow in self-knowledge and understanding of our world.
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