Friday, July 29, 2011

Night Train to Lisbon

This Swiss novel by Pascal Mercier is proving to be my reading highlight of the summer. The main character, a professor in a gymnasium, (a university prepratory high school) is experiencing middle age existential angst. He is a professor (or teacher, as we would say in English) of Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Of course, one question is why he never became a university professor.

But the central theme revolves around our connectedness to others, and our freedom to think for ourselves, to express ideas which stand in tension with those around us. It is written by a man, about a man, who is researching the life of a man. Yet the message is about the human soul, and whether such a thing exists.

Gregorius is a middle-aged divorcé, who through a series of happenstances, encounters a book written in Portuguese by Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese physician who lived in Lisbon during the dictatorship of Salazar. He leaves his home and his job by night train to Lisbon to pursue the life and times of Prado. In order to do so, he must use his skills as a linguist, as one who reads Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and who speaks German, French, English and Spanish - in order to learn Portuguese.

In this book the Biblia Hebraica features as a central point around which much of the action takes place. Imagine Gregorius in the headmaster's office in the abandonned lycée which Prado had attended years before. He finds the Hebrew Bible in a desk drawer and wraps it in a sweater against the damp. With the light from a single round window and a camp stove, he sits and reads the papers of Amadeu de Prado.

Imagine this scene then, and the main character, Gregorius, reading the words of Amadeu de Prado's valedictorian speech as a 17 year old. Here are excerpts from the opening,
I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need their beauty and grandeur. I need them against the vulgarity of the world. I want to look up at the illuminated church windows and let myself be blinded by the unearthly colors. I need their luster. I need it against the dirty colors of the uniforms. I want to let myself be wrapped in the austere coolness of the churches. ... I want to read the powerful words of the Bible. I need the unreal force of their poetry. I need it against the dilapidation of the langauge and the dictatorship of the slogans. A world without these things would be a world I would not like to live in. ...

But there is also another world that I don't want to live in: the world where the body and independent thought are disparaged, and the best things we can experience are denounced as sins. The world that demands love of tyrants, slave masters, and cutthroats, whether their brutal boot steps reverberate through the streets with a deafening echo or they slink with feline silence like cowardly shadows through the streets and pierce their victims in the heart from behind with flashing steel. What is most absurd is that people are exhorted from the pupit to forgive such creatures and even to love them. Even if some really could do it: it would meand an unparalleled dishonety and merciless self-denial whose cost would be total deformity.
And the closing paragraph,
I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need the luster of their windows, their cool stillness, their imperious silence. I need the deluge of the organ and the sacred devotion of praying people. I need the holiness of words, the grandeur of great poetry. All that I need. But just as much I need the freedom and hostility against everything cruel. For the one is nothing without the other. And no one may force me to choose.


brendaliddybelfast said...

I have just watched the film and I really enjoyed it. I had not heard of it before.

Pepe v2.0 said...

This is one of my most loved books and the passage you quoted, oh, how i love that. Probably that speech was one thing i would never forget about the book.

I watched the movie too but i was not as moved as i loved the book. The language, the beauty of the protuguese lines simply enchant me.

Thank you for keeping this post. I found it in time just as i needed to be reminded of these lines.