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Pascal Mercier, author of 'Night Train to Lisbon,' dies

Aygül Cizmecioglu als
July 4, 2023

A selection among our 100 German Must-Reads, "Night Train to Lisbon" is the best known novel by Swiss author Peter Bieri, who wrote under the pseudonym Pascal Mercier.

Pascal Mercier
Philosophy professor and best-selling author Peter Bieri alias Pascal MercierImage: picture-alliance/dpa/ZB/K. Schindler

What is consciousness? Is it free will, or rather, the "tool for freedom"? As a philosopher, Peter Bieri addressed such questions.

The Swiss writer, who was born in Bern in 1944 and worked as a novelist under the pseudonym Pascal Mercier, has died at the age of 79, as confirmed by his publisher, Hanser Verlag, on July 4.

Following "Perlmanns Schweigen" in 1995 and "Der Klavierstimmer" in 1998, "Nachtzug nach Lissabon" ("Night Train to Lisbon") became a major best-seller in 2004.

The novel was a selection in DW's 100 German Must-Reads series.

Bibliophile led astray

Everyone has dreamed about it: What would happen if you were to disappear overnight and start all over somewhere else, somewhere where nobody knows you?

Every now and then, this imagined scenario that is very appealing, but in reality, only very few people have the courage to start completely anew like that. The fear of the consequences of such an action tends to paralyze people. But why?  

Film still 'Night Train to Lisbon': a man reading a book on a train.
In the 2013 film based on the novel, Oscar Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons plays the crotchety GregoriusImage: Sam Emerson/Concorde/dpa/picture alliance

Pascal Mercier searched for answers to such questions in his bookby sending a quixotic classical philologist on this adventurous journey.

The protagonist, Raimund Gregorius, is a quintessential scholar who teaches Greek and Latin at a high school in Bern, Switzerland. He is divorced, and seems more connected to books than he is to life. He has conducted the same routine for the past 30 years, and is reverently called "Mundus" by his pupils.

Then one day, an incredible thing happens: Gregorius meets a woman on his way to work at school. She is standing alone in the rain on a bridge. Does she want to kill herself? The mysterious Portuguese woman writes down a telephone number on his forehead and then disappears.

Filmstill «Nachtzug nach Lissabon»
Jeremy Irons and Sarah Spale-Buehlmann in the film adaptation of 'Night Train to Lisbon'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/NTTL production/C-Films AG/S. Emerson

Everything changes after this. Raimund Gregorius turns his life on its head. He buys a book in Portuguese, a language that he had only scoffed at until then, and reads the lines of an author by the name of Prado he is unfamiliar with:

"Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us — what happens with the rest?"

Ready for an adventure

Gregorius goes on a journey to find the "rest" of himself. He takes a night train to Lisbon. The only thing he takes with him is a credit card and the wish to discover more about this mysterious author. But the more he discovers about the life of Prado, the more complex become his questions. Even the things Gregorius feels certain about are called into question.

"It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers (...). In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft." 

'Night Train to Lisbon' by Pascal Mercier

Everything only a coincidence?

What does coincidence really mean? Who controls our behavior? And who decides which direction we are to take? These are the existential questions that Mercie rposed in his work.

He looked at how insight and human thinking are linked, and addressed the connections in his scientific research on philosophical psychology.

As an author, he was able to pose such major questions in a wonderfully light language. Gregorius' journey is one through Europe and towards his own self, a declination of all the possibilities that life holds for us.


Pascal Mercier: Night Train to Lisbon, Grove Press (German title: Nachtzug nach Lissabon, 2004). English translation: Barbara Harshav.

The DW series 100 German Must-Reads was first published in 2018.