Pascal Mercier: ′Night Train to Lisbon′ | 100 German Must-Reads - a unique list of 100 works of German literature published in English | DW | 08.10.2018
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100 German Must-Reads

Pascal Mercier: 'Night Train to Lisbon'

A withdrawn classical philologist escapes from his old life and tries out something completely new. In his novel, Pascal Mercier takes the reader on a journey into the soul through an exploration of consciousness.

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 is an 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?   

Bibliophile led astray

Pascal Mercier searches for answers to such questions in his book. Of all things, it's a quixotic classical philologist that the author sends 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.

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'Night Train to Lisbon' by Pascal Mercier

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. 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?"

Film-still from 'Night Train to Lisbon' (2012 Concorde Filmverleih/Sam Emerson)

In the 2013 film based on the novel, Oscar Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons plays the crotchety Gregorius

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." 

Pascal Mercier (picture-alliance/dpa/ZB/K. Schindler)

Philosophy professor and best-selling author Peter Bieri alias Pascal Mercier

Everything only a coincidence?

What does coincidence really mean? Who controls our behavior? And who decides which direction we are to take? Pascal Mercier addresses these existential questions.

The author, whose real name is Peter Bieri, was born in Bern in 1944. A philosopher who lives in Berlin, he has looked at how insight and human thinking are linked and addressed the connections in his scientific research on philosophical psychology.

As an author, he is able to pose such major questions in a wonderfully light language. Gregorius' journey is one through Europe and to 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.

What is consciousness? It is free will, or rather, the "tool for freedom"? As a philosopher, Peter Bieri has addressed such questions. As a novelist, he has used the pseudonym "Pascal Mercier" since the 1990s. Following Perlmanns Schweigen in 1995 and Der Klavierstimmer in 1998, Nachtzug nach Lissabon (Night Train to Lisbon) became a major best-seller.

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