Night Train to Lisbon
By Pascal Mercier
Translation by Barbara Harshav
Grove Press, 496 pp., $25
When a story doesn't translate well, the reasons behind that failure may be as interesting as the tale itself. Is it the fault of the translator, perhaps? Has she or he chosen clunky phrases that capture the literal meaning of the original, but not its spirit? Or is there something in the mind-set of a certain language, a certain culture, that doesn't resonate with a new readership in a different world?
Both factors may be at work in the case of "Night Train to Lisbon." An international bestseller in Europe, this thick novel by Swiss author Pascal Mercier seems at first glance to be the kind of dense, romantic mystery that bibliophiles love to sink into, like a more highbrow "Thirteenth Tale" or "The Book of Air and Shadows" with European references.
As "Night Train" opens, a stodgy academic nicknamed "Mundus" ("world" in Latin), finds his day disrupted by a mysterious woman who seems about to throw herself off a bridge in Zurich. Although Mundus is so reliable that his colleagues basically set their watches by him, he finds himself carried away by her apparent despair - and her Portuguese accent. Having no clue about her identity, he seeks out a foreign-language bookseller, where he finds a mysterious Portuguese text. Despite not knowing the language, the vague philosophical pronouncements that the bookseller translates for him prompt him to drop everything, literally leaving his books on his desk at the school, to search for the author. Teaching himself the language virtually overnight on the title train, Mundus finds himself in Lisbon, unraveling a family's history of political intrigue and tragedy, all tied up with that mysterious author's fate.
This should be a liberating tale, chronicling a small group of independent thinkers as they fight tyranny, and, at the same time, following Mundus as he blossoms from a routine-bound, somewhat phobic academic to a larger, more involved citizen of the world. But whether due to the translation or the particular slant of its philosophy, the book instead feels leaden and overworked. Take, for example, this passage, when Mundus first considers leaving home:
"For someone like him, the city he lived in was like a shell, a cozy cave, a safe structure. Everything else meant danger. Only someone who had such thick eyeglasses could understand that." Perhaps in German, the list sounds less repetitive. But even when the subject is less prosaic, the language falls under its own weight. "Both had risked everything," he thinks about two political dissidents, "both had worked with a perfect disguise, both had been masters of silence and virtuosos of sealed lips." The continued and repetitive use of metaphor, instead of specific detail, deadens even the more dramatic moments.
But perhaps some of the problem lies in the subject matter. Much of "Night Train" involves Europe's fascist past. As Mundus discovers, almost everyone lives with secrets, as former enemies must make do with each other as time passes. These countries are older than ours, and while that means more secrets and mystery, it also means there is more to forgive and to forget. American books, particularly American mysteries, tend to focus on the redeeming nature of truth. When we uncover secrets, they stay uncovered, and the act of revelation is healing. In older cultures, and perhaps in this European novel, history and tragedy can never be entirely exorcised. Layers only reveal more layers, and some betrayals can never be made right.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cattery Row."