Last week, I finished Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. A thoughtful, erudite book, to be enjoyed at one’s own pace. For me, it has a distinctive European approach to storytelling, which reminded me of two other wonderful works – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.
Each of these novels takes the concept of books as portals – a gateway, door or rabbit-hole through which our narrator explores someone else’s story. All contain a compelling ‘what if?’.
In Night Train, a chance meeting with a Portuguese woman on a bridge provokes Gregorius, a Swiss teacher of Classics, to follow his curiosity. It leads him to a book, ‘Um Ourives das Palavras’ (A Goldsmith of Words), written by Amadeu de Prado. In an uncharacteristic act of spontaneity, Gregorius walks away from his life and boards a night train to Lisbon, just to discover more about the author.
Eco’s premise in The Mysterious Flame hooked me instantly. An antique book dealer from Milan has lost his personal memory but recalls every book he ever read. Yambo journeys back to his youth through his books, searching for that mysterious flame to illuminate his sense of self. His memories return, along with those of his country’s recent history, including some he’d rather forget.
The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is where ten-year-old Daniel encounters The Shadow of the Wind. He is charged with protecting that copy as the only one in existence. The book enthrals him and he wants to find out more about the author. But Julián Carax is dead and Daniel’s commitment to the book is attracting enemies. Not least a mysterious man seeking out all Carax’s work with the aim of total eradication.
The novels mentioned above pull the reader into those other books, into other stories, and deliver more than one tale. A story within a story is a device I loved as a child, growing up with Celtic tales filled with diversions and tangents. Suspense and narrative drive is put on hold while another character takes the stage and changes the pace. There is a huge satisfaction in how the narratives meet, inform one another and return to pick up where they left off.
I read all three of these European works in translation. And an uncomfortable echo resonates through every one. The cruelty, persecution, misery, torture and brutality meted out by the dictatorships of Salazar, Mussolini and Franco respectively add a tone of horror and heroism, courage and conscience, but most of all, fear. Many of the individuals who bear the scars – João Eça, Gragnola, Fermín Romero de Torres – represent aspects of human dignity under intolerable suffering.
I could talk about the books’ locations and beautiful use of language at length, but what really absorbed me in each novel was the willingness to tackle ideas. Mercier (pseudonym for Peter Bieri, Swiss philosopher) employs Prado’s words to riff on appearances, faith and belief, time, travelling, homesickness, familial love and its influence. Eco explores memory, consciousness and identity through unpacking what shapes a person’s mind. Zafón, by dint of empathy with many characters, asks questions about honour, justice, loyalty and of course, love.
The three books are extremely different in tone and style, yet surely the one of the richest and most pleasurable ways to explore Europe, its history, its storytelling traditions and its ideas.
Some even involve trains.