Night Train To Lisbon

Night Train To Lisbon is the story of Raimund Gregorius, Swiss scholar and professor of ancient languages, who does nothing but reading and teaching in his daily routine. Every single day. He is the kind of person who does not like change one bit, and resents it even if his wife asks him to dress up in something smarter than his usual dowdy clothes or change his spectacle frames. He soon finds himself divorced and a tad lonely, but is too stuck up in his routine to do anything about it.

One fine day, on his way to the college where he teaches, Raimund meets a beautiful Portuguese woman by accident. She intrigues him to no end, and he realises that he doesn’t understand one word of Portuguese. He has never seen Portugal, and suddenly, it sounds like an enchanting, mysterious land to him. Something shifts inside him, subtly, rendering him disinterested in continuing with his dreary routine any longer. He walks out in the middle of class, leaving his students gaping, in search of a new life for himself. The very same day, he comes across a book by Portuguese author Amadeu Prado in a second-hand bookstore, and is mesmerised by his words. He is tempted to visit Lisbon, Amadeu’s city, and find out more about him. He is struck by a sudden urge to meet the author, if he is alive, and find out how it is to be a person like him. And then, Raimund has nothing better to do with his life. Armed with the knowledge of a few basic sentences in Portuguese and a deep curiosity about Amadeu, Raimund, in a highly uncharacteristic act of impulse, boards a train to Lisbon that same night.

What happens in Lisbon? Is Amadeu Prado alive? Is Raimund able to meet him? Is he able to find out more about the author’s life? Does Raimund ever regret leaving the comfort of his life behind and entering territory that is entirely unknown to him? All of this and more makes up Night Train To Lisbon, running into a little over 400 pages.

I liked the experience of reading this book, though I had my own share of grouses with it. I loved the premise of the book, and it kept me turning page after page, eager to find out how Raimund fared in Lisbon. I loved the way little bits of philosophy were interspersed with the story – some bits quite deepΒ  and thought-provoking, while some others were simple things we have heard so many times over, dressed up in flowing language. I loved the thoughts about books and writing, especially.

The story gets quite gloomy and depressing at places, and I had to put this book aside and read something cheerful once in a while. It is not an easy book to read, I read on the internet, and I quite agree with that.

The English book is a translation from the original German, and is filled with proof-reading errors, making the reading experience more difficult than it is, due to all the philosophy. The translation is a little wobbly at some places, while the prose flows beautifully at other places.

I found the story quite unbelievable too, in a few parts. For instance, Raimund seems to learn a language entirely new to him – Portuguese – in a matter of days! In some scenes, Raimund seems to be at a loss for words when he is required to speak in Portuguese, and in other parts, he spouts the language as fluently and flawlessly as if he has lived in Portugal for ever! I was irritated with the way Raimund just left in the middle of class to pursue a new life for himself. Why couldn’t he have handed in his notice, wrapped up things at the college and left, instead of leaving his students in a lurch? Isn’t that highly irresponsible? And, for God’s sake, he was teaching ancient languages, not something like maths or science, for which a substitute professor could be easily found!! That said, I think I should give Raimund the benefit of doubt. If realisation comes knocking at your soul, you need to take action immediately, eh?

The character of Raimund – and that of Amadeu as well – infuriated me with their stubbornness. Amadeu seemed a tad preachy, sometimes not following what he preached in his own life at all! At other times, I was impressed by them to no end. I guess that is how the author intended these characters to be – realistic.

Also, I found several loose ends in the story, and I don’t like it when there are loose ends in a story. There were a lot of things hovering in my mind as I read the book, hoping to find closure, and I was disappointed to find when I reached the end of the book that they hadn’t been tied up at all. The author has chosen to leave the ending hanging too; the readers are left guessing as to what exactly happened after that point. There were characters who had great potential, but somehow, the author chose not to develop them further.

All in all, I would say I liked reading the book for the parts that are intriguing and brilliant, while certain other parts could have been better. I would definitely recommend this book to all and sundry, though, for it surely deserves a reading.

Thank you, Amit, for recommending this book to me. I had never heard of this book before you told me about it!

Have you read this book? I would love to know your thoughts on it!


Some of my most favourite passages from the book:

Sometimes, we’re afraid of something because we’re afraid of something else, he had said.


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 film-makers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, or the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light, giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.


You’re not really awake when you don’t write. And you have no idea who you are. Not to mention who you aren’t.


The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which come closer to the truth? Is it so clear that they are your own? Is one an authority on oneself?


“‘When Amadeu finishes reading a book,’ said another teacher, ‘it has no more letters. He devours not only the meaning, but also the printer’s ink.'”

“That’s how it was; the texts seemed to disappear altogether in him and what stood on his shelf afterward were only empty husks…”


When she was about to go back to her school, she’d tie her shiny black hair into a ponytail with a rubber band. Every time, he looked at her as she did it as if he were under a spell, even the hundredth time, he must have loved it very much, this movement. One day, it was no longer a rubber band, but a silver barrette, and you could see on his face that it was a gift from him.


Even today, I stand still when I hear a Gregorian chant and for an idle moment I am sad that the old drunkenness has been wiped out irrevocably by rebellion. A rebellion that shot up in me like a flame the first time I heard these two words: Sacrificium intellectus.

How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments? Without joy in thinking? The two words like a sword stroke cutting off our head, they mean nothing less than a demand to live our feelings and acts against our thinking, they are the summons to a complete split, the order to sacrifice what is the core of our happiness: the internal unity and coherence of our life.

The slave in the galley is chained, but he can think what he wants. But what He, our God, demands of us is that we force our slavery into our depths with our own hands and do it willingly and joyfully. Can there be a greater mockery?


Life is not what we live; it is what we imagine what we are living.


The light is always burning. Always. The pure extravagance. My vengeance for the poverty I grew up in. Light only in a single room, you went to bed at dark. The few Centavos of pocket money I got, I put into batteries for a flashlight to read by at night. Books I stole. Books mustn’t cost anything, that’s what I thought then and still do.


Inside a person, he said, it was much more complicated than our schematic, ridiculous explanations wanted to have us believe. Everything is much more complicated. At every moment it is much more complicated. ‘They got married because they fell in love and wanted to share their life’; ‘She stole because she needed money’; ‘He lied because he didn’t want to hurt’: what ridiculous stories! We are stratified creatures, creatures full of abysses, with a soul of inconstant quicksilver, with a mind whose color and shape change as in a kaleidoscope that is constantly shaken.


The outlines of parental will and fear are written with a white-hot stylus in the souls of the children who are helpless and ignorant of what is happening to them. We need a whole life to find and decipher the branded text and we can never be sure we have understood it.


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


How do you part from somebody who shaped your own life like nobody else?


18 thoughts on “Night Train To Lisbon

  1. I don’t remember how I reached this page. but since i did, i have to tell you that this is one of the best books i have ever read.

    i agree to it being a difficult book to read, i agree to proof reading errors, i agree to some tiny plot holes too. but this book is about something which is entirely beyond those tiny blots. this book is more about the story and the philosophy therein.

    I do understand that everyone interprets the stories in their own ways. if i could say this, this book is much like any of Paulo Coelho’s stories, only less fable like and completely upside down (or rather inside out). the story is about questioning your existence, your ways, your decisions. its about looking inside you, unlike Coelho’s idea of looking up and waiting for happiness to happen or may be letting yourself go with the flow as the default choice.

    every main character in the story (sorry, i don’t remember the names right now, its been a while), has had at some point or other made choices about what they are and what they would do with it. some turned out right others wrong (but then who can judge that other than they themselves).

    the protagonist one fine day lets himself off of his daily mundane routine, because even if he detested the change, he was not happy with no change. the portugese doctor, a brilliant but not the happiest guys ever, makes his choices, then makes choices to undo the earlier ones and lives and dies so. and if i remember it was the doctor’s sister who chose to freeze in time and live in the past for all the future. kind of antithesis for the protagonist.

    so there it is, the book is less of a story book and more of a piece of philosophy and thought process. and if you really really get into it, you will end up throwing a pebble in the calm pond of your existence, for often there is murk lying just beneath the surface that may need cleaning. little murk that may make you little uneasy in a long while now but may become overpowering.

    may be choices in your life have been easy and good ones and not the difficult and best ones. who knows?


    1. @Pratyush

      Woah! What a comment! πŸ™‚ I am so glad you decided to drop by, and share your views about the book.

      Yes, I was also reminded of Paulo Coelho’s books while reading this one. I did find it more of a collection of pieces of philosophy than a big story, too. I completely *get* what you mean.


      1. I just like to talk about books and then, even though you may not remember the details of the story, some books leave a lasting impact.

        BTW, a directed comparison with Paulo Coehlo would not be fair. He is more about faith and trust and belief that everything is good finally. This is more like looking inwards. Besides Coehlo sometimes sounds like pretend (that is a different discussion altogether).

        Speaking of comparisons, I read Eat Pray Love, and this book one after another. With tongue in cheek, “Eat Pray Love is poor guys Night Train to Lisbon”. Write about that.

        You write very well and this is a very nice blog.

        Anyway, everybody seems to be talking about a difficult read. It would be interesting to know what else people read when reading a book like this. I remember, I was reading “the hitch hiker’s guide to galaxy”.


  2. What an intriguing book, TGND. Between reading this review and commenting here, I went and ordered this book for myself. (Debated between a PB and a Kindle edition – the former was cheaper, so a PB it is :-P).

    “How do you part from somebody who shaped your own life like nobody else?” and “Even today, I stand still when I hear a Gregorian chant” is something that stood. The latter because I love Gregorian chants, and the former because, well it is something that all of us experience in different ways. I do believe that we meet everybody for a purpose, however brief, fleeting or negative and the impact of that meeting is never proportional to the time spent. So, yes, parting is inevitable in some cases and I’m quite philosophical about it. πŸ™‚

    Great review !


    1. @Sudhagee

      Do let me know how you liked the book!

      Pardon me for the ignorance, but what is PB?

      Now, you have got me intrigued as to what a Gregorian chant is. πŸ™‚ I got to YouTube it and find out. Books lead you to do so many things, no?

      I subscribe to the same philosophy as yours regarding meeting people. I believe we meet everyone for a purpose. They influence our life, in small and big ways.

      Thank you! πŸ™‚


      1. @Sudhagee

        Oh, okay!

        Thanks for the link. It is beautiful. I found several Gregorian chants on YouTube, and they all gave me goosebumps. So enchanting! These videos are something I am going to be listening to regularly henceforth…


  3. So, you have finally read it. πŸ™‚
    I agree, it is a difficult book to read and is something I would like to read again just to grasp it entirely. There are so many thoughts wrapped in this book that it overwhelmed me when I read it for the first time.
    And I agree with you when you wrote that you were irritated by the characters. I guess that is exactly what the writer wanted you to feel.


    1. @Amit

      Yes, I finally finished reading the book. πŸ™‚

      The book overwhelmed me, too, with its loads of thoughts and the emotions it brought on. I am sure it is a book that will show more of itself to you each time you read it.


  4. You write such wonderful reviews, TGND! And read such different books πŸ™‚ I feel quite ashamed of my reading list when I see yours πŸ™‚ This one however, I might give a miss. Some how something is not calling out to me.


    1. @Smitha

      Oh, you are my reading inspiration – it is YOU who read such different books. Mine are mostly the same type. πŸ™‚ Honestly, you don’t shy away from reading anything – and that is the way a true-blue reader should be. I take my own time making my choices, and don’t read a lot of stuff. I decide not to read them even before I have had a chance to read them. πŸ™‚

      This book might not be liked by everyone. Do go through it, though, in case you find it in your library. Or you can borrow my copy, if you want to. It is surely worth a read.


      1. Come on! I read such junk sometimes πŸ™‚ I need to read -I can’t be without a book πŸ™‚ So I read anything 😦

        Will give it a try. Let me see if I can get it from the lib, or else will borrow it from you.


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