An elegant meditative book teaches a painfully ironic life lesson in German-Swiss author Mercier’s searching 2004 novel, a critically acclaimed international bestseller being published in the United States for the first time.
He who learns the lesson is 50ish Raimund Gregorius, a philologist who teaches Latin, Greek and Hebrew at a Swiss high school—until an unknown woman excites the scholar’s interest in an obscure book of philosophical observations penned by an equally unknown Portuguese author. Impulsively abandoning his academic responsibilities, Gregorius acquires the rare volume, ponders its contents and travels to Lisbon to research the life of its “vanished” author. He discovers that Amadeu de Prado, a would-be priest who became a renowned physician, had led an even more complex life as a member of the resistance movement opposing Portugal’s notorious dictator Antonio Salazar. The story emerges from Gregorius’s meetings: with Prado’s aged sister Adriana, the stoical though not uncritical preserver of his memory; a contemplative priest with whom the nonbelieving doctor had often debated theology; the brilliant and beautiful colleague Estefânia, who may have been Prado’s true soul mate; and the Resistance comrade Vítor Coutinho, who discloses the “evil” act (saving the life of a vicious secret police official) that motivated Prado to forsake the life of the mind for that of a man of violent action. The nearer Gregorius comes to the truth of Prado’s passionate commitment, the more insistent becomes the question he asks himself: “Had he perhaps missed a possible life, one he could easily have lived with his abilities and knowledge?” It’s the age-old intellectual’s dilemma, considered in a compelling blend of suspenseful narrative and discursive commentary (quoted from Prado’s text).
An intriguing fiction only occasionally diluted by redundancy and by Mercier’s overuse of the metaphor of a train journey.