Thursday, April 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque

For my next read for the European Reading Challenge, I chose The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque. I’ve read the WWI masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as Flotsam, which I loved even more. I hope to work my way through all of Remarque’s books, so having one set in Portugal seemed like the nudge I needed to pick another one up.

It feels a bit like cheating to use this as a Portugal book, because the setting in Lisbon is pretty shadowy, but that is where the characters are during the “present” of the book.

The young man who is ostensibly the narrator of the novel is an unnamed refugee, desperate to leave Europe for America during WWII. He and his wife have traveled the refugee route to finally reach Lisbon, a debarkation point, but here they are stymied by the lack of the necessary papers: passports and visas. The young man is on the verge of giving up, staring out at the ship he’d give anything to be on, that is supposed to sail for America the next day.

Miraculously, as he turns away, he is approached by a solitary man who offers him two visas, passports, and tickets for the boat. All he asks in return is that the narrator stay with him during the night so that he can tell his story.

The man goes by the name of Schwartz, the name on his falsified passport. He is a refugee from Germany who wants nothing but to store his memories with someone else so that they won’t be lost or degraded.

The original narrator is merely a sounding board who occasionally prompts the true narrator of the story to keep on talking as they move from bar to bar over the course of the night.

Schwartz had been a refugee for five years, managing a dreary survival without valid papers in various countries in Europe, when he was gifted with a German passport by a dying man. With that passport, Schwartz was emboldened to return to Germany to see his wife, whom he had not seen or heard from in all those years. She’s still alive and did not follow his parting instructions to divorce him. She (Helen) is secure in Germany, having a brother who is a high-up party hack. But he’s a true Nazi and she hates him and the false security he provides. (He’s the one who denounced her husband, sending him to a concentration camp.)

Schwartz and Helen escape Germany together and embark upon a meandering life heading towards Lisbon. In addition to the usual fears of refugees, they also have to stay one step ahead of her brother, who is determined to find her and bring her back. They have some idyllic weeks, and some harrowing adventures, but keep finding their way back to one another. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Schwartz, his wife’s bravery in the face of adversity stems partly from the fact that she has terminal cancer.

The story is related by Schwartz in a compelling way, but it’s all in the past. We never actually meet Helen and the first narrator never really comes alive as a distinct character. 

The book reminds me in some ways of Flotsam, which also dealt with refugees. But while Flotsam was primarily a story about the ordeal of being a refugee with some love stories tucked in, The Night in Lisbon is primarily a love story. The format of the book—one character looking back to tell a tale—sacrifices the immediacy, muffling some of the horror and despair that was so evident in Flotsam. The floweriness of the language, while making for beautiful reading, made it a bit unrealistic. It was hard to picture this grieving, despairing man, drinking the night away, telling his story in such gorgeous prose. I know I’m not supposed to take it so literally. But I kept comparing it, in the back of my mind, to Flotsam, which much more effectively portrayed the plight of the refugees, and also more effectively conveyed the tragedy of disrupted lives and the beauty of enduring love.

No comments:

Post a Comment