Lost in translation?

A novel is not just about the writing, it's about the reading too; or, in the case of fiction that's not in your mother tongue, a good or bad translation can make all the difference. I'd heard lots of good things about Pascal Mercier's Night train to Lisbon. Sadly it disappointed on every level.

Pretentious, clumsily written, a storyline that should have been brilliant, and consistently fell short, weird characters who failed to come to life, a bad translation that veered between American and British English, so irritating both sides of the Atlantic, and some of the worst proof-reading I've ever had the misfortune to come across in literary fiction. How this novel became an international best-seller I do not know, I can only conjecture that it read rather better in the original German, than in the exceedingly clumsy English.

The novel centres on Classics teacher, Raimund Gregorious, who after meeting a Portguese woman with a liking for a little known book by Amadeu de Prado, decides to throw in his job and his life in Bern, and travel to Lisbon to find out more about Prado. On arrival there, he finds the memory of an intelligent man, who struggled to justify his own life against the dark background of the Salazar dictatorship. This justification becomes ever more difficult as he is quick to judge his own father's part in the regime, while failing to recognise the part he has played. Prado lived on the edges of the resistance, until an illness came between him, his work, his friends, his would-be-lover, and eventually even life itself.

Gregorious throws in his own life and friends in order to follow the trail of the mystery woman and Prado. But ultimately his quest seems pretty pointless. As easily as he dispenses with his Swiss friends, he makes new friends in Lisbon and then sheds them too. The woman, who appears to be so important, makes a brief appearance and then vanishes from sight. Ultimately even the Salazar regime is just a side-show.

I just wondered through most of this book "What's the point?" Because it is a pretty pointless book - I didn't love or feel engaged by any of these characters. With the exception of Maria Joao, I didn't care what happened to them or what they thought or felt. It all seeme so artificial. The translation was often clumsy, and with mistakes on virtually every page, the proof reading was horrendous, sometimes to the point where it made understanding the translation difficult. I'm glad that someone somewhere loves this book (they must have done to make it an international bestseller), but it certainly wasn't me.


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