Erich Maria Remarque: The Night in Lisbon

The Night in Lisbon - Cover ImageAuthor: Erich Maria Remarque

Title: The Night in Lisbon

ISBN: 0449912434

Pages: 244

There are any number of writers whose entire cannon is overlooked save for a single ‘classic’ work. Burgess with A Clockwork Orange and Heller with Catch-22 being notable examples. Even more unfortunate are those writers whose most famous novel eclipses their other output, yet fails to lodge their name in our collective cultural conscience. Erich Maria Remarque is one such writer. Who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front is a far more difficult quiz question than it deserves to be.

So, having seen a number of his other books on amazon with glowing reviews I decided to take the plunge with The Night in Lisbon, one of his later novels.

The story starts, as you might expect, in Lisbon, Portugal. It is 1942 and a desperate refugee is trying to get the right papers to leave war-torn Europe, escape the Gestapo who are on his trail, and make it by boat to America, and safety. It is on the docks that he meets Schwarz, another refugee, one with all the paperwork needed, but one who is willing to give them all up in exchange for the chance to tell his story. As they move from one café to another during the night, Schwarz unburdens himself, and it is his story that forms the bulk of the book.

Schwarz reveals that he has been on the run for many years, ever since he was denounced for his politic ideas by his brother in law Georg, a fanatical Nazi. As the war approaches, Schwarz risks going back to Germany to get his wife Helen. We follow them as they make their way through Switzerland, into France, then Spain, and finally to Portugal. The frustrations of a refugee are played out, as they are imprisoned on the way and seem to spend every waking moment trying to get the right paperwork to enable them to move on. All the time stalked by Georg and an uncomfortable feeling as a reader that it’s all going to end in tears.

The Night in Lisbon has an excellent plot, and you could be forgiven from my description from thinking that it’s just a generic thriller with one eye on Casablanca. But it’s oh so much more than that.

The wind had risen again, and the swaying branches cast their restless shadows on the faces, on the howling machine, and the silent stone sculptures on the church wall behind them: Christ on the cross between the two thieves. The faces of the listeners were concentrated and transfigured. They believed what the automaton was screaming at them; in a strange state of hypnosis, they applauded this disembodied voice as if it was a human being. The scene struck me as typical of the sinister, demonic mob spirit of our times, of all the frightened, hysterical crowds who follow slogans. It makes no difference whether the slogans come from the right or the left, as long as they relieve the masses of the hard work of thinking and of the need to take responsibility.

After I’d read fifty or so pages, I knew I liked the story and enjoyed the style of writing, but was unsure if it had that something extra that you look for that makes a book special. But the further I went, the more the story pulled me in and the greater my respect for Remarque’s skill. He eschews literary pyrotechnics of elaborate, dense prose, instead relying on quality characterisation and good old-fashioned storytelling. The result is a fast, easy read, as you almost feel propelled through the novel.
Only when you’ve finished and take time to go over the book in your mind do the real subtleties of Remarque’s writing start to come out. How the speed of the story line matches the journey Schwarz and Helen are taking. Relationships that at first seem disparate end up revealing striking similarities. The way the conversation between Schwarz and the refugee is repeatedly interrupted and they are forced to move on somewhere else, just as Schwarz and Helen are in their escape across Europe. The realisation that the conversation is more than just the frame for Schwarz’s story that you first believed it to be. How love and hate both have the ability to make us do what we think is beyond us, and how the passing of a passport from one refugee to another and then another feels like wartime is speeding up the passing of one generation to the next.

It’s much cleverer stuff then you first imagine, and I’d need a re-read to feel I was really starting to understand it all. But before that, I’m going to get hold of some of Remarque’s other books. If they are of this quality, he’s a writer who deserves full investigation.


~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 1 November, 2007.

8 Responses to “Erich Maria Remarque: The Night in Lisbon”

  1. i am plised to visite u”r site

  2. thanks

  3. i just love the novel…it’s pone of my all time favourite, i am actually a great fan of remarque.
    i searched the book for long time and could not wait when i got it at last.
    the descriptions are so makes me wonder how we all feel our emotions but only a few can express it with words..

  4. how he gets such complexity on paper is a wonder

  5. Is it made clear that the character Schwarz is or is not Jewish?

    Are these leftists or Jews or both?



  6. Schwarz is a political opponent, his brother the good Nazi party member has denounced him. {that’s the easy part]

    But there is something else going on. Lisbon is the counterpoint to Western Front. Young Remarque has made an argument. An old Remarque provides the counter-argument. Not a denial, but a qualification.

    Western Front tell us what war is and asks ‘ what is this is good for?’
    Lissabon provides the answer to the question ‘stopping the 3rd Reich’.

    Not-Schwarz is not given a distinct identity. Schwarz never asks. It does not matter if he is fleeing for racial or political reasons. What matters is that this 3rd Reich wants him dead – and we certainly do know the identity of the 3rd Reich.

    He is there in the plot to carry on Schwarz’ mission: stay alive and tell the world what the hell is going on back there.
    And to do so in i the Promised Land America – where somebody might be moved and have the means to do something about it.

    Yes, it is complex. He took 33 years to complete this message. Lissabon was his final novel.

  7. My all-time favorite novel. I finished it in two days the last I remember but I need to reread it. Most people have never heard of this story but I think it’s one of the saddest, yet exhilarating I have ever read. It’s nice to see others feel the same!

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