Where do memories live? What happens to them after we die? Do they continue floating as little pieces of our soul or are they buried along with our body under the ground? What does one do if he has lost everything but wants his story to live even beyond his life? He shares. The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel about sharing. Sharing at the edge of death, at the peak of WWII, at a moment when you just want to feel the presence of another human being amongst the beasts of the war. Two strangers meet and spent a whole night that brings them closer together than if they had spent their whole lives next to each other.
Who are these men? Refugees from WWII. They are unique yet they are like the millions other refugees trying to escape from the long hands of Gestapo. Do we know their names? I am not sure they even know their birth names. They have changed personalities, passports, names, and faces so many times that now they just know they exist. And we don’t even need to know who they are. Lets just call them Talker and Listener. Where are they? They are in Lisbon, two men, who at some point in their lives dreamt of boarding a ship to the land of dreams – America. What are they talking about? Life, love, war, betrayal, hope, deceit, death. Why is this novel important? Because it tells the life story of an ordinary man, one of the many enemies of the Reich, who had to flee Europe at the edge of the war. It could have been anyone of these poor souls, who attempted to oppose Hitler and his army of blind believers. And yes, it happens over a night.
The Talker and the Listener meet at the edge of hope – the Lisbon port from where salvation begins, the long dreamt off America. The talker offers a simple deal – he will give the Listener 2 tickets and 2 visas, something unbelievable during these days in exchange of one night of talking. The deal seems suspiciously good. However, despair and hopelessness are all around; one would do anything to escape the land of evil. Numerous bars, several dishes, and constant drinking later the reader knows the story of the Talker. He has fled Germany, he has lived as a refugee, he has come back to take his wife, and he has lost her in between. He has run, lied, suffered, killed, but at the end Gestapo won. In this tale of bravery and love, the power of love is immeasurable but the legacy of German evil – infinite. The talker needs to tell his story; he feels that there must be someone who knows it even when he will no longer be there. Memories will continue living as long as there is someone to remember them. In that sense the deal for him is priceless. Having lost every hope and every will to live, he needs this night in Lisbon to relive the happy memories, to unburden the pain, to remember once again the woman he loved. The role of the listener is far more difficult than it sounds. He has to understand, bear, support, calm, and above all, listen well to the stranger in front of him. Sometimes telling it is easy; comprehending it becomes the tricky part.
The Night in Lisbon is very different from the previous two novels by Remarque I read – A Time to Love and a Time to Die and The Black Obelisk. It is much more static, yet it explores the feelings and doubts of a man faced with impossible choices. The strength of the Talker is sometimes overwhelming. Risking his life, he returns to Germany to save his wife. Overcoming his man pride, he forgives her infidelity. Trying to protect them both he commits a most dangerous murder. At the end, though, he fails to defeat death. He passes on to the Listener not only his life story; he passes to him hope. Hope in the form of the saving two tickets. Hope in the form of advice how to live and how to love. Hope in the form of assurance that you must do the right thing and leave yourself in the hands of destiny. Hope that there is always hope. Even in Nazi Germany. Even in the hands of Gestapo. Even when it seems the whole world has gone mad and has forgotten what love and compassion actually meant.
The unshakable bound these two men form is for life. They have shared a sacred moment, and at the end they even share a name. A legacy passed on from one to another. The death of one becomes the key for a new life for the other. A great novel, where you experience a whole lifetime in a single night. Erich Maria Remarque once again proves he is the most educated author about the two world wars and the sentiments and feelings associated with them. I am planning on a big research on his biography in order to get a thorough understanding of his dedication to this topic. I hope I really got you excited about exploring the amazing philosophical world of Remarque, an experience I so far cannot compare to any other author I have read.