I met Erich Maria Remarque quite a long time ago, in a volume that contained two different novels regarding the theme and the approach – “All Quiet On The Western Front” and “The Dream Room”. I remember that as hard as the story in the first novel was, so full of candor was the dreaming of the second one. This month, my favorite readers community, “5 o’clock bookclub” organized a debate over another great book belonging to this author, so I had the opportunity to explore some more of the German author. Today we will spend a “The Night In Lisbon”.
About the author
Erich Paul Remark, known under the pseudonym Erich Maria Remarque, is a novelist born in Germany in 1898 and known, in particular, for the novel “All Quiet On The Western Front”. This novel was screened in 1930, winning two Oscars, and it is, perhaps, the most famous novel in literature, having as a theme the First World War. The novel brought the author a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. In the same year, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his works, Remarque deals mainly with the subject of the victims of political upheavals in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, one of the victims being the author’s sister, executed by the Nazis in 1943. Remarque left Germany in 1932, emigrating to Switzerland and, later, in the USA. He returned to Switzerland in 1948, where he lived until 1970, the year of his death.
In 1933, Remarque’s writings were banned by the Nazi regime, being declared as “non-patriotic” and all the copies of his works were removed from libraries and bookstores, some of them, even burned in public. In 1938, his German citizenship was revoked. In 1954, the novel “A Time To Love And A Time To Die” was censored by the German publishing house that published it, eliminating the scenes of atrocities committed by the Nazis.
About the book
Today, a sensational book. It is the first book reviewed this year and referred to as “sensational”. It is interesting that as soon as I finished the book, I gave it 4 stars on the Goodreads platform (Raluca Neagu (dordezbor) – Bucharest, 10, Romania (119 books) | Goodreads) but now, a few days away, when I took some distance from the characters and from the action itself, I remained with something that the book fundamentally transfers to the reader – strong emotions, characters’ anxieties and the way Remarque captures and teleports the reader into the nightmare of Europe during World War II. That’s how I realized this is a 5 star book and I revised its classification on the platform accordingly.
I am in contradiction with the majority, because I liked “The Night In Lisbon” more than “All Quiet On The Western Front”, a statement that I make, however, subject to the 10 years that separate the reading of the two books.
“The Night In Lisbon” is a story about history, about refugees and the loss of their identity, about love, about the struggle for survival, about life, cruelty, betrayal and, last but not least, about destiny. It is very possible that, for the more romantic readers among us, the love story (whose dramatic end we find out from the first pages) will prevail. But “Quelle histoire d’amour!” – as one of the characters says, because the story of Joseph Schwarz and his wife is an atypical one. Joseph Schwarz is not the real name of the character, but that does not matter at all, all that matters being the survival. This identity has been taken over and it will be handed over, further, adding to it, perhaps, the karma of fatality.
“Every ship that left Europe in those months of the year 1942 was an ark.”
Joseph will make an exchange meant to keep the memory of his wife and of their love in an objective memory, not distorted by the emotions of subjectivity. He will offer two tickets for the ship that was about to leave Lisbon for America (the promised land of that time), along with the necessary visas, asking in return one single thing: the lucky one who is offered this providential lifesaver, to hear his story. Joseph hopes that the verbalization of the story will give consistency to his wife’s life, not risking to be transferred to the realm of illusions.
“That’s why you are talking to me – to save your memory from yourself…”
“Our memory is not an ivory casket in a dusty museum. It is an animal that lives and eats and digests. It consumes itself like the phoenix in the legend, so that we can go on living and not be destroyed by it. That’s what you are trying to prevent.”
I find it interesting and not accidental at all the way the author gave autobiographical elements to Joseph – the two have the same city of origin (Osnabrück) and the same age.
Joseph’s story evokes to the listener, in just one night in Lisbon, the journey of the two fugitives, husband and wife, which begins in 1939, after 5 years that Joseph had already spent in exile, away from his wife, her being left home in Nazi Germany.
“That summer of 1939! It was as though God had wished to show the world one last time what peace can be and what it was going to lose.”
This is how Remarque used a metaphor for the silence before the storm. Once the two run away and started to be chased like animals all over Europe, their process of dehumanization begins:
“We were human beings until September, 1939.”
“What are we now? Impostors, corpses, or ghosts?”
The three years of crazy race for life through Europe will be of an absolute drama, full of upheavals and alternating moments of hope with those of despair. The constant ally of the fugitives, in this battle, will be only nature. The couple will join the great exodus that goes through the so-called Via Dolorosa of refugees from all over Europe (the route from Belgium to the Pyrenees). We will witness, therefore, impatiently, a fight against the clock for life, a fight in which an instinctive or an insufficiently studied gesture could bring death. Just as fate can bring death, because no matter how deterministic the two characters are, they will still ask themselves questions about destiny. Often, denying reality and believing in a miracle or, when needed, in God, will help them continue the fight.
Remarque invites his reader to reflect on the injustices of life, on the pain of losing identity, on love as the engine of life, as well as on the cruelty that man is capable of and on the condition of man hunted by man. He classifies human brutality according to the motivation behind torture. On this scale, torturers who apply “torture for the pleasure” are even more abject than those who torture “to impose their will”. But there are also situations in which killing becomes a necessity and, in this context, it must be looked at with cynicism.
Thinking about the refugee problem, I realized how current this topic is today and I wondered: today, knowing the lessons of the past, what do we do to change the present, to help these people have a future?
“A man who can’t stop anywhere, who can never settle down. The existence of a refugee.”
I have a special mention for the fact that Remarque did not neglect the form of the writing at all. Thus, quite often the writer conquered me with descriptions like this: “The stars were still shining, but on the horizon the sea and the morning met in a first blue embrace.”
How much much beauty is in this and how impressive is the way in which just a few words made me see this amazing sunrise!
And, because I am so much in love with Lisbon, with Porto wine and with fado music, I’ll offer you one more quote that arouses sweet reveries:
“By day Lisbon has a naïve theatrical quality that enchants and captivates, but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her dark lover.”
If you want to unravel the personal drama behind the collective drama and understand how ironic fate can be, put on a glass of brandy – the palliative used by our characters, and sit comfortably in an armchair, immersing yourself into “The Night In Lisbon”. A book is Lust For Flying.
To the author:
„Erich Maria Remarque, Sie sind ein wirklich bemerkenswerter Schriftsteller mit einer erstaunlichen Lebensgeschichte, genau wie Ihre Romane!”
(Erich Maria Remarque, you are a truly remarkable writer, with an amazing life story, just like your novels! – Google translation, German language)
- “The world never looks more beautiful than when you’re being locked up. When you’re about to leave it. If only we could always keep this feeling.”
- “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.”
- About religion: “The moment it had ceased to be persecuted, it had begun to persecute in turn, with fire and sword and rack.”
- “A man who can’t stop anywhere, who can never settle down. The existence of a refugee.”
- “People tend to ask too many questions in love, and once you begin really wanting to know the answers, love is on its way out.”
- “Our memory falsifies things to help us survive. It glosses over the
unbearable parts of the past.”
- “Hate is an acid that corrodes the soul, regardless of whether you or the other fellow does the hating.”
- “Time is diluted death, a poison administered slowly, in harmless doses. At first it stimulates us and even makes us feel immortal – but drop by drop and day by day it grows stronger and destroys our blood.”
- “Life would be unbearable if it went on forever.”
- “When your world is brimful of feeling, there’s no room for time.”
- “In all that time nature was as important to us as it is to animals. Nature was what never turned us away. It demanded no passport, no certificate of Aryanism. Nature gave and took but she was impersonal, and that was like a balm.”
- “We are living in an age of paradoxes. To preserve peace, we wage war.”
- “Everyone has several people inside him. All different. And sometimes one of them becomes independent and takes over for a while. Then you become somebody else, somebody you’d never known. But we come back.”
- “Who wants to be safe in a cage?”