Last week I finished reading Night Train to Lisbon. Suspicious at first of any book that's sold 2 million copies, I ended up liking it very much, precisely for the reason it's been criticized: it's 438 pages of introspective musing about the big existential questions of life, and some readers find that amount of self-reflection (both on the part of the protagonist and the man he's seeking to understand through the reading of his memoirs and the remembrances of his friends) a little hard to take. I didn't, and was sorry when the book ended - in fact I did what I only do in rare cases - I tried to stretch out the inevitable finale by allowing myself to read only a page or two of the last chapters at one sitting. There was a lot to think about, anyway.
The memoirs of Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese doctor, are quoted in extensive sections of italics throughout the book, as Raimund Gregorius, a rather boring and stuffy professor of ancient languages who has suddenly left his position at a Swiss school, engages in a quest to find the truth about the author, and about himself. Like any grail legend, this one exists on two levels: the actual story of human beings encountered on a journey (and it's a good story), and a second level of what the quest is actually about and how it changes the person doing the seeking. Of course, as a reader, you are invited along, and you can bring as much or as little of yourself as you are prepared to do.
There are a lot of questions raised in the book, from why we still feel lonely even when we are with people, to what is at the base of our fear of death. Some of the questions are, of course, unanswerable. And there are also other questions, deeply embedded into most of our lives, of choices we are forced to make that can continue to torment us forever because there really is no right or wrong, simply a decision that has to be made on the basis of who we are at the moment of deciding. An abortion; a decision to save a terrible person's life because you are a doctor; a moral choice that causes a friendship to rupture; a decision to join or leave a person, a job, a cause..maybe there are some people who live their lives untouched by such things, but I am not one of them, and reading a book about someone similar, in these amoral times, felt reassuring.
There are also small moral decisions in front of us, every day. One of the lines that struck me and remained with me was when Amadeu was ranting about the cruelty of everyday life and he asked how it was possible for a man to walk past a beggar on the street and go into the next store and buy himself an ice cream cone.
How indeed. This is something I wonder all the time, and yet of course I do it too.
Yesterday I walked up to the store in the middle of the afternoon. It was cold: not below freezing, but raw, with a steady drizzle, and like everyone else, I was walking fast, hurrying to get my errands done. Outside the market I saw a beggar, in a black hooded sweatshirt, sitting on the sidewalk, and when I got closer I realized it was a woman I'd seen before, youngish, with big liquid eyes. She murmured something at me in French, but I went inside and bought meat, vegetables, bread. I came out again, and avoided looking at her, but I was thinking how stupid I'd been not to empty my change purse into my hand before packing up my backpack. I went into the provincial liquor store and bought a bottle of wine, for God's sake, and then to the bank where I withdrew cash. Then I went into the closest fast-food place and bought a cup of coffee with cream, and went back to where she was still sitting, shivering, looking down as she counted the coppery circles - and they really were nearly all pennies - in her styrofoam cup. She saw that my feet had stopped in front of her, and slowly looked up at me. I handed her the coffee and the little container of cream, and the change I had in my hand. She looked surprised, but took the warm coffee gratefully and thanked me. "Are you very cold?" I asked in French. "No," she said, "I'm not cold," and then murmured something, softly and out of context, that I didn't understand until I was halfway home again repeating bitterly to myself, "It's nothing. You've done absolutely nothing."
She had asked, "Are you a doctor?"