Book Review: The Night in Lisbon by Erich Remarque

Erich Remarque writes about good people in terrible times. Unfortunately, Europe between the World Wars provided him with plenty of material. Everyone has heard about All Quiet on the Western Front, which is about young men on the front lines of World War I. If you haven’t read it you certainly should. I’ve also read Three Comrades and The Road Back, which are about soldiers trying to readjust in Germany after the war. The Night in Lisbon takes place a few years later, when the Nazis are running Germany but before they’ve invaded France.

 The reader never even finds out the real name of the main characters, which is appropriate because they are refugees and as such don’t have names the way the rest of us take for granted. Schwarz is the name in a passport inherited from a dying refugee. He meets a stranger, another refugee, and tells him he can have Schwarz’s two passages on a ship for the United States if he will sit with Schwarz all night. During that night Schwarz tells the stranger his story. Schwarz is afraid it will become distorted in his mind because it is so important to him. He believes that only by telling someone with some distance the story, and Schwarz’s wife Helen, will live.

 We know from the beginning that Helen is dead, and somehow Remarque is still able to make her story viscerally real and incredibly sad. Their story is about Nazi brutality, but at a very personal level. It also brings out the stupidity that accompanies brutality more effectively than most works do. The Nazis have the reputation of incredible efficiency, which is to some extent earned, but I don’t think as much as they get credit for. Brutality is more often accompanied by stupidity than higher level thinking. And if you arrest enough people randomly it can look like efficiency if you actually find a few people plotting against you. Not to mention that if you make the law vague enough, there will be plenty of people breaking it. A lesson for modern times.

 The Night in Lisbon is also about marriage and what is and isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. Schwarz and Helen had a very mediocre relationship and marriage before the war. The war and circumstances of Helen’s death give it a depth and meaning that it never would have achieved in normal times. Is this a happy ending? No, but they managed to get something positive out of life in desperate times.

 At the end, we find out what happens to everyone, kind of. No one lives happier ever after as far as we know. I won’t tell you any more than that, but do suggest you read and find out for yourself. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Just don’t expect to be whistling when you finish it.

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