Erich Maria Remarque
Harcourt, Brace & World

With the world slowly sliding into war, it is crucial that enemies of the Reich flee Europe at once. But so many routes are closed, and so much money is needed. Then one night in Lisbon, as a poor young refugee gazes hungrily at a boat bound for America, a stranger approaches him with two tickets and a story to tell.
It is a harrowing tale of bravery and butchery, daring and death, in which the price of love is beyond measure and the legacy of evil is infinite. As the refugee listens spellbound to the desperate teller, in a matter of hours the two form a unique and unshakable bond—one that will last all their lives.

REVIEW by Valeria Rotella


The Night in Lisbon kind of falls into the category of hidden gems. Kind of. It wouldn’t even be considered an underrated novel if it hadn’t been written by Erich Maria Remarque.
Erich Maria Remarque/ Everett Colle/Everett Collection
Remarque defined generations of war literature with All Quiet on the Western Front. His semi-autobiographical account of World War I catapulted his career and remains the high point of required high school reading for teen boys around the world.

So I was surprised to find The Night in Lisbon staring at me, along with a half dozen other works by the German author, when I was at the Strand bookstore about a month ago.  Remarque had always been a one-man novelist in my eyes, à la Harper Lee or Boris Pasternak. I bought it, a little unnerved, without any specific expectations.

Lisbon begins about two decades after Western Front ends, in the dead of night somewhere in Portugal’s capital. Nazis have reached their peak of influence across the continent. A German refugee roams the streets in search of a boat that will take him and his wife to America. A man approaches. He calls himself Joseph Schwartz. He has two tickets for a ship heading to New York the very next day. He’s willing to give them to the refugee- if he’ll spend the night listening to his story.

The action of the book cuts between that night in Lisbon and Schwartz’s long tale of escape. He begins with his return home after years as a refugee, now a persona non grata in his town, to fetch his wife. They flee to different corners of Germany, France, Switzerland, and Spain, with Schwartz’s high-ranking Nazi brother-in-law in pursuit.

Remarque creates a classic story of intrigue. We root for Schwartz. We want him and his wife Helen to rise above it all and end up together. We want to see Schwartz’s listener get on his own boat and get out of there. Maybe “Lisbon” is almost too classic. These characters behave themselves without a trace of irony. Their emotions are completely earnest. It’s a way of seeing the world we’re not used to in literature that came after Chandler and Kennedy Toole.

At the same time, the novel is ridden with conversations between the refugee and Schwartz about the meaning of life and what remains of humanity in times of despair. There’s no subtext in these discussions. Remarque puts all of these ideas on the table for the reader to dissect and make what they will. Sometimes these exchanges work. Often they come off as dated and melodramatic to the point of distracting. Maybe it’s a product of translation. Maybe this writing style hasn’t aged well.
Regardless it’s a novel worth reading, if only to better understand themes Remarque has touched on before- loneliness, despair, a sense of duty. He handles these topics with the gravity they deserve and conscious of his responsibility to keep the audience hooked.

Read it if you loved Western Front. Read it to get a better sense of the absurdity of wartime. Read it for the sake of a good story.

Valeria Rotella studies film and journalism at New York University. She’s interested in the intersection of politics and culture, enjoys the music of Gotan Project, and has gotten carsick in almost every country in South America. Follow her on Twitter@ValRotella. 


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