The Night in Lisbon (Die Nacht Von Lissabon)

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THE NIGHT IN LISBON (Die Nacht von Lissabon)

Novel by Erich Maria Remarque, 1961

The Night in Lisbon (1964; published in German as Die Nacht von Lissabon in 1961) is the last of three of Remarque's novels, along with Flotsam (1941) and Arch of Triumph (1945), that deal with the plight of émigrés at a time when German anti-Nazis were treated as if they were Nazis by the countries to which they had fled. It was a time when the "host" governments did not want these wandering Jews but then again refused to let go of them and when a person was lucky to get an exit visa from France before his transit visa to Spain expired. The novel is framed by a refugee narrator who, sometime in 1942, has made it to Lisbon with his dying wife. The book begins when he runs into a landsman who offers him two passports to the United States on condition that the lucky beneficiary serve as his captive audience during the night it takes him to unravel his tale. The recitalist (and main figure) has himself inherited the passports from a dying emigrant, Schwarz, whose name he has taken. In 1934 Schwarz the narrator had been denounced by his SS brother-in-law and sent to a camp, from which he escaped to Paris. During the 1930s and 1940s Paris—and the French outposts—served as the inevitable destination, the locus classicus, of intrigue and nostalgia for the Schwarzes, Rick Blaines, and Victor Laszlos, who had their choice of being interned by the Gestapo or the gendarmerie. In 1939 Schwarz returns to Westphalia to look up his wife, from whom he has been parted for five years and who insists on returning to Paris with him illegally. (Twenty years earlier Remarque had used a similar plot in Flotsam.) The bulk of the novel charts the course of the two from Germany to Lisbon between 1939 and 1942. En route to the Pyrenees, both escape from internment camps in Marseille; Schwarz's wife dies of cancer the day before he hands the passports to his listener and joins the resistance.

The novel shares the stylistic and narrative flaws of all of Remarque's later books. The frame narrative itself merely provides Schwarz with a sounding board, and, to judge from the dialogue that takes up three-fourths of the novel, he seems to have total recall or else talks under hypnosis. (This framing device works beautifully in W.G. Sebald 's Austerlitz —surely one of the great Holocaust novels of the new century—if only because the style indirect libre the speaker uses in tracing his past is totally suited to the confessional genre.) Nor is it good form to tell one's wife that she "smell[s] of summer and freedom" and that "heartbreak kills as easily as dysentery." Besides, Schwarz keeps insisting that his story is riddled with miracles and coincidences, so that the reader is forever reminded that "the unbelievable happened" or that "I did the impossible." He walks out of the main gate of a prison in broad daylight and tells the sentries that he has been discharged (unbelievable), and later on he comes by two visas thanks to "the drunken whim of a chance acquaintance" (miraculous).

The open escape from prison can, in fact, be read in another way, one that redounds to Schwarz's credit. What refugee chutzpah! What refugee bluffing! Schwarz knows that if he crawled out of prison at night he would be shot. By now he has learned all of the tricks of survival. He knows, for instance, that in occupied Paris (or occupied anywhere) to be seen alone invites suspicion; to be seen with a woman disarms it. That to brandish a (fake) passport and yell at an irresolute border patrol will get a person across the border. That a foolish modesty is the hobgoblin of naive refugees. That it pays to confront the authorities with a clean-shaven face. By pretending to be an electrician hired to inspect the wiring, Schwarz bluffs his way into the camp in which his wife is being held. And for all its derring-do, The Night in Lisbon betrays Remarque's intimacy with his subject, if not his full control. The old Viennese (the original donor, the first Schwarz) has smuggled a couple of drawings by Ingres across the border by putting them into hideous frames and palming them off as sketches of his old parents. The fiction is as authentic as the Ingres are. So is the refugee from Frankfurt who makes his living by peddling rosaries and pictures of saints.

And for all its too frequent flippancy, the book contains genuine glimpses into the heart of darkness. A friend of Schwarz's, who has watched a Jew being arrested and beaten, tries to come to his help by knocking the SS monster unconscious and telling the Jew to run. Instead, the Jew curses his would-be liberator. Now, he tells the man, he is truly lost; the beating will simply fuel the Nazi's wrath. Sobbing, the Jew goes for water to revive the SS official, who can now lead him to his slaughter. Actions like these may grate on people who bristle at all the talk about the Jews' docility under pressure, but Remarque knew better. Had Chekhov been his contemporary, he would have bought the rights to the story.

—Edgar Rosenberg