Sometime in the late 1980s, while living in Verona, Italy, I received a call from a publisher in London asking me if I would speak rather urgently to the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi (1943–2012). I had translated four of Tabucchi’s books. The publisher had invited the author to London for a celebratory dinner and various readings. However, having arrived at the airport in Pisa, Tabucchi was refusing to board his plane and though he had called the publishers to explain himself, his English was poor and they couldn’t understand his decision. The publishers gave Tabucchi my number and he called me. He had agreed to go to London in good faith, he said. He had assumed he was flying with a proper national airline. Instead they had booked him on a low-cost carrier packed with holidaymakers and with no seats assigned.
The situation was not without some comedy. In one of the novels I had translated, Indian Nocturne (Notturno indiano, 1984), the narrator, an authorial alter ego, travels through India in search of a long-lost friend. His quest leads him to spend a night in one of the notoriously squalid brothels of Bombay’s Cage District, another in an overcrowded hospital searching among the terminally ill, and yet another on an all-night bus from Madras to Mangalore. The journeys are undertaken with much sangfroid and the details (including addresses of the locations visited) are such that the reader is convinced that the author is an experienced traveler used to dealing with the most disconcerting situations. All the same I was unable to convince Tabucchi to board his budget flight from Pisa to London.
I mention the incident because there was an ambiguity at the heart of it typical of Tabucchi’s writing. It wasn’t clear to me whether he feared that the plane wasn’t safe—there had been a press campaign in Italy against low-cost carriers—or whether he found the throng of British holidaymakers distressingly vulgar and the publishers mean for having invited him to travel cheaply. In everything Tabucchi wrote, the fear of loss and death together with an admiration for decorous, elegant, magnanimous behavior are equally to the fore and in strict relationship to each other.
In the fourth night of Indian Nocturne (each chapter is a night), the narrator shares a “retiring room” in Victoria Station, Bombay, with a man who poses the question, “What are we doing inside these bodies.” “Perhaps we’re travelling in them,” the narrator replies. “They’re like suitcases; we carry ourselves around.” Outside the station someone is wailing, or perhaps praying, “a solitary, hopeless lament.” “It’s a Jain,” the man tells the narrator, “lamenting the evil of the world.” As a religion, he goes on, Jainism is “very beautiful and very stupid.” When the narrator asks him his religion, the man replies, “I’m a Jain.”
Everything is decorous, ironic, playful, and above all solemn in this conversation, with an element of refined competition as each man seeks to convey to the other his position in regard to the essential things in life. The reader has to work to keep up. Asked whether he is a Catholic, the narrator says, “All Europeans are Catholics, in a way…. Or Christians anyway, which is practically the same thing.” The Indian seizes on the word “practically,” compares it with the word “actually,” and remarks how he has never understood whether these English adverbs express pessimism or optimism, arrogance or cynicism, and perhaps “a great deal of fear as well.” The reader is left to figure out for himself that what is being talked about is the subtle distance between what is practically the case or actually the case and the speaker’s presumption that he is in a position to call such fine distinctions. The dialogue goes on:
“Perhaps the word ‘practically’ means practically nothing.”
My companion laughed…. “You are very clever,” he said, “you got the better of me and at the same time you proved me right, practically.”
I laughed too, and then said at once: “However, in my case it is practically fear.”
Learning that the Indian is going to the holy city of Benares, the narrator asks if he is making a pilgrimage. “I’m going there to die,” the man replies. “I have only a few days left to live”; after which he suggests that it’s time they slept if they are to catch their early trains, and concludes: “I don’t suppose we shall have occasion to see each other again in the form in which we meet today, these present suitcases of ours. I wish you a pleasant journey.”
The mortal plight is both clearly stated and elegantly contained in this polite encounter between two strangers, always respectful of the rules of etiquette and the railway timetable, as the Jain lament likewise, for all its melancholy intensity, ends abruptly when “the station clock struck midnight…as if the wailer had been waiting for the hour to strike.” Apparently it is possible to face or at least talk about death if in refined, intelligently engaging company, but not perhaps with a horde of sunburned holidaymakers on a budget flight from Pisa to Luton.
Tabucchi published more than twenty works of fiction, of which five—Indian Nocturne, Vanishing Point, Requiem, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, and For Isabel—take the form of quests or investigations, while many of the others are driven by a desire to recover something irremediably lost, or savor an experience that might have been and never was (“My love, do you remember when we didn’t go to Samarkand?” writes one character in It’s Getting Later All the Time). That said, the exact terms of Tabucchi’s quests are never clear and the roles of quester and quested-after are all too easily reversed; indeed identity itself is so perilously or playfully uncertain that it is difficult to think of them as figures in a traditional novel at all.
The narrator of Indian Nocturne is searching for a friend, Xavier, who in some distant past was connected with two other friends, Isabel and Magda. We have no idea why he has decided to look for him or what happened between these friends, only that this quest appears to be the emotional core of the narrator’s life. Sitting down to write a letter to Isabel, he realizes that he meant it for Magda and tosses it away. The reader imagines tormented love triangles but is given no confirmation of this. At one point a monstrously deformed arhant, a Jain holy man, tells the narrator that he is not himself but “someone else.” In the last chapter of the book, when it seems the narrator is finally closing down on his quarry, having discovered that Xavier is using an alias that is actually an English translation of the narrator’s own nickname, he checks into a hotel that he believes Xavier is using, invites a woman he meets to dinner, and in the course of the evening tells her he is writing a book:
The central idea is that…I am someone who has lost his way in India…. There is someone else who is looking for me, but I have no intention of letting him find me. I saw him arrive and I have followed him day by day…. Perhaps he would like to grasp something that escaped him in the past. In a way he is looking for himself. I mean, it’s as if he were looking for himself, looking for me….
The narrator suddenly appears to have become the object of the quest, rather than the quester. As the two wind up their meal it turns out that another diner has picked up their check, or at least the narrator tells the girl this is the case. Is this other person our previous narrator? Who is it who is speaking to us: Xavier? If so, why has the voice of the text remained the same? The reader has no way of solving the conundrum. As a result what remains after reading the novel is above all a journey where everything is intensified by an ill-defined yearning. “The book is mainly that,” we are told, “his travelling. He has a whole series of encounters, naturally, because when one travels one meets people.” It is, we gather, the pleasure of these encounters that redeems the anxiety of the quest.
The question of multiple and slippery identities brings us to Tabucchi’s principle and lifelong inspiration, the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935). As a young man traveling in Paris, Tabucchi came across a French translation of a poem by Álvaro de Campos, one of Pessoa’s many pseudonyms. Entitled “The Tobacco Shop,” it begins:
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.
Windows of my room,
The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?),
You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A street inaccessible to any and every thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain,
With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With Destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.
The poem links failure to establish an identity with an inability to engage with the world, represented by the concrete reality of a tobacco shop across the street. At the same time this “failure” allows for a rich imaginative life of multiple identities; in fact Pessoa invented as many as seventy “heteronyms,” imaginary figures who supposedly authored his writings in different styles.
Captivated by this poem, Tabucchi would study Portuguese in order to read Pessoa’s work and eventually he became Italy’s main translator of Pessoa, teaching Portuguese literature at the universities of Bologna and Siena. In 1994 he wrote a novella, The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa, in which a hospitalized Pessoa, who also practiced spiritualism and automatic writing, meets the main heteronyms he had invented and discusses life, death, and identity with them, always in the politest, most decorous terms. “The gods will return,” says Pessoa at one point, quoting his imaginary mentor António Mora, “because this story of the single soul and only one god is a transient thing….” Then “our souls can be plural again, as Nature desires.”
Ever more identified with this man who shunned identity, in 1991 Tabucchi wrote the finest of his quest novels, Requiem, in Portuguese. Here, in a sequence of hallucinatory scenes on a blisteringly hot day in Lisbon, the narrator, who we are told to think of as “T,” again pursues friends from a distant past, but this time his encounters are frankly fantastical. Directed to a graveyard by a gypsy fortune-teller, he meets the long-dead Tadeus Waclaw, a Portuguese of Polish descent and a friend who apparently once shared T’s then girlfriend Isabel. Isabel, Tadeus claims, committed suicide because she didn’t know which of the two men had made her pregnant. T is not convinced.
Food is important in these novels. In contrast to the elusive nature of the narrative, great attention is paid to the business of eating, which, together with breathing, offers the most real exchange between ourselves and the world. (“Eat your chocolates, little girl,” writes Pessoa in “Tobacco Shop,” watching a child pass in the street. “Believe me, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolates.”) Much of the elaborate decorum that surrounds the conversations in Tabucchi’s novels is made up of the etiquette of eating, while the food itself provides a reassurance that offsets the undercurrent of anxiety.
But even food can require courage. The dead Tadeus takes T to eat at Senhor Casimiro’s trattoria and insists he try the traditional dish sarrabulho: pork cooked in blood. “I’ve never felt brave enough to eat this, today will be the death of me,” worries T. “You won’t regret it…my fearful friend,” says Tadeus. And in fact it turns out to be the best thing T has ever eaten, with “the subtlest of flavours.” Senhor Casimiro’s wife then offers a detailed recipe: “You need loin of pork, fat, lard, pig’s liver, tripe, a bowl of cooked blood, a whole bulb of garlic….” The kitchen in Tabucchi’s work is usually the domain of women, who are deeply and mysteriously involved in life in a way men cannot be, producing experiences with “the subtlest flavours” and in general promising a happiness that seems more real around the table than in the bedroom.
Eventually, T succeeds in calling up the ghost of the dead Isabel over a game of billiards in an old-fashioned gentleman’s club. But his subsequent meeting with her is not recorded. Every time we get to the heart of the matter, there is an elision, an empty space. At the end of Requiem a dozen notes describe the various Portuguese dishes consumed in the story, as if, like the addresses at the end of Indian Nocturne, they offered proof of some substance behind so much fantasy.
“Just when we might have started to think of him as an elegant dreamer-errant,” remarked the TLS, reviewing Tabucchi’s next novel, Pereira Declares (1994), the author “has mercilessly opened a window on the imminent implosion of modern democracy.” Unexpectedly, a sudden change of narrative strategy made Tabucchi the champion of the liberal left and, in Italy, of all those who saw the ascendancy of Silvio Berlusconi as a threat to freedom. Suddenly, a man whose work had seemed sublimely aloof found himself at the heart of political debate.
The novel, brief as ever, is again set in Lisbon, which allows Tabucchi to achieve his characteristic blend of concrete location and dreamy exoticism. It is summer 1938, the heat is oppressive, the characters are constantly sweating. This general physical discomfort is compounded by alarming news of beatings and killings as the Salazar regime grows daily more brutal. In Spain Franco has taken the upper hand in the civil war.
At the center of the novel is the journalist Pereira, and the title Pereira Declares immediately suggests an act of courageous denunciation far away from quibbles over the adverbs practically and actually. What “Pereira declares” is the sequence of events that led him to pass from being a fearful and dreamy intellectual to a man who risks his life for an ideal.
Son of an undertaker, now a middle-aged widower, the overweight, unfit Pereira has all but excluded himself from active life. Despite a heart condition he devours omelette sandwiches and drinks sweet lemonade all day long. His only intimate company is a photo of his dead wife and his only contact with the world the culture page he runs single-handed for a minor evening newspaper.
Thinking constantly about death, Pereira contacts a young man, Monteiro Rossi, who has written an interesting article on the subject and encourages him to prepare obituaries of writers likely to die in the near future. But Rossi is only interested in death insofar as it spurs him to live intensely. Dynamic and impatient, he dates a beautiful, revolutionary girlfriend and when invited to write about Garcia Lorca and Filippo Marinetti takes a fiercely left-wing position that makes his articles unpublishable.
This is the last thing Pereira needed, but he sees in Rossi a younger version of himself; indeed the dreamy, affectionate way the older man looks at Rossi and his girlfriend reminds us of how Tabucchi’s “quest” books look back on irrecoverable youth. Fearful himself, Pereira is fascinated by courage. What’s more, while the behavior of the fascist police is vulgar and ugly, the young revolutionaries are not only idealistic, but beautiful.
Pereira is torn. He becomes a source of income for Rossi though the young man is doing no real work for him. He helps him find a safe house for one of his revolutionary comrades. Meantime, to fill his culture page without making any overt political statement, he translates old French short stories by Maupassant and Daudet. But the mere publication of a French rather than Portuguese writer is understood as antipatriotic.
Pushed by his editor to become more nationalist but emotionally drawn to the amiable rebels, Pereira takes time out at a health clinic by the sea, where an enlightened doctor grasps his dilemma and offers him some advice drawn from nineteenth-century French psychology that will look familiar to readers of Pessoa. “To believe in a ‘self’ as a distinct entity…is a fallacy”; a sense of self is merely the effect of one “ruling ego” imposing itself on “the confederation of souls” that inhabits the mind. From time to time one ruling ego gives way to another and this is what is now happening to Pereira. Intrigued, Pereira solemnly repeats this theory to his wife’s photograph. The good doctor has given his patient a narrative of change.
Events precipitate. On the run, Rossi takes refuge in Pereira’s apartment. Fascist agents burst in, threaten Pereira, question, beat, and kill Rossi. Shaken, Pereira reacts with surprising aplomb. He writes an article denouncing what happened and devises an elaborate trick to fool the production men in his paper’s print room into believing the piece has been passed by the censor. With his colors finally nailed to the mast, Pereira escapes in the night to the freedom of France.
Immensely attractive as it is, there is no serious analysis of “the imminent implosion of modern democracy” in Pereira Declares. Rather we are asked to contemplate a situation where events force us to make a stand or retreat into abject cowardice. We identify with a likable, ineffectual, highly cultured, and melancholy man and rejoice in his decision to speak the truth, relieved that he is not made to suffer for it, something that allows the novel to end on a crowd-pleasing high (Rossi, the young man of action, is largely forgotten). Readers can congratulate themselves on being on the right side of the political divide with people who are charming and beautiful, while the “dark-suited thugs” who kill Rossi are led by a “weedy runt” whom Pereira accuses of being a “vulgar lout.” The book was a huge success and won the French award for best foreign novel.
How far sudden celebrity affected Tabucchi’s work it is hard to say, but from this point on he was locked into a polemic with the pro-Berlusconi press and in one article in Le Monde would describe Italy as a “fearful disoriented country whose information media is to a great extent gagged.” Elsewhere his response to Berlusconi seems to have had as much to do with the man’s perceived vulgarity as his threat to freedom.
In 1996 Tabucchi completed For Isabel, a novel that returned to the quest format and has the ghost of Tadeus Waclaw from Requiem on the tracks of the long-dead Isabel, who, we now learn, was a Communist rebel in her youth. However, Tabucchi chose not to publish the book, which would not appear until after his death in 2012. Instead he embarked on a number of works that seek a fusion between the dreamily elusive earlier writing and the determinedly political territory of Pereira Declares. The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro has a young crime journalist seeking to solve the mystery of a headless body found in a gypsy camp outside Porto, Portugal, and discovering that the murderer is a police agent protected by the state. Again the novel offers various intriguing encounters, with the journalist, a would-be literary academic, reflecting on the tension between reality and art, journalism and literature. Again there is a great deal of Portuguese cuisine and this time a bizarre lawyer who seems to have stepped out of the graveyard in Requiem. The book falls heavily between two stools.
Tristano Dies: A Life (2004) was a more serious attempt to bring together Tabucchi’s aesthetic and political interests. Dying from a gangrenous leg that he refuses to have amputated, Tristano, erstwhile hero of the antifascist partisans, unburdens himself to an unnamed writer who has already written about his wartime exploits, insisting that his experience was more complex and ambiguous than that portrayed in the book. Frequently addressed, the writer never speaks, while in narrating his life Tristano alternates between the third and first person, creating once again a certain confusion about the identity of the speaker.
The novel is packed with fragments of reflection and melodrama, but Tristano is garrulous and his attacks on contemporary Italy, while honorable and understandable, are hardly new. In the scene that decides his destiny, Tristano, an Italian soldier in Greece, kills a German soldier who has just shot two civilians, thus setting off an uprising just as he himself is rescued by an unspeakably beautiful Greek girl who hides him in her bedroom and plays Schubert on the piano. It is not believable.
In his last years Tabucchi returned to writing short stories that are often also accounts of travels. The form had always been congenial to him. The collection The Woman of Porto Pim (1983), which brought together tales and descriptions of the Portuguese Azores, remains a wonderfully seductive piece of writing, where the reader can find fragments like this:
Almas or alminhas: souls and little souls. A cross on a square stone block with a blue-and-white tile in the middle depicting St Michael. The souls appear on 2 November when St Michael fishes them out of purgatory with a rope. He needs a rope for every soul. São Miguel is full of crosses, and hence of souls who haunt the reefs, the precipices, the lava beaches where the sea lashes. Late at night or very early in the morning, if you listen carefully you can hear their voices. Confused wailing, litanies, whispers, which the skeptical or distracted may easily mistake for the noise of the sea or the crying of the vultures. Many are the souls of shipwrecked sailors.
Tabucchi’s last collection, Time Ages in a Hurry (2009), now published in English translation, declares its theme with admirable dispatch in the opening lines:
I asked him about the old days, when we were still so young, naive, hot-headed, silly, green. A little bit’s still there, except the young part, he answered.
The words are taken from a Polish poem that an old Swiss man recites in French with a heavy German accent at a family get-together in Geneva, and they set off a stream of reflection in a Parisian woman of North African origin who has married into the family and now examines her own false memories of a Maghreb grandmother, and mulls over her “failure” to have children and perpetuate a lost past. All the main characters of these nine stories find themselves looking back across lives conditioned by displacements in language and geography, groping for some elusive “little bit” of a younger self.
An old East German spy, now retired to a luxury apartment in West Berlin, tails imaginary “targets,” recalls spying on Bertolt Brecht, and in particular remembers how, when the Stasi files were opened, he found that he himself had been followed daily and that his wife had been betraying him with a high-ranking official. As with all fine writers, it is remarkable how the same themes surface effortlessly in Tabucchi’s work even when the material is quite new.
In particular there is an engaging dialogue between two Italians under sunshades on a Croatian beach: a sick man in his forties and a precocious young girl. Gradually, it emerges that neither was born in Italy: the girl, unsurprisingly called Isabel, is from Peru while the man was born “in a country that’s no longer on any maps”; yet both culturally are entirely Italian. The man, an invalided soldier, is dying of uranium poisoning while the girl is facing the breakup of her family. Nevertheless the entire conversation unfolds with great charm, playfulness, and decorum in a summery Mediterranean haze. It is a welcome return to Tabucchi at his best.