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.”
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.