'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Boston Book Review, September/October 2000

Somnabulist noir

Dreams of Dreams, and
The Last Three Days of Ferndando Pessoa
Antonio Tabucchi
Translated by Nancy J. Peters
City Lights
120 pp. $10.95


y favorite aunt could never offer a plate of biscotti without first confessing that they were overbaked, flavorless, too dry even for coffee, and the Italian author Antonio Tabucchi is her self-effacing twin. In all of his various prefaces and afterwards, he scrapes so low to the ground in apologizing to the various masters he may have disappointed, the readers who shouldn't expect too much, that the hand offering us these stories and novels seems to rise out of a puddle.

A little modesty can go a long way, needless to say, on the page as in life, yet the wonder is that Tabucchi's modesty never goes too far. Rather, his self-effacement seems a sort of prayer, a quiet emptying of the ego, allowing his exquisite, unique stories to emerge.

Many of Tabucchi's stories derive their narrative force by being puzzles. They begin in motion and end in air. What we read is the narrator's attempt to understand what has happened, and the reader is given no more and no less information than the narrator himself. Yet one of his gifts -- he has several -- is the way that he hides the complete story inside the narrator's troubled telling. This is most obvious in "The Riddle," a story from Tabucchi's second collection, "Little Misunderstandings of No Importance" (1987). The narrator is having a drink in a bar. A woman approaches. "I'm the Countess of Terrail," she says, "and I need to get to Biarretz." Someone is trying to kill her, she says. We get the story of their love affair, the puzzle of whether she vanished or was murdered, plus passing comments on Proust, luxury cars, and the beauty of the French countryside. All this is handled so casually that the cohesion of the story seems a sort of magic.

Tabucchi's narrators are an eclectic group -- a mother grieving for a lost son, a mechanic chatting up a stranger in a bar, a bitter husband telling the story of his divorce as if it were a missing chapter from Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night." Even in a single story Tabucchi moves in and out of the minds of his various characters. Yet the voice is always consistent, and his worth as a writer derives from it. Curious, casual, telling stories that seem unrehearsed. His instinct for what he should hold back, what he should reveal, which forces the reader into the narrative, combined with a superb skill for handling the passing of time, somehow approximates the passing of time itself. His stories are holes that we stumble into, surprised to find ourselves floating.

Though he published his first novel, "Piazza d'Italia," in Italy in 1975, it wasn't until his first short story collection, "Letter from Casablanca," in 1986 that Tabucchi was introduced to an English speaking audience. The New York Times gave us the lowdown. "Antonio Tabucchi's short stories have arrived in English just in time to miss their moment," meaning that they were late Borges and not nearly as good ("elegantly contrived barriers to the reader's interest"). As it happens, one of the stories, "Saturday Afternoons," is a small masterpiece, and another, "Letter from Casablanca," is a jewel, and if the rest are minor it is only by comparison. Though Tabucchi clearly loves theory, he remains always a writer. A still, hot summer day is still and hot. A man writes a letter to a sister he hasn't spoken to in eighteen years, trying to catch her up on his life, describing isolated days in those years when his life changed, and Tabucchi, without any perceptible slowing of the narrative, convinces us that a life can change in exactly this way. If the New York Times has remained resistant to Tabucchi's talent, the European press has reacted differently, and among his many prizes are the coveted Viareggio and Campiello prizes, the Prix Européen Jean Monnet and the Prix Médicis Etranger.

Five of Tabucchi's novels have been translated into English. "Indian Nocturne" (1988), "The Edge of the Horizon" (1990), "Requiem: A Hallucination" (1994), "Pereira Declares" (1995), and "The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro" (1999). What is striking about the novels is that they are as much about the countries in which they are set, as about their characters. They are certainly never about their plot. "Indian Nocturne," Tabucchi's most acclaimed work, records a man's discovery of India as he searches for a missing friend. He moves from slum to hospital to the Taj Mahal, less a sleuth than a sleepwalker, carefully recording his impressions. Both "Pereira Declares" and "The Missing Head" are set in Portugal, which Tabucchi considers a second homeland. "I love Portugal," he has said, "precisely because it is a country of the South, a land of bright light and bright sun, of very long days that end at ten o'clock at night: it is a country where I experience a constant sense of well-being."

"Pereira Declares" and "The Missing Head" are both structured as B-movie detective stories, and should be considered as companion pieces. Set in 1938, Pereira Declares tells the story of a melancholy old journalist (played by Marcello Mastroianni in the 1995 film version) who recognizes his lost idealism in a young student, while The Missing Head, set in present-day, presents a callow young journalist (and grad student, Tabucchi's favorite target) who learns idealism from a fat, weary lawyer nicknamed Lotton (after Charles Laughton). Both novels offer something new in Tabucchi, villains, drawn with all the authenticity of Snidely Whiplash, as if Tabucchi's imagination failed him in the face of evil. What is more convincing is his attack on political systems -- in Pereira Declares, the Salazar regime which supported Franco and Hitler, and in The Missing Head, the police state which tortures for profit.

Lotten, the weary lawyer, describes torture for his grad student as a Grundnorm, an Absolute Norm. He cites a German psychoanalyst's theory that mankind cannot suppress its destructive impulses. "I therefore made a [choice]," says Lotten, "to dump theory and put things into practice… it is humbler to go into court and defend those who undergo such treatment. I couldn't say whether it's more useful to write a treatise on agriculture or to break up a clod of earth with a mattock, but I decided to work with the mattock, like a peasant. I spoke of humility just now, but don't put too much faith in that, because when it comes down to it my attitude is more one of pride." With the same pride hidden inside humility, Tabucchi chose something between the farm and philosophy, which was to tell stories.

Interwoven through both books is a marvelous erudition, not quite the wallop to the head that Eco delivers: more like ripe apples that occasionally fall. One of the incidental pleasures in reading Tabucchi is that he offers an introduction to writers and philosophers one may not be familiar with, among them Hans Kelsen, Louise Colet, Marcel Jouhandeau. The narrator in "The Riddle" is struggling with an unfinished thesis, "What Proust Saw From a Car," and the young journalist of The Missing Head is using Lukács to study post-war Portuguese literature. His mentor urges him to abandon Lukács and study weather reports instead. By the end he has taken the advice: "Newspaper weather reports as a metaphor of prohibition in a 1960s Portuguese novel," is the new title of his thesis.

"And a very fine title too," his mentor comments.

Sex in Tabucchi is only suggested. The essential relationships are generally between men. This may be sexism, it may be homoeroticism. The young narrator of "Saturday Afternoons" responds to his father's absence and his mother's pain with breathtaking sympathy and insight. The drag queen in "Letter From Casablanca" writes to his sister not only to catch her up with his life, but to ask that she bury him beside his beloved mother. Both Pereira Declares and The Missing Head seem to be alternative versions of Ulysses, two more encounters between a younger writer and his would-be father.

In his own life, Tabucchi's Bloom seems to have been the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who died more or less anonymously in 1938, only a slim volume of poems appearing in his lifetime. But over the years the many boxes he left behind have been slowly opened and from them has flown a still-growing catalogue, securing Pessoa's reputation as one of the major poets of the twentieth century. Reading Pessoa, one understands better where Tabucchi's concerns derive from, his generosity, his responsiveness, his open ended way of seeing people. But how these concerns combine, the extraordinary skill within the charm, that is Tabucchi's alone.

Tabucchi's newest book, comprised of two short works, "Dreams of Dreams" and "The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa," is so bare bones that it seems posthumously published, something dragged down from an attic by greedy heirs. The preface is even more abject than usual, though here to no avail. Though Tabucchi tries to imagine the dreams of men he has admired, his efforts evoke neither the men themselves nor the nature of his love for them. So what if Daedalus dreams of finding Icarus trapped in his maze, longing for the moon? Or if Freud dreams that he is Dora, propositioned by a butcher boy? What I liked were the brief biographies of the dreamers offered at the end, among them François Villon, Caravaggio, and Giacomo Leopardi.

The second piece, "The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa," is equally stark. What we have is the great poet taking himself to the hospital to die, where he will be visited by four of his "heteronyms." There are no curious details, no clever bits of action, no puzzles. Just a man dying as calmly as Buddha, being visited by his poetic creations.

I couldn't help but interpret these thin stories as Tabucchi's response to his growing fame. Both Pereira Declares and The Missing Head were bestsellers in Europe, and Tabucchi seems to be moving into the slot that Calvino's death has opened up. Self-effacing even in triumph, he has apparently decided to retreat, holding his admirers at bay with a pair of charmless, practically mumbled, stories. What Tabucchi needs now is a new prayer, his former prayer having been so beautifully answered.