The Boston Book Review, September/October 2000
Dreams of Dreams, and
The Last Three Days of Ferndando Pessoa
Translated by Nancy J. Peters
120 pp. $10.95
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
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
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
"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
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.