The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro–Antonio Tabucchi




What BB King has to do with Antonio Tabucchi….

I came to my second venture into the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi’s novels through the side door so to speak. I had read his Indian Nocturne some while ago, and was mostly distracted by an incredibly bad translation. It was disappointing, as I had been given to believe Tabucchi is Italy’s most respected living novelist. In my mostly unsystematic research for reviewing Nobel contenders, Tabucchi’s name kept appearing on lists. In keeping with Traces focus on things in the corner, the margins, of course his better known 1994 Pereira Declares and supposedly masterful short stories were passed over in favor of this 1996 New Directions published novel translated by J.C. Patrick (not the same translator as for Indian Nocturne). Many times recognized in European letters, Tabucchi must have at least a wall devoted to his considerable array of literary prizes. He is a part-time Professor of Portuguese at Siena University and spends the rest of his time with his Portugese wife in Lisbon.

Viscera (a.k.a. The Thrill is Gone)

Set in Oporto Portugal, the protagonist, Firmino is a young Lisbon tabloid journalist. He is sent out to look into a report that a Gypsy had found a headless corpse in his encampment. As we begin to follow Firmino in his investigations, we are introduced to the illustrious lawyer Don Fernando, who becomes a sort of mentor for Firmino, and the pension owner, Donna Rosa. The mystery, which I will effortlessly not reveal more of, unfolds equally effortlessly on Firmino’s part, as the puzzle is rather rapidly pieced together with the guidance of both the lawyer and Donna Rosa without as much of a hint of interference from higher powers. The question of influences, and the sociological impact of literature is a back story. Firmino also happens to be an aspiring literary critic, and he is repeatedly queried by the sagacious lawyer as to the methods he intends to use in his investigations, both in this case as well as the approach he will use in his aim of someday publishing a thesis on Post Realistic Portuguese Fiction. Firmino explains that the Marxist Critic Lukacs has been a great influence on his thinking. The learned Don Fernando reveals in one of several of his ‘lectures’ to Firmino that the Austrian legal philosopher Hans Kelson has been his obsession.

Bones: (a.k.a. Why I Sing the Blues)

The novel’s framework is conventional enough. With the exception of the opening chapter narrated from the POV of Manolo the Gypsy “King of the shit heap,” the rest of the narrative is all from Firimino’s lens with the exception of inserting three of Firmino’s newspaper special edition reports into the narrative as well as a later badly reproduced tape recording of the pivotal trial. The novel spoofs the mystery/thriller form, as Tabucchi’s narrative ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’, not to dramatize plot events, but as a mechanism to allow the cerebral dialogue between Don Fernando and Firmino to replace the normal dramatic tension from mystery sleuthing that is absent. The prose is attenuated to bring the scenes into an ultra sharp focus without being heavy handed. The narrative voice is genteel for treating such a hard-boiled subject. Most interesting for me are the bohemian cast of peripheral players set up against the back drop of a corrupt local government.

Themes and such: ( a.k.a. Nobody loves me but my mama, and she could be jivin’ too)

Tabuchi examines through the interchange between mentor and pupil, the idea of dialectics, or binaries: Truth vs. Untruth, oppressive state vs. the individual, theory (influences: both literary and philosophical) vs. practice (how, or if, one finally acts). Firmino ironically caries with him a tourist guidebook that becomes an actual frame of reference for how he is going to finally view the chronicle of events he has uncovered. Another motif is one of moral decay. The decaying head as well as the scattered statements by characters referencing their state of ‘rot’.

What I took away: (Lucille speaks)

Tabucchi has been called Italy’s Graham Greene, though I am not completely sure why, having only read two of the former’s books. I do see similarities in their moral, humanistic tone. Its pace is brisk despite the heady (excuse the pun) material. The Don Fernando dissertations while interesting, are not supported by the narrative momentum and I found myself wishing that he would make use of a breathmint. His spider web that is to lead everything to the center, for me is too slight and the strands not sticky enough for the weight of its intended prey.








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