Antonio Tabucchi’s “travel book” transcends conventional literary forms: his stories occupy an attractive space between fiction and non-fiction, poetry, biography, short story, and journalistic travel piece.
The Woman of Porto Pim by Antonio Tabucchi. Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks. Archipelago Books, 106 pp., $15.
By Helen Epstein.
If you’re looking for pure literary pleasure and discovering an author not well-known to English-language readers, look no further than this slim sampling of disparate pieces (first published in Italian in 1983 and superbly translated by Tim Parks) from Antonio Tabucchi. Tabucchi’s work has passionate devotees across Europe and Latin America. Although he defined himself primarily as a teacher of literature, he wrote regularly for Italian newspapers and received prizes for several of his novels. But perhaps because of his unusual combination of interests as well as the politics of translation, he is less known in the United States.
The late Italian writer and academic died in 2012. In the 1960s as a student at the Sorbonne, Tabucchi fell in love with the work and life of the Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa, whose work he first discovered in a Paris book stall. Tabucchi subsequently devoted much of his academic and literary career to studying and translating the work of this mystic as well as exploring the Portugese music, culture, and literature that informed Pessoa’s work. He married a Portugese, lived in Portugal for long periods of time, and found many of his subjects in its history. The pieces in The Woman of Porto Pim are set in the Azores, that archipelago of volcanic islands situated in the Atlantic between Lisbon and Newfoundland, where Tabucchi travelled.
Despite its romantic title, much of The Woman of Porto Pim is about whalemen and whaling. I’m one of those readers who have never been able to make it through Moby Dick and didn’t expect to be charmed by a seafaring text, but Tabucchi is such a captivating narrator, with so idiosyncratic a sensibility and playful a way of expressing it, that I found myself savoring even that half of his book, even though I felt he had disguised a set of free associations that might be titled “All You Ever Wanted to Know about Whaling” as a travelogue.
“I’m very fond of travel books,” Tabucchi writes in his Prologue. “Yet an elementary sense of loyalty obliges me to put any reader who imagines that this little book contains a travel diary on his or her guard. The travel diary requires either a flair for on-the-spot writing or a memory untainted by the imagination that memory itself generates—qualities which, out of a paradoxical sense of realism, I have given up any hope of acquiring. Having reached an age at which it seems more dignified to cultivate illusions than foolish aspirations, I have resigned myself to the destiny of writing after my own fashion.”
Tabucchi’s “travel book” transcends conventional literary forms: his stories occupy an attractive space between fiction and non-fiction, poetry, biography, short story, and journalistic travel piece. Like an eager adolescent, he collects quotations he finds meaningful and showcases them on an equal footing with his own writing. The reader feels less as though she is reading a completed narrative than sitting on the shoulder of the writer as he considers his narrative-in-progress, riding on his train of associations as he experiences them. Like Borges, Tabucchi is steeped in literature. He presents such a wide range of literary references that the reader is provoked to stop reading and research them. Even afterwards, one can easily return four or five times to a sentence and feel that there is more to be gleaned from it. This is dense poetic writing, imbued with ideas, images and sensations, in a stye that swerves erratically from the casual and conversational to the ceremonially ornate.
It is in the casual, conversational mode that Tabucchi confides to the reader how each of the pieces in his book came to be. About the genesis of a fictional profile of Antero de Quental, “that great and unhappy poet who measured the depth of the universe and the human spirit within the brief compass of the sonnet,” Tabucchi writes, “I owe to Octavio Paz’s suggestion that poets have no biography and that their work is their biography, the idea of writing this story as if its subject were a fictional character.” He traces the origins of the island allegory he titles “Hesperides: A Dream in Letter Form,” partly to reading Plato and “partly to the rolling motion of a slow bus from Horta to Almoxarife. It may be that in the transition from dream to text the content has suffered some distortions, but each of us has the right to treat his dreams as he thinks fit.”
Tabucchi’s headier riffs alternate with description of concrete, closely observed situations, as in the story titled “Small Blue Whales Strolling about the Azores” in which the author unabashedly records his experience of eavesdropping on a couple of fellow tourists and creates out of it a fragment of “guided fiction.” Explaining that he has no idea of the context of the conversation he overheard, Tabucchi writes, “I presume it is about a kind of shipwreck. which is why I put it in the chapter where it is.”
Archipelago Books, I learned is a not-for-profit publisher “devoted to promoting cross-cultural exchange through innovative classic and contemporary international literature.” I thank them for introducing me to Tabucchi and for so brilliantly fulfilling their literary mission.