A prostitute from Mumbai sends you a letter. You don’t know who she is; you have never heard of her and have never been to India. Nor have you ever visited a prostitute. She addresses you by your first name and mentions your close friend in an intimate way, a friend who she says is in some sort of trouble, though she’s shy on the detail. What do you do?
Well once you realise that you are a key character in one of Antonio Tabucchi’s delicate little fictions you get on a ‘plane and head for India of course, which is exactly what the unnamed narrator-protagonist of his Indian Nocturne does. Half a day later our hero is riding an auto-rickshaw that buzzes like a demented wasp through the heaving streets of some seedy stretch of Mumbai, or Bombay as it was back in the day.
He arrives at the Hotel Khajuraho looking for Xavier, his Portuguese friend, and follows his trail around the city then on to Madras, Mangalore and Goa before definitively not finding him.
The engaging characters the unnamed man meets at every turn, the conversations he enters into, and the general happenings along the way set off very loud bells ringing in the heads of every European who, like me, in their later teenage years headed off to disentangle the enigma that is India and to lose themselves in it; we never succeeded but we certainly enjoyed the ride.
But is Tabucchi’s hero on a journey, and anyway, is he a hero? The short book (100 pages) is introduced as an “insomnia” leading the reader to wonder if he’s reading a linear historical account of a mad-cap adventure or a mixed-up telling of someone’s vaguely opium-scented dream from the night before.
The theme of identity throws up other interesting questions as it did for all of us young, bold adventurers of the 60s and 70s. The narrator is not named and the man he looks for is certainly Portuguese and bears the name Xavier, but beyond that he is hard to pin down. Xavier, Saviour, is illusive, leaves a confusing trail which might not be his, and is deemed in need of being saved himself.
Indian Nocturne is definitely a delight to read, but infuriating if the reader is looking for the puzzles to be solved and the loose ends to be tidied up. There are no answers and I was never sure of what the questions might have been. We are born, we get involved, we die, and the world is a more complex place for it, but what an adventure – we wouldn’t miss it for the world.