The world is a poorer, more vulnerable place as of last week when the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi died of cancer at the age of 68. Professor of Portuguese literature in the University of Genoa, and expert on the life and work of Portugal’s best known twentieth century poet, Fernando Pessoa, it was fitting that Tabucchi should have ended his life in Lisbon, the city he loved and the place where he spent so much time. His long association with Lisbon shows when he used it as the setting for his gently devastating novel Declares Pereira in which he issues a call to arms to all who are in a position to work against oppression.
It is said that a generation of young Italians, disillusioned with left and right wing politics of mid-twentieth century Italy took to Tabucchi much like the post war generation of French youth took to Camus in France He gave people a voice and gave the world permission to speak, to ask why and to say no.
And Tabucchi had his detractors. Disgraced former Prime Minister Berlusconi was irritated by Tabucchi, and there is surely some satisfaction to be ha in the fact that the writer was able to stave off death till he saw Berlusconi ousted.
Tabucchi’s writing is not always an easy read, nor is it meant to be, although it is in many ways quite delicious. A possible exception is Declares Pereira, a straightforward narrative that exposes those who decry political misbehaviour among the governing classes but do nothing about it, keeping their heads down in the hope that everything will turn out for the best somehow.
Indian Nocturne , on the other hand, introduces itself as an “Insomnia” that proposes a man who is on a quest to find a missing friend. The friend is illusive and his trail is faint and intermittent and he is never found and the reader is left wondering if he is reading a story or snatches of a badly remembered dream.
Death, life, dream, reality, identity, shadows, oppression, liberty, responsibility….. they are all scattered generously about Tabucchi’s fictions. They tease and tantalise and never take the reader down the path he thinks he might be on.
Revolutionaries, grocers, priests, journalists, ladies in train carriages – they all live in Tabucchi’s pages somewhere, waiting to be introduced, waiting for a conversation with whatever reader turns the page. They might be sitting in the corner of a dusty room that has been closed up for years, at the end of a tapped telephone line or at the gates of an empty cemetery, but they are there somewhere, just waiting for the next passerby.