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by Bamber Gascoigne

Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012)


Italian writer, a master of the short story and novella, professor of Portuguese language and literature. As a scholar and translator Antonio Tabucchi was especially known for his work on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Although Tabucchi did not belong to a particular literary "school" or current, his stories constantly play in line with postmodern narration techniques with the contradiction between author and reader.

"He blew his nose again and went on: Besides, the one hundred escudo notes are cool, they've got a picture of Fernando Pessoa on them, and now let me ask you a question, do you like Pessoa? Very much, I replied, I could even tell you a good story about him, but it's not worth it"... (from Requiem: A Hallucination, 1992)

Antonio Tabucchi was born in Pisa, in Tuscany, the son of Antonio Tabucchi, a horse trader, and Tina Pardella. He grew up in his maternal grandparents' home in Vecchiano, a village not far from Pisa, which was bombed the Allies during WW II. Tabucchi was educated at the University of Pisa and graduated in 1969 with the thesis Surrealism in Portugal. He then furthered his education at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. As a novelist Tabucchi made his debut in 1975 with Piazza d'Italia, which was an attempt to look at, as the author himself said, "history that hasn't been written, history as written by the losing side, in this case the Tuscan anarchists. My books are about losers, about people who've lost their way and are engaged in a search."  ('Tabucchi, Antonio' by F.C. [Forrest Cole] in World Authors 2000-2005, ed. by Jennifer Curry et al., 2007, p. 718) Although the work had some elements in common with Gabriel García Márquez's magical realist novel Cien años de soledad, beginning with the flexible time concept, Tabucchi dismissed similarities as superficial.

Tabucchi's first collection of short stories, Il gioco del rovescio (1981, Letter from Casablanca), won the Pozzale-Luigi Russo Prize. From 1978 to 1987 Tabucchi worked as a lecturer in literature at the University of Genoa. In 1991 he became Professor of Portuguese at the University of Sienna. His time Tabucchi divided between Lisbon, and Italy. He was also a staff member of the Italian Institute of Culture in Lisbon until 1991. Tabucchi's columns  appeared in Corriere della Sera, the leading Italian newspaper, and El País, the most influential Spanish newspaper. 

After reading 'Tabacaria,' a poem by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) on a trip to France, Tabucchi became fascinated by the Portuguese poet, sharing this interest with writers such as the Nobel laureate José Saramago (1922-2010) and the South-African poet Roy Campbell (1901-1957). Pessoa, who masqueraded behind literary alter egos, was relatively unknownduring his life time, and died in obscurity. Tabucchi edited in Italian Pessoa's poems and published critical studies on him, some of which have been collected in Un baule pieno di gente (1990) and Gli ultimi tre giorni di Fernando Pessoa (1994), in which Tabucchi examined the last three days in the life of Pessoa. In Sogni di sogni, a collection of short stories of dreams of famous writers and artists, one of the dreamers is Pessoa, who meets his heteronym Alberto Caeiro in South-Africa on March 7, 1914. You must listen to my voice, Caeiro tells his visitor. (Next day, the 8th of March, 1914, Pessoa began to write poetry.)

Pessoa has been described as "Tabucchi's spiritual father, a presence which looms over all the Italian author's fiction." (The Phoenix Speaks: The Reclamation of Socio-Political Engagement in the Works of Leonardo Sciascia and Antonio Tabucchi, 1975-2005 by Elizabeth Wren-Owens, 2005, p. 242) Another source of influence was Pirandello. In the one-act play Il signor Pirandello è desiderato al telefono (1988, Telephone Call for Mr. Pirandello), set in a Portuguese psychiatric hospital, Pessoa or actor playing the writer wants to telephone Pirandello.

Describing his writing process in an interview Tabucchi said that "It's between waking and sleeping, in that precise moment when thoughts begin to wander and to become dreams, that I hear voices. Bit by bit, by dint these visist, these voices become faces, silhouettes, then speaking characters whom I let guide me, by instinct." (Pessoa in an International Web: Influence and Innovation by David G. Frier, 2012, p. 179)

The question of identity has been a central theme in Tabucchi's fiction. In Il filo dell'orizzonte (1986), written in the form of the detective novel, the protagonist is a former medical student, Spino. His name refers to the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who argued that if reality is both thought and thing, anything whatever can be appropriately interpreted in two ways. Spino tries to solve the mystery around the death of Carlo Noboldi, whose identity is elusive. Thus, the body of Noboldi is a thing, but it also unlocks the philosophical dimensions of life and death. In Notturno indiano (1984) the narrator travels to India to search his friend, Xavier, who starts to resemble the narrator's alter ego. Eveltually Xavier becomes the narrator.

Requiem; un'allucinazione (1992) was originally written in Portuguese and later translated into Italian. It was Tabucchi's homage to Lisbon and the Portuguese language, and captured the melancholy mood called saudade, an inexplicable longing, a sense of the simultaneous beauty and inescapable sadness of life. In Sostiene Pereira. Una testimonianza (1994), set in Lisbon in 1938, a widowed and overweight cultural editor takes stand against Salazar's regime. The narrator relates Pereira's testimony of an era, when freedom of expression was under attack. The book became a bestseller, and in Italy the figure of Peraira was adopted by the left-wing opposition in their parliamentary election campaign. The target was the media magnate, soon-to-be Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose right-wing coalition won the 1994 election. 

La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro (1997, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro) partly drew on a report by the Council of Europe on police violence. Tabucchi's protagonist is a young journalist, who investigates an actual unsolved case, in which a man had been tortured, murdered and decapitated in an office of the Republican National Guard. The case brought Amnesty International into Lisbon. In the story the guilty party, and the corrupt system, goes unpunished, but soon after the publication of the book, a RPG police officer confessed the real-life murder. Tabucchi was criticized by the Portuguese press for his portrayal of police brutality.

Tabucchi was one of the founders of the International Parliament of Writers, which among other activities maintains a network of refuge cities for writers and their families. Opposing Umberto Eco's view, that the intellectual must stand aloof from practical revolutionary activity, Tabucchi  did not shy a way from political issues and expressing his anti-fascist sentiments.

Both Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) and Tabucchi examined in their books the case of Adriano Sofri, a journalist and writer, who was found guilty of orchestrating the murder of the police commissioner Luigi Calabresi.  Sciascia's A futura memoria (1989), based on his newspaper articles, casted doubt on the evidence and Sofri's capacity to order the killing, whereas Tabucci analysed the trial from various perspectives in La gastrite di Platone (1998), including from the responsibility of intellectuals. 

Si Sta facendo Sempre Più Tardi (2001, It's Getting Later All the Time) renewed the traditional epistolary novel. The book consist of 17 letters composed by unidentified men, but the 18th letter, written by an oracular woman, responds to them all. Although Tabucchi's stories have surrealistic elements, they do not belong to the realm of fantasy, from which his countryman Italo Calvino drew a good deal of his ideas. Often Tabucchi deals with painful periods of European history, the Spanish Civil War, Fascism, the Red Brigades era. His writing is clear, but much is left unsaid, and the mood is often melancholic and dreamlike. "Literature for me isn’t a workaday job," Tabucchi said in his famous quote, "but something which involves desires, dreams and fantasy."

Tabucchi's awards include Inedito Prize in 1975, Pozzale Luigi Russo Prize in 1981, the French "Medicis Etranger" in 1987, Viareggio and Campiello Prizes in 1994, and the Nossack Prize from the Leibniz Academy in 1999. In 1989 Tabucchi was conferred the title of "Comendador da Ordem do Infante Dom Enrique," by the President of the Portuguese Republic, Mario Soares. In 1996 he was made "Officier des Arts et Lettres" in France. Tabucchi was married to María José Lancastre, a native of Lisbon; they had two children. With her Tabucchi also translated much of Pessoa’s work into Italian.

After Roberto Saviano, the writer of Gomorrah, revealed that Naples-area mafia wants to kill him because of the book and he has to flee the country, Tabucchi said that the mafia have "Italy over a barrel, . . .  this is proof of that." Renato Schifani, the president of the Italian senate, decided in 2009 to take Tabucchi to court for an acticle he wrote for L'Unita. Tabucchi had referred to his former connections to people condemned for mafia. A petition, 'Nous soutenons Antonio Tabucchi,' published in Le Monde, was signed by such well-known writers as Martin Amis, Stefano Benni, Yves Bonnefoy, Patrick Chamoiseau, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Claudio Magris, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, and José Saramago. Tabucchi died of cancer on 25 March, 2012, in Lisbon.

For further reading: The New Italian Novel, ed. by Z. Baránski and L. Pertile (1993); 'Antonio Tabucchi: Postmodern Catholic Writer' by Charles D. Klopp, in World Literature Today, March 22 (1997); 'Rethinking Modernity in Antonio Tabucchi's Narrative Work' by Assumpta Camps, in Italian Culture, December 22 (2002); L'uomo Inquieto: Identita E Alterita Nell'opera Di Antonio Tabucchi by Pia Lausten (2005); The Novel as Investigation: Leonardo Sciascia, Dacia Maraini, and Antonio Tabucchi by Jo-Ann Cannon (2006); 'Tabucchi, Antonio' by F.C. [Forrest Cole] in World Authors 2000-2005, ed. by Jennifer Curry et al. (2007); Postmodern Ethics: The Re-appropriation of Committed Writing in the Works of Antonio Tabucchi and Leonardo Sciascia 1975-2005 by Elizabeth Wren-Owens (2007); 'Key Author: Antonio Tabucchi: Declares Pereira (Sostiene Pereira)' by Elisabetta Tarantino, in Books, edited by Lucy Daniel (2007); In, on and through Translation: Tabucchi's Travelling Texts by Liz Wren-Owens (2018); Antonio Tabucchi and the Visual Arts: Images, Visions and Insights by Michela Meschini (2018) 

Selected works:

  • La parola interdetta. Poeti surrealisti portoghesi, 1971 (edited by Antonio Tabucchi)
  • Zero, by Ignázio de Loyola, 1974 (translator)
  • Il treno di Recife, by José Lins do Rego, 1974 (translator)
  • Piazza d'Italia, 1975
  • Il teatro portoghese del dopoguerra, 1976
  • Il piccolo naviglio: romanzo, 1978
  • Una sola moltitudine, by Fernando Pessoa, 1979 (editor)
  • Il gioco del rovescio, 1981
    - Letter from Casablanca: Stories (translated by Janice M. Thresher, 1986)
  • Donna di Porto Pim, 1983
    - Woman of Porto Pim (translated by Tim Parks, 1989)
    - film: Dama de Porto Pim (2001), prod. Creativos Asociados de Radio y Televisión (CARTEL), Gonafilm, dir. José Antonio Salgot, starring Emma Suárez, Antonio Resines and Sergio Peris-Mencheta
  • Il Poeta e la finzione: scritti su Fernando Pessoa, 1983 (editor)
  • Pessoana mínima: escritos sobre Fernando Pessoa, 1984
  • Notturno indiano, 1984
    - Indian Nocturne: A Novella (translated by Tim Parks, 1988)
    - Intialainen yösoitto (suom. 2000)
    - film Nocturne indien (1989), prod. AFC, Sara Films, Ciné Cinq, dir. by Alain Corneau, starring Jean-Hugues Anglade, Clémentine Célarié, Otto Tausig, T.P. Jain, Iftekhar 
  • Piccoli equivoci senza importanza, 1985
    - Little Misunderstandings of No Importance (translated by Frances Frenaye, 1991)
    - Pieniä yhdentekeviä väärinkäsityksiä (suom. Jorma Kapari, 1989)
    - films: Cinema (1988), TV film, prod Reteitalia, Falcon Associés, dir. Luigi Magni, starring Virna Lisi, Lando Buzzanca, Sandra Collodel, Ramon Pons; Rebus (1988), dir.  Massimo Guglielmi, starring  Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Massimo Girotti, Charlotte Rampling, Cosimo Cinieri
  • Il filo dell'orizzonte, 1986
    - The Edge of the Horizon (translated by Tim Parks, 1990) / Vaninshing Point (UK title, 1991)
    - Taivaanranta (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1995)
    - film: O Fio do Horizonte (1993), prod. C.T.N. Productions, Caméras Continentales, Canal+, dir. Fernando Lopes, starring Claude Brasseur, Andréa Ferréol, Ana Padrão, Antonio Valero 
  • I volatili del Beato Angelico, 1987
    - The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico (translated by Tim Parks, 1991)
  • Sentimento del mondo, by Carlos Drummond Andrade, 1987 (editor and translator)
  • I dialoghi mancati-Il signor Pirandello è desiderato al telefono-Il tempo stringe, 1988
  • Tanta saluti, 1988 (with Tullio Pericoli)
  • Le mappe del desiderio: un viaggio, 1989
  • Un baule pieno di gente: scritti su Fernando Pessoa, 1990
  • L'angelo nero, 1991
  • El siglo XX, balance y perspectivas; seguido de, La novela, el problema: una conversación con Antonio Tabucchi, 1991
  • Requiem; un'allucinazione, 1992
    - Requiem: A Hallucination (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 1994)
    - Requiem (suom. Päivi Kapanen, 1995)
    - film: Requiem (1998), prod. CAB Productions, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Filmograph S.A., dir. Alain Tanner, starring Francis Frappat, André Marcon, Alexandre Zloto, Cécile Tanner 
  • Sogni di sogni, 1992
    - Dreams of Dreams and The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa (translated by Nancy J. Peters, 2000)
    - Unien unia (suom. Leena Rantanen, 2008)
  • Gli ultimi tre giorni di Fernando Pessoa, 1994
    - Dreams of Dreams and the Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa (translated by Nancy J. Peters)
  • Sostiene Pereira. Una testimonianza, 1994
    - Pereira Declares: A Testimony (translated by Patrick Creagh, 1995)
    - Kertoo Pereira (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1996)
    - film Sostiene Pereira (1995), dir. by Roberto Faenza, music by Ennio Morricone, starring Marcello Mastroianni, Daniel Auteuil, Stefano Dionisi, Nicoletta Braschi, Marthe Keller, Joaquim de Almeida
  • Conversazione con Antonio Tabucchi: Dove va il romanzo?, 1997 (edited by Paola Gaglianone and Marco Cassini)
  • Marconi, se ben mi ricordo: una pièce radiofonica, 1997
  • Antonio Tabucchi. A Collection of Essays, 1997 (edited by B. Ferraro and N. Prunster)
  • La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro, 1997
    - The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro (translated by J.C.Patrick, 1999)
    - Damanesco Monteiron katkaistu pää (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1999)
  • La gastrite di Platone, 1998 (2. ed.)
  • Si sta facendo sempre più tardi: romanzo in forma di lettere, 2001
    - It's Getting Later All the Time: A Novel in the Form of Letters (translated by Alastair McEwen, 2006)
  • Autobiografie altrui: poetiche a posteriori, 2003
  • Brescia, piazza della Loggia, 28 maggio 1974-2004, 2004 (with Gianni D'Elia and Gilberto Zorio)
  • Tristano muore: una vita, 2004
    - Tristano Dies: a Life (translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris, 2015)
  • L’Oca al passo, 2006
  • Una realtà parallela: dialogo con Antonio Tabucchi, 2008 (with Marco Alloni)
  • Il tempo invecchia in fretta: nove storie, 2009
    - Time Ages in a Hurry (translated from the Italian by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani, 2015)
  • Viaggi e altri viaggi, 2010 (edited by Paolo Di Paolo)
  • Racconti con figure, 2011
  • Per Isabel, 2013
    - For Isabel: a Mandala, 2017 (translated by Elizabeth Harris) 
  • Message from the Shadows, 2019 (translated from Italian by Anne Milano Appel, Martha Cooley, Frances Frenaye, Elizabeth Harris, Tim Parks, Antonio Romani, and Janice M. Thresher)
  • Stories With Pictures, 2021 (translated by Elizabeth Harris)

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