Tuesday, May 8, 2012

That’s precisely what literature should do, be disquieting I mean - Antonio Tabucchi's Requiem

Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem: A Hallucination (1991) is a love letter to Portuguese culture.  Tabucchi is an Italian writer who became, through diligence and enthusiasm, a Portuguese adoptee.  Fitting its subject, Requiem is written in Portuguese.  The subtitle, the hallucination, is an addition to the English version,* but a useful one.

A Tabucchi-like narrator spends a hot July day – noon to midnight, actually – wandering in a dream Lisbon, revisiting its cultural treasures and sites from his past, encountering ordinary Portuguese and dead friends.  The climax of the novel is a dinner with Fernando Pessoa:

I know, he said, with me it always finishes that way, but don’t you think that’s precisely what literature should do, be disquieting I mean?, personally I don’t trust literature that soothes people’s consciences.  Neither do I, I agreed, but you see, I’m already full of disquiet, your disquiet just adds to mine and becomes anxiety.  I prefer anxiety to utter peace, he said, given the choice.  (99)

Requiem is honestly not an anxious or even disquieted novel.

Portuguese cuisine is one of the featured cultural treasures.  Oh yes yes:

I’ll tell you the ingredients for a real sarrabulho, I never measure anything, I do everything by eye, anyway, you need loin of pork, fat, lard, pig’s liver, tripe, a bowl of cooked blood, a whole bulb of garlic, a glass of white wine, an onion, salt, pepper and cumin.  (37-8)

No need to give the whole recipe here, I guess.  The result “looked revolting,” “drenched in a brown sauce that was probably made from wine or cooked blood [the latter!],” but has “the subtlest of flavors” (36).

Perhaps I overemphasize close attention to food in fiction.  I am only reflecting the attention I give it.

Close attention is also paid to a painting in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Hieronymus Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony.  Who says your culture’s treasures have to be from your own culture?  We study the details, the skate in the lower center, the  - well what is that in the upper right?

I know this painting like the back of my hand, he said, for example, you see what I’m painting now?. Well, all the critics have always said that this fish is a sea bass, but it isn’t at all, its’ a tench.  A tench, I said, that’s a freshwater fish, isn’t it?  It is indeed, he said, it lives in swamps and ditches, it loves mud, it’s the greasiest fish I’ve eaten in my life, where I come from they cook a rice dish made with tench which is just swimming in grease, it’s a bit like eels and rice only greasier, it takes a whole day to digest.  The Copyist paused briefly.  (65)

You see, it is not just me who gets distracted by the food.

A sort of story is carried along in Requiem, a plot about an old, tragic love affair, but that as the novel progresses that story recedes to the background, its incidents taking place not in but between chapters.  The Portuguese background moves to the front.  What a fine novel to round off my little Portuguese project.

I read the translation of my hero Margaret Jull Costa.  The seraillon blog is suffused with Antonio Tabucchi.

* No it's not! Please see Miguel's comment.


  1. I haven't read this yet but I'll get to it soon. I'm in the middle of Dreams of Dreams and it's a bit disquieting as well. It's a treasure trunk.
    Curious to see how th Pessoa chpater will be. So far Ovid and Apuleius were quite amazing. .

  2. Oh hooray! I was hoping you'd get around to writing about this. So funny that you highlighted the food in Requiem - I've considered trying to recreate that sarrabulho from the novel (considered, and still considering).

    For me, Requiem - in its eerie treading of much of the same ground I covered in a visit to Lisbon just before reading it - was like a strangely telepathic echo of that visit. Now that I've read Pessoa, it also strikes me as an exceptionally Pessoan reading experience, a kind of post-emptive disquieting (is "post-emptive" a word?) of my own recollections, such that I can now scarcely discriminate between Tabucchi's Lisbon and some of the tatters of memory I have of the place.

    That Bosch image is certainly one iconic little fish. I have no tattoos and no plans to get any, but that would be something for someone to have as a tattoo.

  3. Er, the subtitle is actually in the Portuguese cover too.

    I considered buying this book at this year's Lisbon Book Fair; instead I got Tabucchi's final collection of short-stories, freshly translated into Portuguese.

    I loved Pereira Declares, his only book I've read so far.

    His relationship with Pessoa was quite interesting: he had a lot of devotion for him. There was a brief feud between him and Saramago, apparently because of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis - according to Saramago, he was envious of it because it's the Pessoa novel he could never write. He covers this episode in his first diary.

    I've been to the museum that contains that Bosch: it's a magnificent picture! I couldn't believe it was actually in Portugal.

    I think I'll try reading Tabucchi in Italian; my recent attempt at reading Leonardo Sciascia was quite successful, and I'm dying to read more Italian.

  4. You're right - must amend. The subtitle is omitted from the "originally published as" business on the copyright page of the translation.

    I can imagine protective Pessoa-lovers finding that Saramago (or Tabucchi!) got Pessoa wrong wrong wrong.

    I am happy to be able to join in with the Tabucchi fans. Obviously worth reading more of him; amazing how much is in English.

    I know I can't make the sarrabulho - I've never cooked with blood. I'll have to look for it in Portugal someday.

  5. You've made Portuguese literature sound like quite seductive with this long string of posts. My "to be read" list has grown immensely with names I'd never heard before. I'm grateful, but I'm also shaking my fist, Mr Tom.

  6. Portuguese literature is rich, yes. Although I am just about sated.