domingo, 23 de septiembre de 2012

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro [La Testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro] (New Directions, 1999)
by Antonio Tabucchi [translated from the Italian by J.C. Patrick]
Italy, 1997

"I will start with a question which I address chiefly to myself," said Don Fernando.  "What does it mean to be against death?"
(The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, 164)

Two novels into my relationship with the sadly recently departed Antonio Tabucchi, I think that one of the main things I appreciate about the Italian Lusophile is his light touch with some very heavy themes.  Much like its 1994 predecessor Pereira Declares, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro cloaks a handful of depressing realities--in this case, a violent crime in Oporto which sports a spider's web of connections to the international drug trade, political torture, and the abuse of power in a modern police state--in the garb of a prose style that's easygoing and almost affable in its sensibilities.  The result is a deceptively simple crime story of sorts in which the gruesome crime that literally costs 28-year old errand boy Damasceno Monteiro his head is only the starting point for a melancholic reflection on a gruesome crime of an altogether different nature and scale: societal apathy to the victimization of the powerless by the powerful be it by bloodshed or by economic means.  Without Tabucchi's light touch, this could have ended up as some seriously heavyhanded reading.  With it, however, one only senses a concerned humanist's attempt to persuade his readers of the interconnectedness of all things literary and political as a call to action.  On this note, I should mention that one of the other keys to my enjoyment of this novel was its oddly affecting portrayal of the amicizia between the apolitical but Elio Vittorini and György Lukács-loving Lisbon crime reporter Firmino and the gluttonous social justice attorney Don Fernando--an activist who comes from old money in Oporto but not only defends the "unfortunates" with his words and his actions but actually identifies with them "because to understand the miseries of life you have to put your hands in the shit, if you will excuse the expression, and above all be aware of it.  And kindly don't force me to be rhetorical, because this form of rhetoric is cheap" (94).

Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012)

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro was read for Antonio Tabucchi Week sponsored by Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat.  Thanks to Caroline for coming up with such a fine idea for the week.

10 comentarios:

  1. Thanks a lot for joining and I'm glad you've read this. It echos The Edge of the Horizon in which there is also the murder of a young man, only it is the person in the morgue who is in the spotlight, still it almost sounds like the two books should be read together.
    One of the people who participated criticized precisely this rather light touching of serious topics. I appreciate it as well because I feel he manages to underline the universality of many things.

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    1. Caroline, please, the pleasure was all mine! Interesting to hear about that one person's critique of Tabucchi's style, though--for me, I think that the contrast between the tone and the themes in Pereira and Damasceno is quite powerful and maybe fitting as well given the fact that both novels feature protagonists undergoing somewhat tumultuous transformations in the way they perceive the world. Also, everybody who writes about crime doesn't have to be a hard-boiled crime stylist, you know?!? Look forward to reading your review of Requiem and the other Tabucchi posts I missed last week (still playing catch-up these days alas).

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  2. Wonderful review, Richard! I liked very much your description of Tabucchi's prose style as 'almost affable in its sensibilities' and the book as 'a deceptively simple crime story'. A Tabucchi book seems to have more to it than meets the eye. Thanks for this wonderful review! I am off to read your review of 'Pereira Declares' now.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Vishy, and welcome to the blog! I only have two Tabucchi novels to go on at this point, but I really like how his easygoing, "friendly" style sort of lulls you into a false sense of complacency before he hits you with the heavy emotional stuff. It's a sneak attack in a way, but it's very effective (and "complex," I agree). Cheers!

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  3. Finally someone reviews the novel I'm most anxious to read from Tabucchi. Although All the other reviews have focused on interesting books, there's something about The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro that holds my attention, perhaps it's the crime fiction lover in me.

    Just a question, Richard: when does the novel take place? In modern times?

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    1. I debated whether or not to mention when the novel takes place in my post, Miguel, and then decided not to since it wasn't terribly clear to me; however, it would appear to take place in an unspecified "modern" setting sometime in the '80s or '90s given that mention is made of the Angolan War for Independence in one place and I think a different reference to something that took place in 1978 is made elsewhere. As far as your interest in "crime fiction" goes, I think you'll find a lot to like here. Tabucchi, like Carlo Emilio Gadda but differently, does his own metaphysical take on the genre, and the Carlos Drummond de Andrade "Science Fiction" epigraph gave me a big chill when I reread it after setting down the book:

      "The Martian met me in the street
      and was frightened by the possibility of my being human
      How can a being exist, he wondered, who invests the business of existing with so huge a denial of existence?"

      Ah, good stuff!

      P.S. Thanks for your recent Italian author recommendations. I haven't forgotten about them, but I just realized I still owe you a reply to your comment. Obrigado!

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  4. Great commentary, Richard. Like Vishy, I too loved your characterization of Tabucchi's style as "almost affable in its sensibilities," though I'd elide the "almost." I think that's part of what makes him so appealing as a writer, that "concerned humanist" aspect that stands in such strong contrast to the brutality about which he writes. And thanks too for reminding me that the epigraph is from Drummond de Andrade - I'd read Missing before I went off on my DdeA kick. For a different kind of take on the detective genre, but also quintessential Tabucchi, might I suggest now that you choose as your third course Indian Nocturne?

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    1. Thanks as always, Scott, for the kind words. I didn't/don't know how representative of Tabucchi's style Pereira and Damasceno are from my own limited first hand experience, but the warm, friendly tone of those books are definite pluses for me as is T's humanistic outlook in general. Although I'd wanted to read another "Portuguese" Tabucchi book this time out, I doubt I'll be able to avoid Indian Nocturne the next time given all the nice things you and Caroline have said about it. In fact, sold!

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  5. I really like your commentary Richard.

    I have only read "It's Getting Later All the Time" by Tabucchi. That book was a lot about interconnections. Based upon what you wrote it sounds like they play a big part of this one too.

    All the diverse and yes, interconnected, plot elements that you refer to make me really want to read this one!

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    1. Thank you very much, Brian, and welcome to the blog. I thought Pereira Declares was a stronger all around effort than The Missing Head of Damasceno Moreiro, but I'd recommend both books if you want a Tabucchi that's a little more "traditional" than It's Getting Later All the Time would appear to be. That being said, I just love the sound of that one from your review--esp. the insane amount of literary references which remind me of the Mexican Sergio Pitol (a friend of Tabucchi's) and the Spaniard Enrique Vila-Matas, two other authors I quite enjoy. Cheers!

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