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Requiem – Antonio Tabucchi

by Venky

While “Requiem” is supposed to be a hallucinatory exploration of the sights and sounds of Lisbon on one sweltering July day, it is also an unabashed homage to the gastronomic delights peculiar to the capital city of Portugal. Not only is Tabucchi’ s slim volume replete with descriptions of food, there is also a reference at the end of the book on the various recipes mentioned therein. A cascading rush of sentences only spliced and diced by an interspersion of commas instantiates this unique book. An Italian author of renown and a translator of works in Portuguese (one cannot but identify an uncanny resemblance to the author himself), roams the alleys, streets, museums and restaurants of Lisbon dropping in and out of structures that were once dear to him. As Tabucchi himself writes in an introduction to the book, the work is a “sonata about placed and people deeply important to him and thus worthy of solemnity.” “Requiem” bagged the 1991 Italian PEN Prize.

From a seller of stories, a junkie looking for a fix, a long dead friend who is buried in a cemetery with a tombstone bearing a palindromic serial number, 4664 to the anonymous narrator’s own late father who appears to him in a dream, the protagonist embarks on a hallucinogenic journey that conflates the past, and present with the future. The book comes to a climactic end with the author meeting a much revered and respected poet. Knowing Antonio Tabucchi’ s obsession with the works of Fernando Pessoa, it does not take a genius to fathom the fact that the luminary in question is Pessoa himself. Also, there is a classic giveaway about the identity of the poet in the form of the conversation indulged  by him with the protagonist. A spirited defense put up against Europeanism and Avant-Gardism unravels the ‘Pessoan’ mask.

“Requiem” is also a search for answers and a yearning for closure. For example, the narrator while meeting his dead friend Tadeus, demands finality to a conundrum that has been eating into him. He wants to know whether it was in fact Tadeus who was the father of the child which the poet’s girlfriend, Isabel, was carrying before getting an abortion. The author also has some singularly peculiar encounters. Drenched in sweat while traveling in a taxi whose windows do not wind down, he approaches a group of gypsies selling all kinds of stuff including Polo and Lacoste shirts. Upon ascertaining the author’s intention to purchase a couple of shirts, the Gypsy woman selling the shirts asks whether he wants a ‘genuine’ Lacoste shirt or a fake Lacoste shirt. When asked about the difference between the two, the Gypsy woman responds that for an additional sum, the ‘genuine’ comes with a ‘stick on’ crocodile! The writer ends up buying a couple of genuine shirts with a few ‘crocodiles’ added on for good measure. The protagonist also visits a gentrified private club where the headwaiter wagers a bottle of 1952 port on a very tricky billiard shot.

There is an element of wistful nostalgia that permeates the pages of “Requiem”. The extirpation of the old with the new, even if it is for the good, leaves a deep impact of loss and deprivation. On a tram journey to Cascais, while the conveyance is passing Sao Pedro, the Ticket Collector, bemoans the proliferation of new architecture that has almost become meaningless. “Can you imagine building anything more horrible than that, he said indicating the houses you could see through the opposite window, have you seen anything uglier?” Similarly the Ticket Collector expresses his disgust at the “Coca-Colonisation” of the beaches of Oeiras and Alto da Barra. “They drink Coca-Cola too, he added, they spend all day drinking that muck, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on Oeiras beach on a Monday morning, but it’s covered in caricas, like a carpet.” Caricas, being a reference to bottle tops.

Tabucchi’s writings have always been an intersection of politics and philosophy. He has never shied away from expressing his opinion on topical issues and current affairs characterizing Italy. In an interview given to La Stampa, he proclaimed, “This correction of history, which is frequently produced by a rich, cynical society, totally insensitive to moral questions, is repellent to me … I think that fascism is a great historical wound which is not yet healed.”

However, “Requiem” steers clear of political propaganda and current affairs. It is a simple, stirring and seraphic tribute to Portugal, a Portugal where Tabucchi lived and a Portugal which he so dearly loved.

The veteran Swiss director Alain Tanner has directed an adaptation of “Requiem”, starring Francis Frappat as the protagonist.

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