Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
t a b u c c h i ' s   R E Q U I E M


Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
© 1994, Portuguese Original 1991
New Directions Publishing Corporation, 111 pp.
$15.95 Clothblound

MAGICAL REALISM offers liberating opportunities for writers that other literary forms can't quite achieve. One of those opportunities lies in the way the dead can be reanimated, even elevated to the world of the corporeal. In magical realism, this isn't done in any way reliant upon the supernatural or gothic, at least not obviously. There are no séances or exorcisms for reconnecting worlds. There is only one world, and those who populate that one world, through the narrative of magical realism, belong there, dead or alive.

Antonio Tabucchi uses magical realist devices to resurrect the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa in his novella, Requiem: A Hallucination. Notice the subtitle. How could a hallucination find its way legitimately into a magical realist piece? Well, one has to believe in the hallucination first.

Do readers of Requiem believe in the hallucination? That is for them to decide. I saw the act of characterizing the protagonist in a state of "fever-dream" as a device for anchoring the story for nonbelievers, frankly. The story, about a man who spends a day trying to meet up with the spirit of a dead poet, is not really trying to logically explain entry into the ghost world, but rather to depict an exercise in discovery: that the ghost world and our own are actually the same place.

The story occurs over a 12-hour period, when our narrator, walking the mostly deserted streets of Lisbon on an extremely hot day in July, suddenly realizes that the time when he and his "guest" are meant to rendezvous on that date might not be noon at all, but midnight, the time when ghosts are known to traffic. So he spends his afternoon passing the time until that meeting, encountering, among other characters, two spirit figures: a dead friend and his deceased father at an earlier time in his own life. He also meets up with a gypsy, who:

"grabbed my left hand and looked hard at my palm. It's rather complicated, my dear, said the Old Gypsy Woman, you'd best sit down here on this bench. I sat down, but she didn't let go of my hand. Listen, my dear, she said, this can't go on, you can't live in two worlds at once, in the world of reality and the world of dreams, that kind of thing leads to hallucinations, you're like a sleepwalker walking through a landscape with your arms outstretched, and everything you touch becomes part of your dream, even me, a fat old woman weighing one hundred seventy-five, I can feel myself dissolving into the air at the touch of your hand, as if I was becoming part of your dream too."
This, after having met a familiar face on the street—a lottery ticket seller—who he recognized as a character in a book he'd been reading, The Book of Disquiet. The ticket seller, a dispenser of fates, asks when the protagonist was born later in the discussion, and this is when the sense of "hallucination" (but is it, really?) begins to take its early form:
"I was born at the time of the Autumn Equinox, I said, when the moon is mad and the ocean swells. A most fortunate moment to be born, said the Lame Lottery-Ticket Seller, you're in for some good luck. I certainly need it, I replied, paying him for the ticket, but not on the lottery, I need it for today, today is a very strange day for me, I'm dreaming but what I dream seems to me to be real, and I have to meet certain people who exist only in my memory."
I use the word "hallucination" advisedly. Tabucchi is an artisan of the duplicitous. He writes from the "edge along the horizon" where dream and reality exist. Strange encounters, dark humor and metaphor abound in this twilight neverland. The fakeries in the book (suddenly one-way streets, designer shirt knockoffs, and the nouvelle cuisine served at postmodern restaurants) reveal the author's pleasure in navigating tricky straits. Even Tabucchi's use of words is, in itself, an act of multiplication in meaning. Though Tabucchi's protagonist seems to go along with the notion that a febrile hallucination is probably the explanation behind the strange odyssey that bears him forth between noon and midnight, what isn't strange at all are his meetings with people who are encountered distantly through their titles (i.e. my Father as a Young Man, the Copyist, the Lighthousekeeper's Wife).

The title to Tabucchi's novella is wonderfully apt, for his story is a literary form of requiem, the ritual mass observed for the resting of the souls of the dead. In this sense, Requiem is Tabucchi's loving tribute to his beloved Pessoa, whose works the author has translated completely and loyally and to great acclaim. It makes sense to learn that the protagonist in this book is, in fact, an extension of the author himself, and the act of his meeting with his beloved poet is a divine intellectual intercourse between the living and the dead, forged from the author's deep respect and love for the Portuguese icon.

Being familiar with the work of Fernando Pessoa certainly makes this book a more pleasurable read, but I would also say that, barring that familiarity, readers can still enjoy the lightness of the protagonist's parade through his day. I would also recommend, for fullest effect, that readers read this novella (short, at 111 pages) within the stretch of a single day. Requiem reads as part travelog, part dream, part cultural commentary. The read is easy, playful, informal and evocative, with touches of humor. Instances where modern popular culture intersects with ancient culture are also delightful.

Tabucchi's genius rests in acknowledging that readers will bring their own "stuff" to his work as they read it. For that reason, this novella holds magic for everyone.

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