Antonio Tabucchi week: two books and a movie

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Antonio Tabucchi was. When I first read (and loved) Pereira Maintains, he was already famous because of it. It was his one famous book, and the only one I knew, and I loved it.

But I didn’t know the first thing about Portugal, and I had a feeling that you needed to see those places to understand, truly, not so much the book as the author himself. How can you appreciate The Woman of Porto Pim if you have never been to Porto Pim in the first place?

OK, so this was only an excuse to show you a picture of our honeymoon to the Azores…

Except, I may be wrong. On rereading Pereira Maintains earlier this year, with all my newly-gained knowledge of all not enough things Portuguese, I liked it not nearly as much.

Pereira Maintains
Italian edition
as published by La Biblioteca di Repubblica, 190 pages
with a note by the author

Don’t get me wrong, I still did like it. As before, I liked the story of a middle-aged man suddenly revolutionizing (and risking) his life because he was fascinated by the love between a young couple. And more than before I loved the clean, no-frills style: it touched me as a well-balanced marriage between the principles stated by Calvino and the realism searched by Saramago.

But it felt too shallow. Now that I know a little about the Salazar dictatorship, I wish the book was stronger in denouncing it. Of course, this was written well after the facts (Tabucchi wrote that the whole idea of the novel came to him after he attended the funeral of a journalist who had to flee Lisbon because of the regime, and who had returned to Lisbon later, only to end his life completely ignored). And yet, it feels like Pereira Maintains dances over the historical situation without really dealing with it.

“According to Pereira”,
a movie by Roberto Faenza,
with Marcello Mastroianni (Pereira), Joaquim de Almeida (Manuel), Daniel Auteuil (Dr. Cardoso), Stefano Dionisi (Monteiro Rossi) and Nicoletta Braschi (Marta)

After re-reading the novel, I also re-watched the movie, and it was beautiful. I’m not an expert in cinema and I cannot really comment, but I always like a good Mastroianni interpretation! And I did feel that the movie filled up whatever was lacking in the book: I felt the social commentary much stronger here, and I was less annoyed by Pereira’s endless chewing over his soul.

I know, I know, I just showed my ignorance. Pereira’s reflections on his soul was one of the pillars of the book. And a key element in Tabucchi’s work. I know. (It’s just not for me.) And if I didn’t know, it was made clear when I read another novel by Tabucchi recently, Requiem.

Requiem: A Hallucination
Portuguese (original) edition
as published by Dom Quixote, 154 pages
with a note by the author translated by Pedro Tamen

As I was saying before, I don’t know nearly enough to appreciate this book for all its literary references. (Beware, because this is a novel for very cultivated people to appreciate!) But I was interested in its peculiarity: the language. This is the one book Tabucchi didn’t write in Italian but in Portuguese.

I have always been fascinated by people deciding to use a language other than their own. (Did you know that Mozart and his sister wrote to each other in Italian? There is a technical word in linguistics for this phenomenon, but I can’t recall it right now and I don’t have my linguistics texts with me — if anyone knows, I’d like to hear from you!) And I was completely, utterly taken in by Tabucchi explaining how he dreamt a dream in Portuguese, how he began to jot down notes about it in Portuguese, and how this book, stemming from that dream, could only be written in Portuguese. Because Portuguese was the language of his heart. Because he was redefining the concept of maternal language.

I feel like I am liking Tabucchi’s work for all the wrong reasons, but that’s fine with me 🙂

I wrote this post (although a bit late)
for the Antonio Tabucchi Week,
hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Please check her blog for more Tabucchi content from other participants.

Wondrous Words Wednesday: gestures

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!


My idea for this post stemmed originally from reading a passage in A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin:

She cried her wares in the trade tongue, the language of the wharves and docks and sailors’ taverns, a coarse jumble of words and phrases from a dozen languages, accompanied by hand signs and gestures, most of them insulting. Those were the ones that Cat liked best. Any man who bothered her was apt to see the fig.

It was clear from the context that the “fig” [1] is an obscene gesture, and while I had no idea what this gesture was like, I also had no interest in discovering it.

Then, more recently, I read another book (in German, so not suitable for this post) with a strong focus on Italian gestures of all kinds, and while the “fig” did not make an appearance, the book made me decide to go online and do some research, and I did find a (hodgepodge) list of gestures that includes the following:

Fig sign is a gesture made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers, or, rarely, the middle and ring fingers, forming the fist so that the thumb partly pokes out.

The fig sign (from Wikipedia)

In some areas of the world, the gesture is considered a good luck charm; in others (including France, Greece, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Serbia and Turkey among others), it is considered an obscene gesture. The precise origin of the gesture is unknown, but many historians speculate that it refers to female genitalia. In ancient Greece, this gesture was a fertility and good luck charm designed to ward off evil. This usage has survived in Portugal [2] and Brazil, where carved images of hands in this gesture are used in good luck talismans, and in Friuli.

Now, this is probably not very interesting for most of you, but do you see that last word, Friuli? That’s my home region in Italy. And I don’t think I ever saw this gesture there, either as good charm or as obscene. What I did see is a taunting/game people do with little children, whereby you pinch their nose, then show them your hand in this gesture (taking care that the nail is not showing) and tell them you’ve plucked their nose out.[3] Daft, I know, but I wonder: can that be a trace of an older use of the gesture as a good-luck charm?


Notes and questions:

[1] I do hope no one is offended by the fact that this post is about a possibly obscene gesture.

[2] I haven’t seen it in Portugal either, but to my Portuguese readers: have you ever seen it used here?

[3] To my sister: if you get a chance, could you ask Granny if she’s ever seen/used this gesture, except in the taunting context?

Books: Alice Vieira

Alternate title: if you are looking for Portuguese, look no further

Flor de Mel
Ursula, a maior
Editorial Caminho paperback,
115 pages
Editorial Caminho paperback,
166 pages

Why I read them
It’s all Alex‘s and Nymeth‘s fault, for making me aware of Vieira. And it’s Vieira’s own fault too, for being such a good storyteller that after Os olhos de Ana Marta, I was ready to buy and read all of her books. Especially those that came recommended.

On reading
I won’t say much about the contents, except that both books tell the story of young girls in a difficult familiar situation and how they deal with it. I won’t say more because I’d give away something, and I do think that the way the stories are told, detail by detail and mystery by mystery, is part of what makes these books interesting — again, it’s Vieira’s narrative technique that makes them worthwhile. Yet at the same time these stories are always so sad… that I still feel they’re more suitable for an adult audience.

The Portuguese aspect
When talking about Vieira, Alex and Nymeth wondered why her books have never been translated. Three books in, I am still convinced that they are way too Portuguese to work for a wider audience. It is hard to put my finger on a specific reason, but the society they describe feels different from anything I (as Italian) have experienced in my childhood, and even if no specific places are ever mentioned, it is definitely not a universal setting. I don’t think I could appreciate this books as much if I had never lived in Portugal. Oh, and now that I come to think of it — maybe that sadness is also very Portuguese. Not that the Portuguese I know strike me as particularly sad, but they are famous for fado and saudade, after all…

If you have read Flor de mel, I have a question for you: who is the blond woman? Because I discussed this book with my husband, but we don’t agree on the outcome, and I felt cheated at not having a real answer to the book’s mystery, but maybe I just missed a major detail.

Books: little to say about these

Alternate title: it’s mini-review time!

The book: Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See by Fernando Pessoa

The edition: Italian translation by Luca Merlini, 65 pages, as published by Einaudi with an essay on modern-day Lisbon by Maria Teresa Bonafede and pictures by Gianmario Marras, total page count 115

My thoughts:  while it opened my eyes to a couple of things in Lisbon that I had never noticed before, this is nothing more than a dated guidebook. From such an author as Pessoa was, I expected something more, some poetic commentary or some inside knowledge or some social satire. Nothing of the kind.


The book: Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa

The edition: Italian (original) edition as published by Einaudi, paperback, 144 pages, with a note by the author

My thoughts: you may have heard me praise Scarpa’s love song to Venice in Venice is a Fish, but that was the one and only book I had ever read by him up to now; this one, also a winner of a prestigious Italian award, was supposed to be at least as good. But I’m afraid I cannot say so. It is supposed to be a homage to the musical tradition of Venice, and especially to Vivaldi, but all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body. I mean, this is supposed to be the story of a girl on the brink of womanhood, but all the details of her dealing with this change and her body either made me laugh for how improbable they were (think: a girl having a nightmare about water and waking up to find her legs covered in blood from her first period — I have lost count of the male authors believing this is how it happens!) or made me sick with disgust (think: comparing the belly of a woman giving birth and the bubbles exploding in boiling water — and this is just the least example).


The book: The Sacred Night, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The edition: French (original) edition, as published by Seuil, Points paperback, 189 pages

My thoughts: I read this for the Africa challenge, and because I hope to visit Morocco, and Ben Jelloun is said to be the author to start from. I’m afraid I have to say this one went right over my head, and I understood nothing of it. I guess it is intended to raise the subject of gender, and of identity, but it does so in a way that is completely different from anything I had read before. It’s a kind of magical realism, but full of symbols, and dreamlike details and events that may or may not be symbols, and I can’t say I know what most of them stand for. If you have read this and can help me understand, I’d really like to hear from you!


The book: Fables 11 – War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Niko Henrichon and Andrew Pepoy

The edition: Vertigo edition, 191 pages

My thoughts: this is the closing book for a cycle of the series, with most threads coming to an end. I already mentioned that I did not like the way this particular story (i.e. the Adversary) was being developed, and this may be the one book I liked the least. It read like some war movie, and that’s not a compliment. The series is still great, and I love it to pieces, but I’d have chosen another angle and another story altogether. Now that that is closed, I’m curious to read where the authors will bring us next!

Travel with books – Lisbon

To know more about this project, and for image credits for the button, please read the Travel with books project page.

Over 6 months after my trip to Lisbon, I am finally ready to tell you about what the city and the books held for me. As with Vienna, Lisbon is not a once-in-a-lifetime destination for me, and you may notice that my take on this post is a little different from previous ones: this time I took the books as suggestions of what to go and discover in Lisbon. Because of that, this post also fits Libby‘s new event, the Book Pilgrimage.

It is hard to keep my eyes fresh after visiting a place so many time, but books do help to discover new facets even of the best-known town.

The Christ the King statue is not mentioned in any of the books I read, but on this trip I had the chance to see it up close

My reading list (links are to my thoughts):

The ferry was the only way to cross the Tagus before this bridge was built in 1966

First, following the example of Gregorius in Night Train to Lisbon, I intended to take a ferry to cross the Tagus — except, I was sidetracked, because I found a convenient river cruise leaving from the same terminal! It clearly does not have the same feeling, but I appreciated the experience.

The Belem Tower, looking like a ship ready to sail

The good thing about the cruise is that we managed to reach and see the Belem Tower, which wold not fit our earlier programs. When you visit the tower (which we did on a previous occasion), you see a nosy sculpture and you learn about the first rhinoceros to be brought to Europe by Portuguese explorers in early 16th century. You can read the full story here on Atlas Obscura. It was interesting to recall it because in The Indies Enterprise Orsenna gives a good fictionalized account of the rhino’s arrival and of the reaction of people in Lisbon. Unfortunately I cannot share the scene with you because I only have the French version of this book, but if you happen to have the English translation, I’d be grateful if you shared the quote in the comments!

The Lisbon castle, as seen from Praça do Comercio

The best part of the day, though, was following the indications given by Saramago and retrace Raimundo Silva’s steps on what was once the Moorish line of fortifications around the city. I have to admit I never felt the charm of this part of Lisbon as strong as on that day. (Following quotes are from the English translation by Giovanni Pontiero, taken from Google Books.)

The idea, which came to him as he watched the roof-tops descending like steps as far as the river, is to follow the lay-out of the Moorish fortifications according to the scant and rather dubious information provided by the historian, as he himself had the good grace to acknowledge.

Lisbon rooftops. The many cruise ships detracted a bit from our 12th-century experience

Raimundo Silva will peruse more slowly whatever remains to be inspected, another section of the wall in the Pátio do Senhor da Murça, the Rua da Adiça, where the wall rose up, and that of Norberto de Araújo, as the street was recently baptised, at the summit an imposing stretch of wall, eroded at the base, these are truly living stones, they have been here for nine centuries, if not longer, from the time of the barbarians, and they survive, they intrepidly support the bell-tower of the church of St Lucy or St Brás, it makes no difference, at this spot, ladies and gentlemen, opened the ancient Portas do Sol, facing eastward, the first to receive the rosy breath of dawn, now all that remains is the square which took its name from this landmark…

Original Moorish wall: I had no idea there was some of it still preserved!

Actually, the plaque says the original wall predated Moorish time and dates back to the Visigots, even!

But here, right before Raimundo Silva’s eyes is a fragment, if not of the indestructible rampart itself, at least of a wall occupying the same space where the other stood, and descending all the way down the steps beneath a row of broad windows surmounted by tall gables.

Not the same segment mentioned in the text, but according to our guide this too was original Moorish wall, and it now houses a café called “Moorish walls”

As usual, here’s a list of more books set in Lisbon I wish to read sometime soon:

  • Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Maintains
  • Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem: A Hallucination
  • José Saramago, Journey to Portugal
  • José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
  • Camilo Castelo Branco, Mysteries of Lisbon
  • José Rodrigues dos Santos, The Einstein Enigma
  • Richard Zimler, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

Have you read any of these? Any title that you wish to suggest/suggest to avoid? And have you ever visited Lisbon?