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Saturday 25 July 2015

The Woman of Porto Pim - Antonio Tabucchi (translated by Tim Parks)

In February this year I reviewed Antonio Tabucchi’s “Time Ages In A Hurry”, a latest release from the US independent not-for-profit publisher Archipelago Books. Tabucchi was an Italian writer, a professor of Portuguese literature at the University of Siena and spent six months of each year in Portugal as well as translating Portuguese writers into Italian. So familiar with the Portuguese language he wrote “Requiem: A Hallucination” (Requiem, uma Alucinacao”, 1991) in Portuguese. I enjoyed the short meditations on time, reflections upon a melancholic life that I sought out earlier Archipelago publications, including the 2013 release “The Woman of Porto Pim”.

This time there is a solid Portuguese connection with the stories being a “travelogue”, blended into fiction, and taking place in the Azores, an archipelago situated in the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway between Europe and America. The Azores were colonized by the Portuguese in 1432 and Tabbuci visited the islands, in his Prologue telling us:

I am very fond of honest travel books and have always read plenty of them. They have the virtue of bringing an elsewhere, at once theoretical and plausible, to our inescapable, unyielding here. Yet an elementary sense of loyalty obliges me to put any reader who imagines that this little book contains a travel diary on his or her guard. The travel diary requires either a flair for on-the-spot writing or a memory untainted by the imagination that memory itself generates – qualities which, out of a paradoxical sense of realism, I have given up any hope of acquiring. Having reached an age at which it seems more dignified to cultivate illusions than foolish aspirations, I have resigned myself to the destiny of writing after my own fashion.

As alluded to in the prologue, this is a short work, running at under 100 pages it is a quick read indeed with two main sections, “Shipwrecks, Flotsam, Crossings and Distances” and “Of Whales and Whalemen”, however prior to those sections we have a piece “Hesperides. A Dream in Letter Form”, setting the scene of the Azores in wonderfully poetic language, opening with the line “Having sailed for many days and many nights, I realized that the West has no end,” it explores the nine principle deities of the islands, to match the number of islands themselves, with each having a temple, “gods of the spirit, of sentiments and passions.” Our story ends with the tale of the God of Love, a temple only limited amount of people are able to visit. Within the space of seven and a half pages we have the setting, our mood is altered to the ways of the locals, and we are simply in the Azores.

Each section contains three short stories or fragments, our opening section finishing with “Antero de Quental. A Life”, a simple sketch of a man from birth until death, with many mysteries and scant detail. As per “Time Ages In A Hurry”, more is being said through the skill of saying little, allowing our own imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Antero was born the last of nine children into a large Azores family which possessed both pastureland and orange orchards, and so grew up amidst the austere and frugal affluence of island landowners. Among his forebears were an astronomer and a mystic, whose portraits, together with that of his grandfather, adorned the walks of a dark sitting room which smelt of camphor. His grandfather had been called André da Ponte de Quental and had suffered exclie and prison for taking part in the first liberal revolution in 1820. So much his father told him, a kind man who loved horses and had fought in the battle of Mindelo against the absolutists.

After exploring a few fragments and people f the islands Tabucchi’s attention moves to the primary industry of the times, and of the past, whaling:

They say that ambergris is formed from the remains of the keratin shells of shellfish that the whale is unable to digest and which accumulate in certain segments of the intestine. But others maintain that is forms as the result of a pathological process, a sort of limited intestinal calculus. Today ambergris is used almost exclusively in the production of luxury perfumes, but in the past it had as many applications as human fantasy could dream up for it: it was used as a propitiatory balsam in religious rites, as an aphrodisiac lotion, and as a sign of religious dedication for Muslim pilgrims visiting the Qa’aba in Mecca. It is said to have been an indispensable aperitif at the banquets of the Mandarins. Milton talks about ambergris in Paradise Lost. Shakespeare mentions it too, I don’t remember where.

Our stories also include a section called “The Hunt”, where a vivid description of a whale hunt is given, in 2015 this is quite a horrific revelation and when our writer is asked by one of the crew why he joined the hunt, he replies: “Perhaps you’re both a dying breed,…you people and the whales.” This reveals Tabucchi’s writing motivations, the investigation of characters, the study of humans and their motivations and this is all revealed in his scant and lyrical stories.

The Azores themselves are also alluring, through Tabucchi’s language and style, our title story, “The Woman of Porto Pim. A Story” gives us the following explanation of what the whalers get up to when there are no whales around, they still fish:

You catch morays in the evening, with a waxing moon, and to call tem there was a song which had no words: it was a song, a tune, that started low and languid, then turned shrill. I never heard a song so sorrowful, it sounded like it was coming from the bottom of the sea, or from lost souls in the night, a song as old as our islands. Nobody knows it any more, it’s been lost, and maybe it’s better that way, since there was a curse in it, or a destiny, like a spell.

Our tale then explores that spell, that destiny of the lone singer in the pub, one you’ll have to find out for yourselves by reading the book.

Another beautiful work from Antonio Tabucchi, with the lyrical prose, the scant detail and the character development, their marks on time and space more to the fore than the realism he so points to in his prologue.

The only criticism I have of this book is that it is too short. Running to less than 100 pages (and small ones at that), it could have possibly been bundled up with another of Tabucchi’s shorter works and released as a larger book. To only be given a snippet of the allure to the Azores left me dreaming for more, possibly a place I now have to visit as it looks amazing.



1 comment:

1streading said...

As I mentioned before, this appeared in the UK along with two other short collections, though that was in 1991 so it's long out of print. I'm really enjoying Archipelago's publishing of Tabucchi - I picked up Time Ages in a Hurry after you reviewed it and loved it.