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La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro.

By now the appearance of a new novel by Antonio Tabucchi is a literary event. La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro, which was published simultaneously in Italy, Portugal, and France, is no exception. Like Sostiene Pereira of 1994 (see WLT 69:3, p. 565), Tabucchi's newest novel is set in Portugal, though in the present rather than 1938 and in Oporto rather than Lisbon. In this seaport of pleasant vistas, good food, and civilized conversation, but where rock music, violent crime, and the homeless have become as endemic as everywhere else, Firmino, the novel's journalist-narrator, is investigating a gruesome murder. The crime described, moreover, is not imaginary but real, having actually occurred in Lisbon in the spring of 1996.

Like the cultured Pereira of the earlier novel, Firmino (whose name may derive from Manzoni's often ingenuous "Fermo" of his Fermo e Lucia of 1823, the work that later became I promessi sposi) is a journalist. He is employed by a sensationalist Lisbon daily that has dispatched him to Oporto as a "special correspondent" reporting to an editor more concerned with boosting circulation than with problems of justice or journalistic accuracy. The moral center of the narrative is the older, spectacularly obese lawyer known (after the Anglo-American movie actor) as "Loton," a deeply read and perhaps for this reason cynical individual for whom life no longer holds many mysteries but who defends his mostly hapless and indigent clients gratis. Loton's reflections on justice and its administration lie at the heart of the book's intellectual and emotional focus.

La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro's plot touches on the international drug traffic that has been at the margins of such other novels by Tabucchi as Notturno indiano of 1984. The work is also similar to Tabucchi's previous writing in its penchant for intertextuality (see WLT 71:2, pp. 331-34). Its abundant quotations from texts of legal philosophy and by such more conventionally literary authors as Kafka and Camus recall similar techniques in this writer's other works. So do its gaps and lacunae, most notably in the long section that presents only traces of Loton's crucial court oration as recorded by a malfunctioning tape recorder. As elsewhere in Tabucchi's writings, readers of La testa perduta are forced to speculate about the probable conclusion to a tale that is left deliberately unresolved, though the book's central message of protest against state-countenanced torture is unambiguous.

Less emphatically postmodern, perhaps, than other works by this internationally successful writer, La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro is among Tabucchi's most controversial books for its insistence that even in such evolved societies as those of contemporary Portugal and Italy, a kind of lowercase fascism not only continues to flourish but is too often supported by the supposedly antiauthoritarian forces that control the levers of power.

Charles Klopp Ohio State University
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Author:Klopp, Charles
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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