Review by Malcolm R. Campbell
“I did step off and put my feet on the ground, so that as well as being the product of my readiness to tell untruths, this little book partly has its origins in the time I spent in the Azores. Basically, its subject matter is the whale, an animal which more than any other would seem to be a metaphor; and shipwrecks, which insofar as they are understood as failures and inconclusive adventures, would likewise appear to be metaphorical.” – from the Introduction
Widely known for “Pereira Declares: A Testimony” and “Indian Nocturne,” Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi (1943 – 2012) brings his trademark minimalist prose to The Woman of Porto Pim, a collection of fragments and stories about small islands and a large sea. While reading, one understands again why Tabucchi has been compared to the late Italo Calvino: the words here suggest possibilities rather than defining certainties.
The fragments and stories are organized into “Part I – Shipwrecks, Flotsam, Crossings, Distances,” “Part II – Of Whales and Whalemen,” and an appendix of notes, references and a map. The boundaries, if there are any, of this work are established in the opening “Hesperides: A Dream in Letter Form” where Tabucchi writes, “Having sailed for many days and many nights, I realized that the West has no end, but moves along with us, we can follow it as long as we like without ever reaching it.”
One reads each fragment looking for (and expecting) clarifications and certainties in much the same way that a sailor in a small boat rides the apparently real winds and currents with the expectation of shouting “land ho” this afternoon or tomorrow then the world will once again be redeemed upon sure footings within solid walls. One learns stories about old men and the songs they sang while seeking whales and, while they find them and kill them, the whales never seem to die. The whales here think about men and see us as odd and out of place on the sea, leaving our women behind while singing songs that serve something less than the songs of whales, and while the whales are wise, they do not quite grasp what man is.
The title story, “The Woman of Porto Pim,” is a story within a story that might be less than true due to additions, deletions and alterations over the years. Here are two lovers, a mysterious woman who lives in a utilitarian hut beneath her means and a naive young man who sings a song to attract her attention:
“The moon was coming up in a veil of red, a summer moon. I felt a great longing, the water lapped around me, everything was so intense and so unattainable, and I remembered when I was a child, how at night I used to call the eels from the rocks: then an idea came to me, I couldn’t resist, and I began to sing that song. I sang it very softly, like a lament, or a supplication, with a hand held to my voice.”
The song brings him wonders, betrayal, violence and years of memories that–depending on the reader’s point of view–stop short of atonement or define in bittersweet spells all that is known about the magic of being human. Tabucchi says many things in a few words. In this numinous collection about dreams, whales, islands and ships, the result of his apparent clarity is a haunting mirage that floats forever in the middle distance like a prospective speck of land above the infinite sea.
One yearns for more here and perhaps that’s enough.
TITLE: The Woman of Porto Pim
AUTHOR: Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks
PUBLISHER: Archipelago Books (June 11, 2013)