I’d never heard of Antonio Tabucchi before I tore open the wrapping on a copy of The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico this past Christmas. Turns out, he was one of the most celebrated Italian authors of the modern era until his death just this past year. His name stands along side the likes of Primo Levi and Italo Calvino, and for good reason.
The stories in Flying Creatures more than live up to comparison with the works of any other postmodernist masters. Tabucchi renders narratives as light as air in rich, thoughtful prose. These pieces are fabulist, historical, experimental, philosophical.
But rather than laboring the point any further myself, let me share how Tabucchi characterizes the tales collected here (as translated by Tim Park) in his brief introduction to Flying Creatures:
I would have liked to call them Extravaganzas, not so much for their style, as because many of them seem to wander about in a strange outside that has no inside, like drifting splinters, survivors of some whole that never was. Alien to any orbit, I have the impression they navigate in familiar spaces whose geometry nevertheless remains a mystery; let’s say domestic thickets: the interstitial zones of our daily having-to-be, or bumps on the surface of existence.
If that’s enough to make you want to run off and read these stories, I won’t blame you if you stop reading this review right here. If you still need more convincing, then let me tell you about “The Passion of Dom Pedro.”
“The Passion of Dom Pedro” has all of the outward appearances of one of the collection’s most conventional stories, following a standard fairytale trope. Dom Pedro is a prince who falls in love with one of the maids in waiting of his bride-to-be. He marries the woman he’s promised to as a matter of dynastic duty, but finds a way to be with his true love anyways until they are brutally torn apart by powerful forces.
That’s just the set up: “Years went by. The legitimate queen had died some time ago. Then one day the old father died too and Dom Pedro was king. Now his vendetta could begin.”
This is a move Tabucchi pulls in other stories as well: continuing past what might otherwise be the end of the story to inhabit the spaces beyond the endings, exploring the long life of consequences. It’s the central conceit of “Past Composed,” a series of letters from characters inhabiting one time to counterparts in another. In “Dom Pedro,” he does it twice, once to begin Dom Pedro’s Vendetta, and once when it concludes.
Dom Pedro realized that everything–his subjects, that river, the flowers, the songs, his very being there as a king–would have been the same even if everything had been different and nothing had happened; and that the tremendous plausibility of existence, inexorable as reality always is, was more solid than his ferocity, could not be wiped out by any vendetta of his.
Once I’d read that sentence, I decided to try to read everything this guy has written. The sad, twisted conclusion to “Dom Pedro” and the rest of the stories in this collection only cemented my decision. Now, I’m hunting down copies of his other books, with great titles like Little Misunderstandings of No Importance and The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro. If these other books are even half as good as Flying Creatures then they’ll be well worth whatever efforts it takes to find them in English translation.
Similar reads:Little Misunderstandings of No Importance (Tabucchi), Marcovaldo (Calvino), The Sixth Day and Other Tales (Levi).