The good people at Archipelago Books are out with a new Antonio Tabucchi title in English this spring, and while I can’t gush about it the way I did about The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, I think you might still find The Woman of Porto Pim worth your while.
The title short story is a classic, old-fashioned tale of love, betrayal, and murder set in a small whaling village. The voice of the narrator, an aged tavern singer, is full of longing and mystery. It’s one of the finest short stories I’ve read anywhere in a long time.
The book, on the other hand, is something more curios. It’s a tourist’s love letter to the Azores, a set of remote Atlantic islands considered an autonomous region of Portugal. Fueled by a hybrid of research, personal experience, and imagination, The Woman ofPorto Pim offers a brief overview on the whaling regulations governing the islands, a first-person account of a whale hunt, and a few observations on human beings from the point of view of the hunted whales.
The best pieces in here are as good as anything in Flying Creatures. In addition to the title story, there’s “Antero de Quental. A Life,” the brief biography of a famous Portuguese poet told as if it were fiction and “Hesperides. A Dream in Letter Form,” which describes a set of mythical islands and the gods worshipped there.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge the rest of the book’s material as stories. They are fragments or collections of fragments, some surprising or interesting in their own right, while others only serve to set up other fragments or stories. Sometimes these feel like pure wandering, like even Tabucchi himself is wondering what to make of them, something he can be disarmingly upfront about in the prologue.
“The pages entitled ‘High Seas,’” he says, in reference to one of two extended collections of fragments “aspire to no more than a factual account, the only merit they can claim being their trustworthiness.”
Which is also a way of saying that much of the book, even when it takes on every appearance of standard travel reporting, should not be regarded as “trustworthy” in the same sense, something else Tabucchi tries to be upfront about with his reader in the prologue:
I am very fond of honest travel books and have always read plenty of them. They have the virtue of bringing an elsewhere, at one 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.
The book’s hybrid fictional/non-fictional nature might be both its biggest drawback for an American audience and its most important recommendation. Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction? If you get too hung up on that question, you’ll miss the islands as they pass by on the port side. Try to relax and watch the whale carcasses bobbing gently on the surface of the ocean.
So if you’re into dreamy travel literature, and you’re ready for a little genre bending, you might just like this for its own sake. If that doesn’t sound like your particular day at the beach, try Flying Creatures first. If you like that as much as I think you will, then come back to Porto Pim for the glimpse it offers into the singular geographical obsession of a great 20th century author. True or false, the book will make you more curious about the Azores, if for no other reason than to prove to yourself that Tabucchi didn’t invent them.