Antonio Tabucchi: Requiem. A Hallucination – Requiem. Uma alucinação (1991)

A few years ago I was on a trip through Spain and stopped in Sevilla. It was the beginning of August and incredibly hot. Most Spanish cities have rivers but you wouldn’t know that if you visit in summer because they are dry. A very peculiar sight for someone from central Europe.  The heat was scorching and I was out sitting in a park, it was only 9 a.m. The park’s sprinklers were on and the moment the water hit the asphalt, it turned into mist. So not only was it hot but quite humid. I had not specific plans but just wandered the city and stopped in parks, bars, restaurants and spoke to people. I haven’t done a similar trip in two years but when I started reading Tabucchi’s Requiem. A Hallucination it was exactly like being on my own, without specific plans and just immersing myself in a new place. The place in this case wasn’t Sevilla or any other Spanish city but the capital of Portugal, Lisbon. It’s equally hot in the book as it was on my trip and this catapulted me back in time. I realize I’m writing a lot about myself instead of writing about Tabucchi but there is a reason. I’m trying to put into words why this author means so much to me, why I love his books although they often, like in this case, are rather descriptions of a quest than a real story. There is just something I can relate to on a deeper level than with most other authors.

Since I’ve just read more than one Tabucchi in a very short time, I was reminded of one of the major themes of his work – the quest. His characters,be it in Indian Nocturne or in Requiem, are always looking for someone. Sometimes the person is real, sometimes the person is just some sort of magnet which attracts the narrator but what he really is looking for is himself.

In Requiem the nameless narrator finds himself aimlessly wandering through the sweltering city of Lisbon. He thought he had an appointment with someone at midday but the person didn’t show up and so he’s left on his own for another twelve hours as the meeting will take place at midnight instead. The person the narrator will meet is the famous writer Fernando Pessoa.

The narrator seems to be dreaming with open eyes, no wonder, after all the book is subtitled “A Hallucination” and we follow him from the park to a bar, to the cemetery, to a restaurant, a hotel, an abandoned villa and finally to another restaurant where he will dine with Pessoa. On his meanderings through the hot summer city he will meet people who are dead already, people from his past, people who still exist and some who never existed.

While this may sound confusing, it isn’t because Tabucchi is a very descriptive writer and the book is more than anything else an homage to Lisbon and everything the city represents for Tabucchi. This includes the people, the food, the music, the atmosphere. As dreamlike as the story may be, it is on the other hand described in an amazingly realistic way and you have the feeling to be there and explore the city through the eyes and the other senses of the narrator. It is an atmospherical and sensual account at the same time.

It seems that one of the things Tabucchi must have liked the most about Portugal was the cuisine. He mentions numerous dishes and recipes in the book. It’s interesting because most of the dishes are poor people’s dishes. Things they cook with leftovers. A frequent ingredient is bread. I have never eaten Portuguese cuisine and to be entirely honest it’s not likely I will as they include a lot of ingredients which I do not eat but it’ still interesting and the way the food is described you can almost taste and smell it.

Requiem is a complex book and can be read in many different ways. To fully appreciate it, I would have to read it once more. There were a few things that struck me during a first reading. The love for Portugal and Lisbon, the quest-like search. The admiration for Pessoa. The mysteries and complexities of life. Memories, dreams, illusions.

What I liked best is that reading Requiem felt so much like exploring a city as a traveller not so much as a tourist. When I’m a tourist I might visit all the places you “have to see” but when I travel, I let the city guide me. The city and it’s people. There will always be someone in a foreign city who will show you something which is worth discovering. A hidden street, a secret corner, a bar to which only the natives go. It’s this type of exploration you will encounter in Requiem. It’s a book for those who do not mind getting lost, knowing very well that they find a world worth discovering on their way.

Tabucchi’s love of Portugal and Lisbon was so intense that he wrote this novel in Portuguese stating in the foreword that no other language, other than maybe Latin which he didn’t master, seemed appropriate.

Tabucchi mentions Portuguese music and this reminded me of the wonderful singer Misia and her fados. Her videos are all visually compelling. This one was directed by John Turturro.

While finishing the book I discovered that the book has been made into a movie by Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner. The movie is in French/Portuguese. I’ve attached it. You can watch the whole of it on YouTube. I’m not sure it exists with English subtitles but it’s possible.

43 thoughts on “Antonio Tabucchi: Requiem. A Hallucination – Requiem. Uma alucinação (1991)

  1. Caroline – A lovely post about Requiem. I think your inclusion of the personal here gets at just the sort of response one has to Tabucchi so often, which is something intimate and personal and even multiplying, in that one seems to be drawn into his work – perhaps in Requiem, this Pessoan prose poem, more than any other – almost as a character, as though you the reader are a part of the story, that person waiting, that person, perhaps, for whom the narrator is waiting, or maybe another, waiting and watching in the shadows. “Dreaming with open eyes” – yes – an apt description of what Tabucchi is doing here. I recall having an exceptionally strange and wonderful dream the night after I finished this book, which is only now, thanks to your post, beginning to come back to me. I shouldn’t be surprised if you turn up in it.

    Two other short notes: 1) thanks for the link to the film, which I did not know existed, and 2) do not fear Portuguese food based on the dishes described in Requiem – though I was only in Lisbon a week, I had several of the best meals of my life there. They’re in the dream too.

    • Thanks, Scott. This is how I feel most of the times, I read him, I’m right there with him. I was incredibly sad yesterday when I remembered that he’s dead. He’s the kind of person I would have liked to meet. That’s interesting that you dreamt of the book. It’s quite hypnotic, come to think of it. That would be interesting, how would you know it’s me? Silly question… In dreams we know things in a different way.
      It was so lucky that I found the movie. Until Sunday I had no idea of it.
      It’s strange that I’ve never had Portuguese food. On the other hand I have never been in Portugal and there is only one Portuguese restaurant here. I need to try, preferrably in Lisbon though.
      I’m sure I will like that city very much.

  2. Most great national dishes are poor people’s food. The rich people’s Portuguese food is likely not Portuguese but French (haute cuisine versions of French peasant food, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

    Although come to think of it, the food in Requiem is less national than regional. Pick a different region, say a coastal region, and the cod and clams and similar ingredients come into play. Ah, Portuguese cuisine is so rich.

    At this point, Tabucchi’s adoption of Portuguese literature and culture seems like the most interesting thing about him. You, Caroline, and Scott know him better, though, and may have a longer, deeper list.

    • I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression here, I love traditional “poor people’s2 food I just can’t eat offal (still not sure that’s the right word – tripes in French) and or porc or eggs. The recipes all included either the one or the other. Bread and bean soups all sounded nice.
      Yes, absolutely, they are regional, from the Alentejo region.
      This love for Portugal is quite special but waht I like most about him is the very evocative descriptions and the quest. The mix of dream and reality.

      • “Offal” is right. “Pork,” though; only the language gods know why.

        I like the mix of dream and reality you mention, too, but I think it is a common Modernist device. I am more curious about what is unique about Tabucchi.

        • Ah, yes pork – I wrote it French. I know what you mean but I feel he doesn’t really use Dreams in such a modernist way. Maybe the food/drinks are very typical for him. Now that I started to pay attention it’s very central. The mood and atmopshere are quite typically Tabucchi. The use of dreams doens’t necessarly mean that the book has a dreamlike, hypnotic quality.

        • Now, I’m on to something (or rather you were). You know how they say that the Portuguese word saudade cannot really be translated. isn’t there a lot of that in many of his books? Not in Dreams of Dreams though but in Indian Nocturen, Requiem, the Edge of the Horizon and in It’s Getting Later all The Time. That title alone is infused with saudade.

  3. If Tabucchi focuses so much on the food, it’s because it’s very, very good! We love good food and we love to eat 🙂

    Still, I can’t think of many recipes with bread – fish, yes; meat, yes; vegetables, yes. Of course the best way to eat the typical Lisbon sardine is on a slice of bread, with the juice soaking it up.

    If you ever want to visit Lisbon as a tourist, be sure to use Fernando Pessoa’s guidebook “Lisbon – what the tourist should see:”

    http://www.amazon.com/Lisbon-What-Tourist-Should-See/dp/190570075X

    • That’s a great tip. I absolutely want to visit Lisbon. I also don’t doubt that the food is very good. Most certainly the fish.
      The recipes here are mostly from the Alentejo region and heavy on porc and offal, two things I do not eat. The bread dishes sounded quite interesting. No vegetables were mentioned but soup with egg and cheese.

  4. Dear Caroline, Though I can’t keep up with your erudition in having featured works in so many different languages in the originals, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the clip of Misia, without understanding a single word of it. It seemed to be a song of longing and displacement, but as I said, I can’t translate, except for the beauty of the work. I think you are performing a major service for people in covering the things you do, and someday, though I have to read in translation, I hope to cover a lot of the books you’ve featured.

    • Thanks and I’m so glad you liked Misia. I’m a huge fan and you’ve got exactly what she sings about. i think the longing and melancholy is typical fro the Portuguese fado.
      I felt the bok was infused with this as well. I think it’s the sign of a major artist if he/she can be understood without us realy knowing all the words.

  5. Pingback: Antonio Tabucchi Week « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  6. Oh this was a great review for me to read to encourage me to make time for a Tabucchi novel this week. I loved the idea of protagonists fascinated by quests, which are in the final analysis, quests for their own sense of self. Wonderful!

    • I think he would be very much an author to your liking. At least all of the books I’ve read so far. Very multi-layered and complex. I don’t know how much “quest” there is in Pereira but I’m pretty sure it should be there too.

  7. Caroline – your commentary on this work is outstanding!

    As you wrote Tabucchi seems to bear rereading. As you also alluded to I think reading several of his works will yield connections and insights. Perhaps this Tabucchi reading week will also convey some of these insights as we each read commentary across multiple blogs!

    You wrote – “I realize I’m writing a lot about myself instead of writing about Tabucchi”. I think that this is part of the experience of reading and discussing great books. They tell us and make us think about aspects of ourselves.

    • Thanks Brian. I realized during this week that I missed reading more than one book of an author precisely because in the work of good authors, one book echos the other and there is a whole connected fabric in the end.
      I also agree that books which make us think about ourselves or remnd us of things past make for a much more intimate reading experience. It’s far from escapism. I’m glad you particicpated. It will be very interesting once there are even more reviews. I wish I had time for a third one.

  8. another impressive review Caroline…if I am not mistaken, you always wrote great review when it comes to Tabuchi’s book.

    I like the way you describe the book and not many books can give such impression you have explained above. I wish I can at least read one of his books…maybe I can find online which means illegal way *sigh*

  9. He mentions food a lot in Pierra Maintains as well. While reading that novel I was able to get a sense of Portuguese culture and the people. That reminds me, I need to write my review. I hope to have it done by Monday. Nice review Caroline. I liked your personal commentary.

  10. What a rich, multi-layered post, Caroline. I too liked the personal reference. Portugal is one of the only countries in Europe I haven’t seen and I hope to remedy that one day. I’ll soon be reading Tabucchi’s works too.
    The videos are wonderful–an added bonus.

  11. Hi Caroline

    What a lovely review – it was a little more meandering than usual, which seems appropriate given the subject matter. When I was reading it I was thinking of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago, another book set in Lisbon and featuring the dead poet Fernando Pessoa. Have you read that? I think you might like it.

    I’m disorganised as usual and have only just got hold of a copy of Pereira Maintains (there seem to be no physical copies of a Tabucchi book in Barbados, and so I got this one as an e-book, the only one available). Not sure if I’ll be able to read and review by the end of the week, but I’ll read your reviews and others anyway, and if I have time I’ll post one too. Thanks for drawing my attention to this writer.

    • Thanks, Andrew. I haven’t read that Saramago but saw it mentioned somewhere and will see if I can find it, thanks.
      I’m glad yu got your copy. Read it any time you like, I’ll link it even if it comes much later. I hope you will like it.

  12. Beautiful review, Caroline! I loved what you said about how Tabucchi’s description of Lisbon took you back in time to your own trip to Sevilla. Your description of the book and your own trip to Sevilla makes me remember Ann Radcliffe’s description of Venice in ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ and Ernest Hemingway’s description of Paris in ‘The Sun Also Rises’. I think I will love ‘Requiem’. I will add it to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review and for sharing what Tabucchi means to you. I loved reading the comments too, especially Scott’s and shadowoperator’s.

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s quite rare that a writer triggers such reactions. It’s the best writing in my opinion. You leave the book richer than when you started. I want to read Ann Radcliffe now.
      Scott has written a few wonderful Tabucchi reviews in the past and will write one this week as well. I hope you will like Requiem. It sure put me in the mood to visit Lisbon very soon.

  13. This sounds really wonderful. I’m going to have to try harder to get something by him to read–I’m very surprised my library has nothing by him as this is exactly the sort of fiction (contemporary) we tend to order. And I like the references back to yourself and your personal experiences and how they relate to the writing–that is exactly what makes literature so meaningful! 🙂

    • Thanks, Danielle.
      I enjoyed it but the next one I’ll review I loved even more. All of his writing sort of brings me back to myself. I find he is a writer for people who like travelling. he has a great way to capture this roaming and exploring something I always enjoyed doing so much.

  14. I think you are spot on with this post: Requiem is exactly like travelling through Lisbon on a hot summer day (which gives the dreamlike quality) and assuredly not as a tourist. The thing I don’t agree with is the “aimlessly”: the narrator’s quest seemed very tangible and goal-driven to me!

    • At times, yes but not always, I felt he did a few things he didn’t plan before and one thing led him to the next. The aim was meeting Pessoa but inbetween, that was my impression, he was aimless.

  15. Nice review. The book sounds compelling. Please don’t leave the personal experience out of your entries. That’s why we read blog posts; for traditional reviews, there are newspapers.

    I wish I had time to read La tête perdue de Damasceno Monteiro as promised.

    • Thanks, Emma. I have a tendency to try to leave myself out although I like it when others don’t.
      I just saw Richard has reviewed it. You might still want to read t and I can add the link at a later date.

  16. Pingback: Antonio Tabucchi Week – Wrap Up « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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