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.