Antonio Tabucchi: Sogni di sogni – Dreams of Dreams (1992)

Elaborately imagined…mini-catalog of great artists’ dreams and the author’s interpretation of the last three days in the life of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Tabucchi’s rich language and his magical-realist charm tinge the volume with a visionary glow.

Antonio Tabucchi’s Sogni di sogni or Dreams of Dreams is a collection of sketches or short pieces, circling around the life and work of different authors, painters, musicians and other famous people. Arranged in chronological order they all tell of an imaginary dream of the person to whom the story is dedicated. At the end of the book, a short biography of each of the men gives some of the most important details about their life.

While this may not be an ideal starting point for someone who isn’t familiar with Tabucchi, it’s an amazing introduction into the Western European cultural heritage. It’s an amazing little book. To be able to write something that is equally enchanting, inspiring and instructive, is admirable. On the other hand it shows what a wonderful writer Tabucchi was. The short sketches are written in a beautiful and highly evocative prose that reminded me of the intensity of elaborate and sumptuous Persian miniatures.

If you are familiar with the men included in the book, it will enhance the experience but it’s not necessary.

To give you an idea of what Tabucchi does in this book, I’ll pick the example of Ovid. In his dream, Ovid sees himself not only loved by his emperor but transformed into a giant butterfly. Only when he stands in front of the emperor and should perform one of his poems, all that comes from his mouth is a high-pitched whistling sound. He tries to move his wings instead and perform his poem like a pantomime but this infuriates the emperor. Angered he has Ovid’s wings cut off. When they fall to the ground, Ovid knows he will die.

Hidden behind this sketch is an allusion to Ovid’s most famous work, the Metamorphoses and the whole tragic life story of one of the greatest poets of all times, who spent his last years disgraced and banned from Rome, in Tomis, on the Black Sea.

Here is the list of all of the people included in the book:

Lucius Apuleius
Cecco Angiolieri
François Villon
François Rabelais
Francisco Goya
Samuel T. Coleridge
Giacomo Leopardi
Carlo Collodi
R. L. Stevenson
Arthur Rimbaud
Anton Chekhov
Claude Debussy
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Fernando Pessoa
Vladimir Mayakovsky
Frederico Garcia Lorca
Sigmund Freud

Sogni di sogni is highly imaginative and one of those books that opens doors. It will make you want to explore the people and works behind each chapter. It certainly made me want to read more of Tabucchi, one of the most amazing and creative Italian writers who sadly died earlier this year.

It’s often difficult to find Italian books in translation but Tabucchi is one of the rare authors who has been extensively translated. Some of the newest books are not out in English yet but most of his earlier ones are.

Have you read Tabucchi? Would you be interested in a Tabucchi week?

Literature and War Readalong June 24 2011: If This is A Man aka Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi

This month is moving very fast and the next readalong is on the 24th already. It might be good to get started if you want to join in.

Primo Levi is a writer that has been on my mind for years. I knew his story, had read about him. I have read other’s accounts of their incarceration in concentration camps. I have read excerpts of Levi’s work but never got around to read his most famous book, the autobiographical account of his incarceration in the extermination camp Auschwitz.

He was on my mind for this and because he committed suicide so late in life. Because he seems to be such a perfect example of survivor’s guilt.

I dreaded to read his account, I know it won’t be cheerful but I always wanted to read it, wanted to explore his life, to understand why he couldn’t live with the guilt of being one of a very few survivors.

Despite the sadness and the horrors he describes there is beauty in his books as he is not only a witness of dreadful times but also an accomplished writer.

Primo Levi’s book is the only nonfiction book in this readalong.

I’m reading the French translation Si c’est un homme.

Gianrico Carofiglio: Involuntary Witness aka Testimone inconsapevole (2002) First in an Italian Legal Thriller Series

A nine-year-old boy is found murdered at the bottom of a well near a popular beach resort in southern Italy. In what looks like a hopeless case for Guido Guerrieri, counsel for the defence, a Senegalese peddler is accused of the crime. Faced with small-town racism fuelled by the recent immigration from Africa, Guido attempts to exploit the esoteric workings of the Italian courts. More than a perfectly paced legal thriller, this relentless suspense novel transcends the genre. A powerful attack on racism, and a fascinating insight into the Italian judicial process, it is also an affectionate portrait of a deeply humane hero.

Former anti-Mafia prosecutor Gianrico Carofiglio is said to write some of the best legal thrillers Italy has to offer. I am not an expert when it comes to legal thrillers but  his novel Involuntary Witness, the first in the series centering on Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, is really good. Guerrieri is such a likable character and the themes of the novel are varied, spanning from racism, immigration, relationships and marriage, the meaning of life, to the Italian criminal system.

Guerrieri has recently been divorced and is very depressed. At the beginning of the novel he has panic attacks, can hardly sleep. He is a vulnerable, pensive  man who likes to read, have long discussions about books, movies and music. He loves St. Exupéry, Picnic at Hanging Rock and the music of David Gray. As a criminal lawyer he has to do some dubious things and tries to ignore whether his clients are guilty or not. After all, he is paid to get them out, no matter what they did. But Guerrieri has  a conscience that’s why he often wonders if what he does is really right. He also lives dangerously occasionally.
One of the best parts of the novel is the change Guerrieri undergoes. The person at the beginning of the novel isn’t the same as the one at the end. Just to watch him, follow him, first through his misery and later when he starts to enjoy life again, feels so realistic. I started to believe after a while that the description was based on a real person.

Guerrieri is good at his job, no doubt about it. There is always work for him. We sense that Carofiglio knows what he is writing about. The descriptions of the city and the court, the people, the lawyers, judges, policemen, prosecutors are realistic. The series is set in the Southern Italian town of Bari, an attractive location, close to the sea.

The story is rather simple. A nine year old boy is found murdered in a well. Due to some unfortunate circumstances a Senegalese immigrant is accused of the murder. The case looks hopeless as there is a lot of evidence against the man. Guerrieri isn’t even sure at first whether he should accept to defend him but he feels pity and finally accepts.

I wasn’t familiar with the subgenre of the legal thriller. At least not in book form. The focus is really on the trial and whether the accused will be sentenced or not. Guerrieri isn’t playing the role of an investigator. He thinks his client is innocent but he doesn’t try to find someone who might have done it or even find out why the child has been killed.

In Italy Carofiglio’s novels are considered to be much more than just thrillers and I can see why. The books seem to tell the story of an interesting man who happens to be a criminal lawyer and is excellent in his job, but this isn’t the most important element of the books. Guerrieri’s outlook on life, the way he sees and analyses people is far more important.

Involuntary Witness is an excellent book and I am certainly going to read the next in the series. I absolutely want to know what happens to Guerrieri and where life and love will lead him.

Do you know the series or any other legal thrillers that you like?

Erri de Luca: Tre cavalli aka Three Horses (1999) The Scent of Earth, Sage and Flowers Pervading a Story of Love, Pain and War

Three Horses

From Argentina to Italy, the intense, metaphysical and poetic story of a gardener in love, by Italy’s most prominent writer. “A MAN’S LIFE LASTS AS LONG AS THREE HORSES. YOU HAVE already buried the first.” Somewhere along the coastline of Italy, a man passes his days in solitude and silence, tending a garden and reading books of travel and adventure. Through these simple routines he seeks to quiet the painful memories of the past: a life on the run from Argentina’s Dirty War; a young bride “disappeared” by the military; a terrifying escape through the wilds of Patagonia. Yet everywhere he turns, new life is pulsing, ready to awaken his senses, like the force that drives his fruit trees into bloom. People and events from the past and present migrate into patterns assigned by a metaphysical geometry. A woman of the world reintroduces him to love. An African day laborer teaches him the meaning of gratitude. In this intense narrative, every acute observation, every nuance, becomes a means of salvation. Using a language that is both gripping and contemplative, Three Horses is an unforgettable tale.

Imagine the smell of warm earth, the scent of sage, the intense aroma of mimosas. These are evoked like musical themes in this beautifully sensuous novel that reads like a hymn to beauty and pain. But Three Horses is about much more than this. It introduces us to one of the most endearing narrators. A while back Litlove had a post on favourite male characters. If I had read Erri de Luca’s  Tre cavalli at the time, I would have mentioned the narrator as one of the most appealing characters of all time.

I only read second-hand books. I lean them against the bread basket, I turn the page and it stays like this. This is how I chew and read. (…) Like this, at lunch time, I sit in the bistro, always on the same chair, I order soup and wine and I read.

I liked him from the start, this taciturn, profound reader, quietly eating, turning the pages but still open to everything around him. Open to life, and every little sign of it, even open to love, despite what he has been through. A man like a tree, deeply rooted in earth, poetical and down-to-earth at the same time. Through him, we catch glimpses of a painful past, a lover killed by the military junta in Argentina, thrown from a helicopter into the sea. Is this why he only reads novels with a watery theme?

You are also drawn into a war because you are ashamed of staying out of it. And then grief snatches you and keeps you there as a soldier of rage.

The narrator is back in Italy. He is a gardener and to touch the earth, to smell the richness of the herbs, sage, thyme, rosemary keeps him alive.

The sauce and a handful of oregano already announce the summer. I take a pinch and inhale it to awaken my senses.

This novel is so beautiful it is hard to describe. The narrator meets Làila and falls deeply in love. He meets Selim, a man from an unnamed African country who tells him to read the future in the ashes of burned laurel leaves. Everything is connected. Selim sells the mimosas that the narrator offers him, he sells the thyme and the rosemary. He pays back in kindness and friendship and even more if needed.

The gentleness and the tenderness of the narrator is overwhelming. He is a good man, a man who is trustworthy. A man who has the gift of being able to be a true friend. A reader who believes humans are changed through books much more than through the things they experience. A listener who lives life with all of his senses.

The days go by like this. In the evening, at home, I crush raw tomatoes and oregano over drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book.

Despite this gentleness he is capable of violence, he was a soldier, he killed people. He would even be able to commit a murder. Would he kill for the woman he loves? Or would someone else kill for him? Would that make him less of a murderer?

I’m often drawn to slim novels, novels that have been written by writers who are also poets. This is one of the most intense I have read in a long time. It has a floating quality, still it is very effortless to read, you could read it in one sitting but that would be a shame. It is too beautiful to rush through.

I was many times reminded of the poems of Octavio Paz.

Làila listens to me and she is so close to my ear that she manges to breathe islands into it.

De Luca writes about the relationship of Italy and Argentina in his foreword. Until 1939 Argentina let 7 million immigrants enter the country. Over half of that number came from Italy. You can easily hear the Italian influence on the Argentinian Spanish. It’s much softer and closer to Italian than any other variety.

De Luca is one of the very great Italian storytellers. His books are translated in many languages but only a very few are available in English.

The quotes are translated from the French as I read the novel in its French translation Trois chevaux.

For those of you who understand Italian I attached this homage. Those who don’t understand it can still try to feel the rhythm of his language. This is pretty much the rhythm of the novel.