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Reviewed by Rachele Dini.
‘A place is never just “that” place: that place is also us, to a certain extent. We had been carrying it within us, somehow, without knowing it – until one day, by chance, we happened upon it,’ Tabucchi tells us in the introduction of his latest collection of short stories and travel memoirs, Viaggi e altri Viaggi (Milan: Feltrinelli, October 2010). The title translates as Travels and Journeys.
Place and travel – both as concepts, and as experiences – are the threads that run throughout the stories. This is a book that falls outside of the confines of ‘travel fiction’, in that much of it is autobiographical. It falls outside the confines of autobiography, in that much of it is concerned with imaginary flight, with exploring the theme of journeys through parables and allegories. Nor can it be -classified ‘contemporary’: for every twenty-first-century character with access to email and a billfold of plane ticket stubs, there is a fifteenth-century Vasco de Gama, a WWII Mongolian refugee, a mid-twentieth-century Genoese cantautore (singer-songwriter) and his thoughts about the city that shaped his music.
At times, the stories verge on the meta-fictional. Two of the autobiographical pieces, ‘L’Inde. Que sais-je?’ (‘India. What do I know?’) and ‘La Lisbona di un mio libro’ (‘The Lisbon in one of my novels’) re-inhabit the settings of two of his best-known novels, Requiem and Indian Nocturne. In these stories, Tabucchi travels through memory and imagination back to the writer he was when he wrote the novels, in order to talk directly with the characters themselves. At which point, one might well ask oneself – is this autobiography? Or are we as readers engaged less in a historical journey, than in a journey into the very stuff of creative writing? Are we, perhaps, being transported towards the germ of those novels to which Tabucchi is alluding?
Elsewhere, Tabucchi weaves ancient Classical and Middle Eastern fables into stories about the everyday, and exhumes protagonists of classical works of literature in order to re-situate them as travellers in the modern world. One especially funny story asks what Robinson Crusoe would make of the Robinson Resort, a tourist hub in Cancún in which he and his wife, María José, find themselves, due to their travel agent’s poor research. This is a place that testifies to the colonisation of the Caribbean by the modern-day tourist industry. The story is both tremendously humorous – and sad. Implicitly, it questions whether we have really come that far from the days of colonial empire, if travelling, for so many Westerners, remains a matter of finding a resort that resembles as accurately as possible the city from which they came, with a catering service that seeks to replicate the flavours they could easily have savoured without leaving their own dining rooms. Others deal with social injustice, with gender relations, with the devastations of war, with how the internet is changing our relation to space and place, and with the elitism that continues to mar much of academia, making the exploration of literature a privilege afforded to few. Each vignette is a snapshot into a different (temporal, geo-spatial, cultural, even metaphysical) place. Each one seeks to look at place and people in a different way.
Tabucchi’s work is important, because it relates to a global audience. Its concerns with what makes us human, what sparks our desire to be ‘elsewhere’ and what drives us back home resonate across cultures – indeed, across places and people. It is a book that is engaged with both the material world of today (the transport networks and communication systems that provide a structure for our everyday travels) and the (past and future) world of the imagination – those conduits through which our fancy flies, whether we are commuting, at our office desk, ringing up items at the sales counter or dozing in front of the TV. And it is a book that is profoundly concerned with the way place and setting inform the course of those flights: what kinds of reverie, in other words, are most likely to emerge during a sojourn in Lisbon, in the Azzoras, in Washington DC’s Union Station or in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. Or, indeed, what kinds of reverie the very uttering of those names triggers. These are both geospatial travels, and travels of the imagination. And they are profoundly important for us, both as members of the so-called global village, and as travellers engaged in our own private reveries.
It is the right time for a book of this kind – and Tabucchi himself, in fact, is enjoying something of an international ‘moment’. The same month as Viaggi e altri Viaggi hit shops in Italy, his critically-acclaimed 1994 novel, Sostiene Pereira, which was published in the US by New Directions in 1995 as Pereira Declares, was re-released by Canongate in the UK (by the same translator, Patrick Creagh, under the new title Pereira maintains). Would that they translated this, as well. In academia, Tabucchi’s work is beginning to be studied in departments outside of Italian literature, finding its place on courses on urban studies and comparative literature classes at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. (King’s students who have taken the Postmodernity and the City MA module will perhaps remember studying his post modern surrealist novel, Requiem). His work, while fitting in with the growing genre of travel writing, and chiming with that of writers like David Leavitt and Colin Thubron, is distinctive, and truly has no English or American equivalent.
Rachele Dini is an MA student on the 1850-present pathway. Her dissertation is on representations of the city in the work of the modernist Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. She is particularly interested in language acquisition, translation studies, and narratives that overtly question the concept of nationhood.