Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Antonio Tabucchi: A Committed Doubter

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Antonio Tabucchi: A Committed Doubter

Article excerpt

An Italian novelist jolts the forces of complacency in the world of fact as well as fiction

The central figure in your best-known novel, Pereira Declares, A Testimony, is an ageing and lonely widower who is in charge of the cultural pages of a newspaper. Why did you choose an anti-hero as your main character?

I've always been drawn to tormented people full of contradictions. The more doubts they have the better. People with lots of doubts sometimes find life more oppressive and exhausting than others, but they're more energetic - they aren't robots. I prefer insomnia to anaesthesia. I don't go for people who lead full and satisfying lives. In my books, I'm not on the side of the authorities. I'm with those who've suffered. My first novel, Piazza d'Italia, was an attempt to write history that hasn't been written, history as written by the losing side, in this case the Tuscan anarchists. My books are about losers, about people who've lost their way and are engaged in a search.

What are they looking for?

They're looking for themselves through others, because I think that's the best way to look for oneself. The main character in Indian Nocturne, who retraces the steps of a friend who's disappeared in India, is involved in such a quest. And so is Spino, the character in The Edge of the Horizon who tries to find out the identity of an unknown corpse. I don't know whether these people are going to find themselves, but as they live their lives they have no choice but to face up to the image others have of them. They're forced to look at themselves in a mirror, and they often manage to glimpse something of themselves.

After the success of Pereira Declares with the Italian public, there was some talk of your running for election to the Italian Senate. Do you regret ruling out that opportunity?

No, I'm happy to go on living the life I've chosen. I'm a university teacher and I like my job. Literature is my life of course, but from an ontological point of view. From an existential point of view, I like being a teacher. Literature for me isn't a workaday job, but something which involves desires, dreams and fantasy. I don't want to promote my own image either. I don't like going on television or mixing in literary circles. I live quietly at home among my family and friends. Besides, there are politicians who do the job far better than I ever could. I think it's more interesting to keep a sharp eye on politics. My job is to look at what politics is doing, not be a politician myself.

Your latest novel, "The Lost Head of Damasceno Monteiro" (1997), is based on the story of a man who was murdered in a Republican National Guard police station on the outskirts of Lisbon and whose headless body was found in a park. Why did you use this real-life event?

I was in Portugal when this shocking act occurred. I was deeply revolted. When a crime offends human nature, it offends us personally. You feel both horrified and guilty. My emotions, sensitivity and imagination as a writer were moved by this event. Look, I have here the documents drawn up by human rights investigators from the Council of Europe in Strasbourg who monitor conditions of detention in European countries. They talk about the relations between the police and citizens in police stations - places of detention to which you or I would be taken today if we broke some law or other in the street.

Did you use these documents when you were writing the novel?

Yes, I wanted to know about the situation in Portugal, which is rather concerning. Reading other reports made me realize things are the same nearly everywhere else in Europe, including in countries which seem more democratic. But democracy isn't a state of perfection. It has to be improved, and that means constant vigilance. I thought I had to go beyond the actual event and talk about it through a novel - to give fictional treatment to this violent occurrence. …

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