Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” — Natalia Sarkissian
For Isabel: A Mandala
Translation by Elizabeth Harris
Archipelago Books, 2017
144 pages; $16.00
Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.” So states Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012) in the opening note to his posthumous novel, For Isabel: A Mandala. Recently translated from the original Italian into English by Elizabeth Harris, For Isabel revisits a theme that is dear to its author: that of the journey during which truths are revealed.
Thus, the one hundred luminous pages of For Isabel follow the narrator, Tadeus, as he travels from Lisbon to Macao to Switzerland to the Italian Riviera, looking for Isabel, the love he lost during the dark days of Salazar’s Portugal. A leftist, Isabel seems to have been arrested while a university student. Rumored to have been pregnant, not only did Isabel disappear, but so did any trace of a child. Proceeding from eyewitness to eyewitness, Tadeus assembles the pieces of the puzzle. As he progresses, not only does he learn of Isabel’s fate, but he also arrives at a clearer understanding of photography, of writing, of the impermanence of life itself while meeting wild and zany figures, some of mythic proportions, from the past.
Divided into nine sections, here called circles, the novel’s structure evokes the mandala of the subtitle. Indeed, the word mandala refers to a circular figure that in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism represents the universe. As a spiritual tool, the mandala serves to focus attention and aid meditation. Tadeus is conscious of the power of the mandala. As he states: I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center…. It’s simple to reach consciousness, you photograph reality.”
The story begins with the First Circle, the circle of Evocation, which is set in modern day Lisbon. Tadeus states he is from The Greater Dog, or the Canis Major constellation. According to myth, Canis Major guarded Europa, but failed to prevent her abduction by Jupiter. Likewise, Tadeus failed to protect Isabel from Salazar’s thugs. It is therefore his fault she is gone: “You might say I’ve lost track of her and I’ve come from the Great Dog just to look for her, I’d like to know more about her.”
He meets her childhood friend, Mónica, who recounts how she and Isabel would catch frogs, slice their heads off and then turn their legs into a sumptuous dish à la Provençal; it was while chopping off the frogs’ heads that Isabel tells Mónica how she might commit suicide: “Listen, Isabel would say, someday if I kill myself, I think I’ll go just like this, with a few kicks, because if you can’t cut off your own head, you can always hang yourself, which is something similar, four kicks into empty air, and goodnight everybody.”
But at university, Mónica too, loses track of her friend when she joins the Communist party. Not able to give up-to-date news, Mónica directs Tadeus to Isabel’s old nanny, Bi, in the Second Circle, who also doesn’t know what has happened to her. Tadeus proceeds onward. In the Third Circle, the circle of Absorption, set in a Lisbon nightclub, nostalgia reigns. Not only does Tadeus drink absinthe straight up, because in so doing it’s a serious drink, like in the past, but he meets Tecs who plays tributes on her saxophone to Sonny Rollins, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Tecs sadly informs Tadeus that long ago Isabel was arrested and taken to Caxais prison:
“… we heard news of her from a prison guard who risked coming to the university and giving us a note, he was a prison guard in the opposition, who aided political prisoners … I went off … and when I returned, they told me Isabel had died, that she committed suicide in prison and they showed me her death notice in the paper … But they told me that she killed herself in prison … that she swallowed glass.”
Not convinced by this version of events, Tadeus prods Tecs who finally remembers the prison guard’s name, Mr. Almeida.
In Circle Four, the circle of Restoration, Mr. Almeida relates what happened in prison to students protesting the Salazar regime. They arrived beaten to a pulp and then were beaten some more. While Isabel suffered this fate too, Tadeus also learns that not only was Isabel not pregnant, but that she did not commit suicide. Rather, Mr. Almeida and ‘The Organization,’ helped her escape. Her contact in The Organization, according to Mr. Almeida: “It was Mr. Tiago, he said, enunciating each word. … He had a photography studio in Praça das Flores.”
In the Fifth Circle—Image—Tadeus rings the bell at World & Photo photography studio, where he meets with Tiago, a foppish, elegant sort, in a linen jacket with an Indian foulard around his neck and a cigarette in a long ivory holder. The two reflect on the nature of photography; Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is alluded to, in particular to Barthes’ idea that the photograph attests to death, to what has been.
When Tiago gives Isabel’s photograph to Tadeus he says: “I’m reminded that someone said the photograph is death, because it fixes the unrepeatable moment.”
But unlike Barthes, Tiago wonders if the photograph, if indeed, art as a whole, can also be life:
…but I still ask myself: and what if [the photograph] were life instead? –immanent, peremptory life that lets itself be caught in an instant, that regards us with sarcasm, because it’s there, fixed, unchanging, while we instead live in variation, and then I think the photograph, like music, catches the instant we fail to catch, what we were, what we could have been, and there’s no way you can counter this instant, because it’s righter than we are …. life against life, life in life, life on life?
In the Sixth Circle, the circle of Communication, a dreamlike, hallucinatory chapter, Tadeus visits the Grotto of Camões in Macao. For a time, this was the home of Portugal’s greatest poet, Luis Vaz de Camões (1524/5-1580), the author of the epic poem, The Lusiades. While in the grotto, next to a bronze bust of the dead poet, Tadeus converses with a bat possessed by a woman named Magda, an old comrade of Isabel’s, who directs him to speak with a priest. Tadeus then confesses to the priest that he is an author who has sinned: “I wrote books, I whispered, that is my sin…. There was nothing dirty, just a sort of arrogance toward reality…. I got it into my head that the stories I imagined could recur in reality … I’ve steered events, this is my pride.”
In the Seventh Circle—Worldliness—Tadeus, still in Macao, meets The Ghost Who Walks. A poet, European in origin and always dressed in white, The Ghost Who Walks is Tadeus’s guiding light:
“… you, in your infinite wisdom, might be able to tell me where to find [Isabel]…. I’m looking for Isabel … I’m making concentric circles, like the concentric circles squeezing my brain at this very moment.”
“The Ghost Who Walks took a long pull from his pipe. Isabel, he said, there might be an Isabel in my poetry, or in my thoughts, they’re one and the same, but whether she’s in my poetry or in my thoughts, she’s a shadow who belongs to literature, why are you looking for a shadow who belongs to literature?”
“Perhaps to make her real, I answered weakly, to give some meaning to her life, and to my rest.”
“You have to look in the country of William Tell, he murmured. And then he was quiet again.”
In the final two circles, Expansion and Realization, Tadeus journeys to Switzerland and then to the Italian Riviera. In Switzerland, he learns that the universe has no boundaries, that cardinal points can be infinite or nonexistent, and that a man who has lost his way “needs to symbolize the universe with an integrative art form,” such as the mandala. On the Riviera, from the Mad Fiddler, Tadeus discovers that he has finally arrived: “We’ve reached the center, he whispered, give me Isabel’s photo. I gave him the photo, and he laid it at the center of the circle. Then he stood up, raised his violin to his shoulder, and quietly began to play Beethoven’s Farewell Sonata.
And while the Mad Fiddler plays, Isabel appears, as if from thin air. She tells him:
“… you think your search for me is over, but you were only searching for yourself…. you wanted to free yourself from your remorse, it wasn’t so much that you were searching for me as yourself, to pardon yourself, a pardon and an answer, and I’m giving you that answer tonight, the night we said goodbye… you’re released from all your guilt, you’re not guilty of anything, Tadeus, there’s no little bastard child of yours in the world, you can go in peace, your mandala’s complete…. If you walk up the narrow road leading from the Riviera station where you arrived, she said, halfway up the hill, you’ll find a very small cemetery, and down the central path, in among the plainest graves, there’s one that no one visits, with a few wrought-iron flowers and a simple headstone that has no dates, no photograph, just an epitaph….”
Tadeus opens his eyes and the Mad Fiddler erases the circle he has drawn in the sand. “Because your search is through, he said, and it takes a puff of wind to lead everything back to the wisdom of nothing.” Because impermanence is the way of the world.
Antonio Tabucchi (1943-March 2012) began writing For Isabel long before it was finally published. His wife, Maria José de Lancastre, a Portuguese translator and critic, together with Carlo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher, explained in a note to the first edition—in Italian (2012):
He had written it over the course of many years and spoke about it enthusiastically in interviews…. In the meantime, he wrote other things, going in other directions; he traveled, went to different countries; he gave the manuscript to a dear friend for safekeeping; in the end he asked her to give it back so he could reread it, possibly publish it. But it was the summer of 2011, and that autumn he became ill.
Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” Be that as it may, it shares elements with other works by the author. Its mixture of reality and hallucination recalls Indian Nocturne, Tabucchi’s 1984 novel, where the protagonist embarks on a metaphysical search in India for a mysterious friend, all the while looking for his own identity. For Isabel also shares elements with Requiem: A Hallucination (1991). In this latter novel, Tabucchi centers his narrative on an Italian author who meets the spirit of a dead Portuguese poet.
An academic as well as a writer, Tabucchi divided his time between Siena, Italy, where he taught Portuguese language and literature, and Portugal, where he was director of the Italian Cultural Institute. During his lifetime he won numerous prestigious international prizes including the Campiello Prize and the Prix Médicis. He was also named a Chevalier des Arts et des Letters. After his death, the Portuguese cultural minister declared Tabucchi’s work was the most Portuguese of all Italians. His novels and stories have been translated in over forty languages.
After the publication of Salman Rushdie’s publication of the Satanic Verses, and the controversy that ensued, Tabucchi helped to establish the International Parliament of Writers, an organization that highlights censorship and the loss of writer’s freedoms around the world.
Translated elegantly and seamlessly by Elizabeth Harris who wrote an MFA thesis in translation and who teaches creative writing, For Isabel brings, as she says, “good, complicated fiction to American audiences.”
Like Tadeus, Tabucchi’s mandala is now complete. If we listen, perhaps we can hear the Mad Fiddler playing, softly, very sweetly. And if we look up, we might see Isabel as Tabucchi describes her in the last line of his book. “Waving a white scarf, and saying goodbye.”
— Natalia Sarkissian
Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.