Book Review

Requiem: A Hallucination by Antonio Tabucchi

Requiem: A Hallucination by Antonio Tabucchi

Requiem is a hymn for a master, a lament for a foreign land adopted by its author, a multiplicity. The book’s premise, and the narrative with which the reader is presented, are extremely simple. The narrator waits on the docks in Lisbon for a meeting with the dead poet Fernando Pessoa, but when the meeting at 12:00 turns out to be midnight rather than midday, the narrator sets off to wander in the Lisbon heat. What follows are a series of encounters whose contents require no in-depth investigation of meaning in any conventional sense. Those met are a parade of fictional friends, ghosts and evocations of the street. These beings rise up from the heat and dust, built of mirage and memory.

One of the most prevalent notions pervading the text is the Galician-Portuguese concept of saudade, often described as a "vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist... a turning towards the past or towards the future." In this case the narrator and author desire similar things: to confront their old master and be renewed by his parting, and to experience the foreign land which they have adopted as their own. The turning toward past and future obtain in almost all the meetings: the narrator meeting his father as a young man, the ghosts of his friends Tadeus and Isabel etc. who turn towards the future (the narrator) in the same manner as he is attuning himself to the past.

Requiem then is not a direct paean for a literary master, or a funereal lament of broken sobs, but a hymn of indirectness right down to the physical landscape of the novel which is also a reflection of this. The Italian narrator, in Lisbon, continually encounters entities from or relating to, for him, an unknown region of Portugal: namely Alentejo. So his experience of his adopted homeland is never direct or concrete, it arrives from and through unknown places and ideas. The landscape is not to be reified by observation and search, but by submergence, sleep.

Our narrator’s walk involves meetings which not only exhibit the presence of the unknown, a kind of vagueness, through striating the spatial and the temporal but also the fictional. The narrator’s state of isolation and weariness brings forth encounters with characters such as the lottery ticket seller who is from Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet (itself a work of multiplicity and plural association), and a number of the other characters are recognised as dreams. In essence, there is also a turning from fiction to reality and vice versa in the same manner previously mentioned. By turning toward the narrator in his book, Tabucchi allows the narrator to encounter himself as well as Pessoa – who is fictional and real and a ghost, the encounter between the three identifies them not as separate or distinct, not as one but many. A geography of people exists between them all where each is joined by various interconnecting lines, often they are unaware of where on that line they may be, or even which direction they are heading. Rather, they merely are attuned to the fact that such lines exist.

The fog which descends in the opening pages, germinating from the moment the time of the meeting becomes confused, never lifts from that moment on. It isolates the narrator and at the same time opens him to the encounters which follow, even intimating ‘What am I doing here in Lisbon on the last Sunday in July?’ before walking away. Immediately the narrator meets a young junky, who also waits for someone: his dealer Camarão. After discussing Pessoa and expressing his boredom he meets the lottery ticket seller mentioned previously. They speak of disquiet, a close relative of anxiety.

The subsequent characters with whom the narrator speaks, whether they be friend, fiction, stranger or ghost, are given no precedence over one another. Often describing other encounters themselves, their stories promulgate little definitive progress; the narrator is denied a change in knowledge or any revelation. Any which do seem to allow a bubble of epistemic change to reach the surface, quickly dissipate and fall back into the mist. The final meeting with Pessoa too trails away under the moon. So what is there? Is Requiem merely a void, an insipid meander?


The ‘key to the city’ and its inhabitants (the vital clue in a sense), is of course given to us (narrator and author included) by Pessoa: conceding that he was exaggerating after intimating that ‘the supreme truth is too pretend’ he utters ‘the important thing is to feel.’ This is a rejection of the supremacy of logic, and the adoption of the distinctly phenomenological idea of experience and mood determining what one is tuned to interpret or ignore. In Requiem, Tabucchi is not diluting his ideas by the toppling of reason from its tyranny, but freeing them. That this is born from anxiety and boredom is distinctly Heideggerian, his emotional signifier states for the experience of nothing, the space in between. Those moments when one may exhibit the possibility of supplanting reason with feeling.

With this lightness released the text becomes illuminated. It is not the stories which matter, the recollections of the past or the desire to lay a ghost to rest and to move into the future, not even the relationships developed between entities matter; it is what becomes which counts. The other desires which strive for clarity and truth, for binary relationships of question and answer are to be avoided, for: ‘Questions are generally aimed at a future (or a past) […] while you turn in circles among these questions, there are becomings which are silently at work, which are almost imperceptible […] Movement always happens behind the thinker’s back, or in the moment when he blinks.’

There is an inherent acceptance of this thesis, the prose along with the narrator’s mind are in a constant state of transition: weariness, when a softness may creep in around the edges of vision, the ‘plot’ merely a cloud of particles in continual shift, when stared at too hard they might assume the ‘correct’ form of some object or other, a deception for they are always in flux. This rejection of linearity extends even to the self. One cannot think of a better proponent to call forth and defend this than Pessoa, whose real life attempts at the dispersal of his intellect, his personality and soul, across a number of separate bodies via the immersion of his mind into a vast number of heteronyms is, arguably for what he is most renowned. ‘You should not try to find whether an idea is just or correct. You should look for a completely different idea, elsewhere in another area, so that something passes between the two which is neither the one nor the other.’

The extension of this concept is sublimely represented by the narrator’s experiences at various points where geographic space and intention are played with; often rejecting the experiences to which the reader may be naturally attuned. This effect applies to people too, they are made of varied lines, and they do not necessarily know where they are or where they should make the line pass. This geography of people then is an ontology of movement, what becomes is not one thing or another but an intersection.

The becomings here translate to the encounters but not their contents. To bastardise Godard: ‘Not a just encounter, just an encounter.’ The waking dream state of the narrator permits the recreation of the process of writing, one is necessarily in solitude ‘but it is an extremely populous solitude’. Tabucchi may populate his narrative with ideas, entities and people: their names do not designate a single object but an encounter, a single becoming which is not common to the two but is between the two and has its own direction.

The whole of Requiem is an adherence to this multiplicity, it exudes pluralism. There is an almost universal lack of fulfilment. Questions are occasionally asked, resolution never sought or found. The Seller of Stories and the mention of the editors mirroring the progression of doctors, except it is not a progression, there is no sense of a path forward, merely a diffusion, an expansion. Often the stories told by the parade of characters describe meetings themselves, thus displacing the notion of landscape and home from one of existence whose boundary is spatio-temporal location, to one of interaction.

Hence this is a book which, in a mirror of Pessoa’s adoption of heteronyms, attempts to adopt an alternative landscape through a series of encounters; and yet there is an acceptance, even from the outset, that this can never be fully attained. The landscape he intends to inhabit is, necessarily, ethereal, characterised most obviously by the recurrent discovery that the characters encountered by the narrator are not from Lisbon at all, but from rural Alentejo. Despite the warnings that becoming too attached to one’s homeland can lead to ruin (exemplified by the wife of the barman in the museum).

There are echoes in the Deleuzian cinematic ‘Re-linkages with irrational cuts’, that understanding can be acquired not merely by rational progression and continuity but by extensive repetition and, most importantly, through absence. The fact that this task, like the longing he feels, can never be fulfilled is paramount: the construction of a unified ‘self’ through recollection, memory or conversation is impossible, there is only multiplicity.

-- Reviewed by Dan Fraser on 05/03/2012

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0811215172
ISBN-13: 9780811215176
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication Date: 22/12/2005
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 112

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