For Isabel: A Mandala – Antonio Tabucchi (translated by Elizabeth Harris)


A short book, a short review.

Although I own five books by Antonio Tabucchi, I have only previously reviewed two titles here. In 2015 I looked at “Time Ages in a Hurry” (translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani)  and “The Women of Porto Pim” (translated by Tim Parks) both published by Archipelago Books, and they have just published another Tabucchi this time with a fourth translator, Elizabeth Harris, the translator who brought us “Tristano Dies – A Life” late in 2015.

Unlike the previous tales by the celebrated Italian writer, “For Isabel – A Mandala” is a more obscure plot, containing a narrator, Tadeus Slowacki, a Polish writer who has returned to earth, more specifically Lisbon, from space, to search for the missing Isabel, his former lover. The book made up of a number of clandestine meetings between Tadeus and people who last saw Isabel. Each of these meetings leads to another meeting, whilst Fascism lurks dirtily in the background.

The photographer shifted positions and lit another cigarette in his long ivory holder. He seemed uneasy. Silent, he eyed me from head to toe. And then he said: are you a journalist? I allowed myself a chuckle. Though I didn’t want to be sarcastic, his question somehow invited sarcasm, and so I told him: you couldn’t be further from the truth, Mr. Thiago, I assure you, your guess is completely off-track, death is a curve in the road, to die is simply not to be seen. Then why? he asked, even more perplexed, to what end? To make concentric circles, I said, to finally reach the centre. I don’t understand, he said. 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 centre, and I’m trying to reach that centre. To what end? He asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple, I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

Like the subtitle itself “A Mandala” this is an expertly crafted work, like a mandala, slowly a cohesive picture comes into place, just like the sands of many colours placed on the plain canvas in front of you. And the nine concentric circles, do they have a deeper meaning, is Tadeus making his way through his own “hell”?

A tale of searching for meaning, whilst Tadeus is searching for Isabel, each of the other characters is searching for something else; “the important thing is to search”, and again, like the mandala, are these searches are in concentric circles? “A person can’t believe it’s possible to reach the boundaries of the universe, because the universe has no boundaries”. The characters searching outwards, Tadeus, inwards, he is “trying to reach a centre”. Like Dante’s “Inferno” as Tadeus moves closer and closer to the centre, the characters become increasingly bizarre, are we witnessing Tadeus’s own journey, masquerading as a search for Isabel? Tadeus’ journey into the depths of hell?

I’ll find a lover and I’ll make him die from unhappiness

Another beautifully crafted and subtle tale from the pen of Antonio Tabucchi, a story of grief, a search for meaning, a travelogue, the eternal pursuit of happiness. All of the standard characteristics of an existentialist work, tightly packaged into a story of a man searching for a girl, and slowly learning about himself. As Tabucchi says in the “Justification in the Form of a Note” that opens the book:

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.

Fans of Antonio Tabucchi will surely appreciate this latest publication, yes they continue to appear five years after his death, readers not familiar with his work may find this one slightly off kilter and would probably be better placed being introduced via the two titles above, or “The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico” or “Tristano Dies, A Life” all published by the independent publisher Archipelago Books.

Having not read all of the different titles back to back it is hard to compare the different translators, and how they treat Antonio Tabucchi’s subtleties, this work gliding along without a hitch, a sign that all is well with the world. However not being an Italian speaker I can’t go into detail about the different approaches.

Disclaimer – My copy of this book forms part of my annual subscription to Archipelago Books.

3 thoughts on “For Isabel: A Mandala – Antonio Tabucchi (translated by Elizabeth Harris)

  1. Like you, I’m a bit of a Tabucchi fan (though i haven’t tread this yet) – I’m so pleased that Archipelago are continuing to translate his work. This sounds like an interesting addition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 2018 Best Translated Book Award Longlists | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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