Why “For Isabel: A Mandala” shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award


There is a tradition for the Best Translated Book Award, each year the twenty-five fiction titles get a write up at the “Three Percent” website, each review having the title “Why this book should win the Best Translated Book Award”. Being a stubborn old bastard, and pretty much having an opinion on just about anything, I thought it might be a good idea for me to run a series of posts for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, “Why xxx should NOT win…”

Today I start this occasional series with a look at Antonio Tabucchi’s “For Isabel: A Mandala” (translated by Elizabeth Harris).

Let’s start off with the obvious, a mandala (apparently the Sanskrit word for “sacred circle”) is the work of the devil. With the rise of adult colouring books, where numerous versions contain a mandala, there was also a plethora of warnings about them being the work of demons. Here’s just a few quotes I have found on the internet about the evil work of mandalas;

Focusing on mandalas is a spiritual practice where you merge with “deities”–this practice opens the door to demons.

A mandala is a key tool to practicing a religious ritual, and it opens people up to trances.

it is knocking on the door of a false temple.


And this is from a simple colouring book, imagine a whole novella that is constructed as nine concentric circles? It may be a wonderful construct and a revelatory approach to telling a story of searching for a lost woman and an ingenious way to build upon the concept of elusive truth, but don’t be fooled.

As readers of Antonio Tabucchi would know, he is a meditative writer, his work constructed of short contemplative sentences, to take the form to another level and write a book that is a mandala in itself is taking things a bit too far. Reading him I am running the risk of “knocking on the door of a false temple”.

And I have been a fan of Tabucchi’s work for a number of years, I thoroughly enjoyed his nine short stories collected together as “Time Ages In A Hurry” (translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani), a reflection on memory, a journey through Europe and a melancholic view of everyday occurrences, a dinner, a visit to the beach, or the dripping of morphine being dispensed through the intravenous tube to a terminally ill patient.

Or “The Women of Porto Pim” (translated by Tim Parks), a “travelogue”, blended into fiction, and taking place in the Azores, an archipelago situated in the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway between Europe and America. The Azores were colonized by the Portuguese in 1432 and Tabbuci visited the islands, in his Prologue telling us:

I am very fond of honest travel books and have always read plenty of them. They have the virtue of bringing an elsewhere, at once theoretical and plausible, to our inescapable, unyielding here. Yet an elementary sense of loyalty obliges me to put any reader who imagines that this little book contains a travel diary on his or her guard. The travel diary requires either a flair for on-the-spot writing or a memory untainted by the imagination that memory itself generates – qualities which, out of a paradoxical sense of realism, I have given up any hope of acquiring. Having reached an age at which it seems more dignified to cultivate illusions than foolish aspirations, I have resigned myself to the destiny of writing after my own fashion.

But the last published book by this prolific writer is off kilter, all of a sudden Antonio Tabucchi is writing as a dead Polish writer who has returned from space to track down Isabel. Did the old guy focus on his mandala colouring book too much? Men from outer space as narrators? Before Tabucchi writes his nine circles of the mandala, he gives us a “Justification in the form of a note”;

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.

The opening two words “Private obsessions”!!! Sorry Mr Tabucchi, your private obsessions should remain private, a “Mandala of Consciousness” that a monk made for you obviously flipped your lid, an Italian who was obsessed with the Portuguese writing about a Sanskrit spiritual, ritual aid to meditation…

The book may be short, and as his previous works, meditative and contemplative, but opening yourself up to the chance of being possessed by a false deity? Reading this book you’re participating in the spiritual ritual without even knowing it. Be warned you may come out the other side in a trance.

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