cover image For Isabel: A Mandala

For Isabel: A Mandala

Antonio Tabucchi, trans. from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. Archipelago (PRH, dist.), $16 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-0-914671-80-0

"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 stated inspiration behind Tabucchi’s novel, which takes the form of a journey whose structure resembles that of Dante’s Hell: a man claiming to be a journalist named Tadeus is searching in Lisbon for an old classmate named Isabel, who became involved with the Communists and disappeared during Portugal’s authoritarian regime. What follows is a Rashomon-like series of interviews with Isabel’s friends and coconspirators, who recall her as passionate and doomed to suicide: there’s her doting nanny Beatriz Teixeira, the sultry guitarist Tecs, an old Creole calling himself Uncle Tom, and photographer Tiago, who may have helped Isabel escape prison shortly before her death. Or is Isabel really dead? As Tadeus ventures into the final circles of the mystery, his subjects become even more mercurial: a cave-dwelling mystic, a poet known as The Ghost Who Walks, a holy man from India living in the Swiss Alps, and finally, in the ninth circle, a mad violinist who might be the devil himself. The fractured narrative that emerges from the testimony of these eyewitnesses makes the novel more than the story of a missing girl; it is history recalled as though in a dream, hovering briefly, through the combination of Tabucchi’s elegiac prose and Harris’s lucid translation, over life and death. (Sept.)