cover image The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

Antonio Tabucchi. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $23.95 (186pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1393-6

As in his previous novel, the 1994 international bestseller Pereira Declares, Tabucchi, professor of Portuguese literature at the University of Siena in Italy, explores Portugal's politics and culture through the eyes of a journalist. This time his protagonist is Firmino, a young reporter who's also a literature student and whose lofty preoccupation with his academic thesis frequently conflicts with the more earthbound assignments his editor at a Portuguese national scandal-sheet demands. He travels, reluctantly, from Lisbon to the provincial town of Oporto to investigate the gruesome discovery of a headless body found on the edge of a Gypsy encampment. Firmino's sleuthing is assisted by antifascists--the Gypsy who discovered the body, a mysteriously well-connected hotel proprietress, a waiter and a sweaty, heavy-set aristocratic lawyer who defends the unfortunate. It is through literary discussions with the lawyer, Don Fernando, that Firmino learns the legal system of Oporto, the process of investigation and the role journalism can play in bringing a murderer to court. Tabucchi fills his contemporary literary thriller with the kinds of benevolent, humanitarian characters he explored in Pereira, which was set in pre-WWII Portugal; here he delves into the deplorable subjugation of the Gypsies, and finds champions of a just social order in the humbler strata: a transvestite prostitute, an errand-boy drifter. Tabucchi's memorable, conflicted characters are sometimes implausibly altruistic in helping outsider Firmino, and the plot involves the kind of requisite drug-trafficking/police cover-up that weakens the suspense of a thriller. However, it's Tabucchi's setting that breathes life into his work: the reader can almost feel the heat of the Iberian peninsula and experience along with Firmino the unique customs, foods and political climate of Oporto. (Feb.)