Vanishing Point, translated by Tim Parks and published in 1991, collects three of Antonio Tabucchi’s books from the mid-eighties: Vanishing Point, The Woman of Porto Pim, and The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico. The title novella was also published by New Directions in the USA as The Edge of the Horizon. To further complicate its publishing history, Archipelago Books has plans to publish The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico this year and The Woman of Porto Pim next year in separate volumes. If nothing else then, this edition is certainly good value!
As already mentioned, Vanishing Point is a novella of around eighty pages. It is narrated by a doctor, Spino, and begins with the arrival of the body of an unknown man. We learn little about Spino’s life but are given the impression there is little to learn. He has a lover, Sara, but their relationship seems distant and static:
“Sara has been saying how nice it would be to get away for ten years now, and he answers her that one day maybe, sooner or later, they ought to do it. By tacit agreement their exchanges on this subject have never gone beyond these two ritual phrases.”
Spino attempts to discover the young man’s identity; we can’t help but feel that he is also in some way searching for his own identity. As Sara says, “Grow a beard and lose twenty years and it could be you.” Various clues (a ring, a letter, a photograph, a jacket) lead him to believe he is beginning to uncover the boy’s story but as his search progresses it begins to involve messages leading him to clandestine meetings in unusual locations as if we had strayed from the detective genre into a spy novel. Of course, we are in neither, and Spino’s final epiphany comes in a dream. The last sentence, “He stepped forward into the dark,” suggest of itself the need to move through mystery.
The Woman of Porto Prim is a collection of shorter pieces all inspired by the Azores – a kind of esoteric travel writing. Many centre on whales and whaling. They take a variety of forms from a ‘Fragment of a Story’ to a life of the poet Antero de Quental. ‘High Seas’ is a collection of whale trivia with quotations lifted from a number of other sources. (Similarities to writers like Borges and Calvino can be clearly seen). The title story, of love and revenge, is the most traditional.
The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico is a more disparate collection. The wonderful title story concerns the arrival of three strange ‘flying creatures’ – the first is described as follows:
“It was a pinkish creature, soft looking, with small yellowish arms like a plucked chicken’s, and two feet which again were very lean with bulbous joints and calloused toes like a turkey’s. The face was that of an aged baby, but smooth, with two big black eyes and a hoary down instead of hair.”
These distorted angels find themselves being painted into scenes of the crucifixion and the annunciation. References to art occur more than once, with a letter to Goya, a painting by Uccello being cited as the inspiration behind one story, and ‘The Translation’ being a description of a painting addressed to a blind man. Writing also features with a correspondence between Tabucchi and ‘Xavier Janata Monroy’ on the subject of his novel Indian Nocturne, and a story about an unpublished novel. This, then, is the most playful of the three books.
All together they make a wonderful introduction to Tabucchi, a writer who should be more widely known in the English speaking world. Special thanks, then, to Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for Antonio Tabucchi week.