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from the March 2013 issue

Antonio Tabucchi’s “The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico”

Reviewed by Elisa Wouk Almino

A comfort in death and loss pervades this collection of letters, ekphrastic prose, short stories, and historical fiction.

These pages, Antonio Tabucchi writes in his newly translated story collection The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, “wander about in a strange outside that has no inside”; it is as though there were nothing beyond the stories themselves for us to retreat into. Untied to any larger narratives, these collected stories are introduced by Tabucchi as “survivors of some whole that never was.” There is an arch contradiction in this: if they are “survivors” then they must have outlived some greater story. Yet that story—the “whole” he invokes—“never was.”

The greater story, Tabucchi implies, is in essence that space of daily living—in his words, “our daily having to be.” This phenomenon stands outside time and space; it is too primal to define. Our daily sense of the “whole” (or wholeness) of our existence “never was” because we cannot pinpoint it, even as we experience it acutely.

These stories were drawn from a notebook Tabucchi used to record his quotidian observations, and their survival is a reminder of the past from which they sprang.

In the story “The Battle of San Romano,” the narrator contemplates a photograph he took: “I anatomise it to give it a sense it has lost with the passage of time . . . it had its real sense only then . . . when I didn’t know what sense it had.” A second narrator compares this to Paolo Uccello’s “The Battle of San Romano”: the painting reflects and intersects multiple perspectives of a single battle scene, so that we are offered “a representation not of real beings, but of ghosts.” In the photograph, then, the perspective of the past overlaps with that of the present, so that what the narrator observes is no longer the thing itself, but rather a spectral version of it.

Ten months after Tabucchi’s death, Tim Parks’s elegant translation of The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico embodies the author’s lifelong interest in states of consciousness, time, and visual memory. But perhaps what permeates his work most markedly is the nuanced sentiment of saudade, the Portuguese word that most nearly expresses the combined feelings of nostalgia and longing.

Tabucchi, though Italian, was fluent in Portuguese and spent many years of his life (including the last days before his death) in Lisbon. It is thus not insignificant that this book of stories ends in Lisbon, with “Last Invitation,” a story that celebrates suicide. “Hilly, constantly changing, riddled with stairways, sudden terraces, holes, drops,” Lisbon is a breeding ground for the “noble” slip into suicide. It is a culture that not only welcomes but also practices the taking of one’s own life, in the form of “death by Saudade.” This particular road to death is epitomized in the image of Portuguese people sitting on benches in silence at the lip of the pier, before the ocean, “looking into the distance.” Tabucchi encourages us to try it, though he warns, “the effects are not immediate.”

A comfort in death and loss pervades this collection of letters, ekphrastic prose, short stories, and historical fiction. In a letter to an unborn revolutionary, Mademoiselle Lenormand, a character named after Napoleon’s fortune-teller, writes: “[You will] be ready to pass away, and that will be a source of subtle, secret comfort.” Loss is a character we must embrace since “what . . . has to be, has already been.” The future has already been lived, yet the present is already the past. And we are left with the sense that there is nothing more to gain or know.

Calypso the nymph, the author of another letter and story, would beg to differ. She agonizes over her immortality; she longs to be “grey and feeble . . . strength dwindling.” She rhapsodizes on the discolored, creased, and bony qualities of aging, and in an outcry of jealousy, her words flare up at us: “But you live in change.” We humans are bestowed with mortal flesh, which bears the present marks of the past and foreboding future—it is our evidence, our means through which we can pleasurably “grasp the substance of time.”

An attention to physicality and color diverges from the obsession with loss and death. Yet the former uses language intense enough to be fragile; it has the vitality of innocence. In his preface, Tabucchi describes his stories as “spurious projections of desire” of a “larval nature.” They emerge like something being born, as “organisms in the foetal stage,” and impart a questioning innocence that perishes just as fast as it burns.

In the opening story, “The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico,” Fra Giovanni nurses three overtired birds that have fallen into the monastery gardens. He is drawn to their “moist eyes” and repeatedly compares them to the soft, pinkish, fragile countenance of a baby. Among heavy pears that grow from trees and bulbous red onions that are plucked from the ground, these flying creatures of “ochre, yellow, deep blue, and [emerald] green” at first appear to be another blossoming element to the garden.

Yet one of these birds makes itself known as the reincarnation of Nerina, someone presumably once dear to Fra Giovanni, embracing him in the middle of the night. The birds have summoned him to paint them. He paints the famous Annunciation, transposing Nerina’s face between two “golden wings.” Once the birds’ colors have been put to paper—once a memory of the past is made into material form—they disappear. Fra Giovanni is left with the “melancholy that comes when something is finished” and sets out to pick the last onions before they grow “rotten”—the last word to wither a story previously imbued with new life.

Tabucchi describes our daily existence as inhabiting a space “alien to any orbit . . . whose geometry . . . remains a mystery.” But these birds “[don’t] know what geometry is” and descend “from another dimension.” It may be that our quotidian experience flutters around us like a flock of birds: ubiquitous, yet hidden, emerging suddenly from nowhere, leaving behind an impression of color.

The narrator of “Message from the Shadows” revisits the memory of a loved one, which “flickers by inside [his] eyes . . . so fast in its inexorable passage that it becomes just a colour.” Perhaps, a plane of color, stretched across the mind’s eye, best manifests the sentiment of saudade: vast and bare, though profound, like the ocean that so entrances the Portuguese, it evokes both presence and absence.

The “effects” of saudade could be just this: the practice of observing presence and absence in all things. It is to realize what one of the characters articulates: “time in our lives” is “already gone” even while it is “still there.” 

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