Tabucchi in Portugal: On Tabucchi’s “Viaggi e altri viaggi” [an essay by Jeanne Bonner]
Jeanne Bonner is a writer, editor and journalist, and translator from the Italian now based in Connecticut. In the fall, she began teaching Italian at the University of Connecticut where she is also working on several translation projects. You can find out more about Jeanne and her work at her website here.
It’s a travel writer’s job to enchant us with tales of lands we’ve never seen—and which we may never see. But it seems like a particular phenomenon when the travel writer is enticing you to visit a land where he, too, is a foreigner. So infectious is Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi’s account of his travels in Portugal in the original Italian that one cannot wait until the book is translated into English to write a “review” of it.
Not that Tabucchi sounded like a foreigner when he wrote lovingly of Portugal and of his second tongue, Portuguese. Quite the opposite. But that’s often what acolytes and converts sound like: They are more fervent than the natives.
And of course since we’re dealing with a master of fiction, in this case the Italian branch, Tabucchi’s ability to bring Portugal alive is almost unequaled. Hence this hybrid essay-review in advance of his collection of travel essays, Viaggi e altri viaggi, which will soon be published by Archipelago Books in a much-awaited English translation by the accomplished translator Elizabeth Harris. It contains not one, but eight pieces on Portugal. One entire section to his adopted homeland is called “Oh, Portogallo!”
In these essays, published by Feltrinelli in 2010, he casually references a host of places and situations that literally make my literature-loving heart race, including the literary cafes of Lisbon (literary + café? Swooning), the brightly-lit ferries that roam the Tago river at dusk, the statues to the Portuguese poets Fernando Pessoa and Antonio Ribeiro Chiado, which stand a short distance from one another in Lisbon (something Tabucchi notes is “rare.” And sure enough it is. Two poet statues in one spot in the same city? Wow). It’s not surprising Tabucchi would pay such close attention to the statues—he translated all of Pessoa’s works into Italian.
He even tells the story of coming upon an archeological dig of a patrician home from the Roman era where a mosaic depicting scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid so moves him, he feels as though he has been transformed into Anchises, Aeneas’s father. That is the power of travel.
Tabucchi’s lifelong dedication to the Portuguese language included stints teaching the literature of Portugal (and beyond) at the Universities of Genoa and Siena. This in addition to being one of the most esteemed Italian authors of the past 100 years, writing such classics as Pereira Maintains, about a Lisbon newspaper editor, and Time Ages in a Hurry and Tristiano Dies, both of which were also published in English by Archipelago. Tabucchi died in Lisbon in 2012.
In writing about Portugal and the Portuguese-speaking world, Tabucchi manages to convey that yearning all travelers feel, but especially those who learn the language of the country they’re visiting, and who experience a sense of disorientation, even unconsciously, of having only discovered this land (and its language) as an adult. Of forever being even at just a slight remove in a place that lights a fire in our bellies. In an essay on the Azores, he writes that a place is never just “that place.” Rather “that place” becomes infused with a part of us because somehow, even unbeknownst to us, we’re carrying it around with us.
I’ve never been to Portugal. But having read Tabucchi’s essays, I’m now obsessed with several aspects of Portuguese culture I previously knew nothing about, including the fact, as the Italian author tells us, that Portuguese literature has historically been rich in tales of the sea, but lean on “land-based” narratives, befitting, of course, a country that was so dependent on maritime industry and adventure. Categorizing the literature of a country based on whether the narratives are land-based or seafaring? Stunning.
I’m obsessed even more with something that emerges in the book that wasn’t new to me, but which Tabucchi illuminates in a particular way, and that’s saudade. It’s a word—a concept, really—as Tabucchi points out, that’s not easily translated, into Italian or English. He tells us that most Italian-Portuguese dictionaries translate the word as “nostalgia,” which he dismisses as “too new a word . . . for something as ancient as saudade.” (“Nostalgia,” he tells us, was coined in the 1700s by a Swiss physician). It also may fail to register the presence of solitude, which is a critical element; nostalgia, after all, can be collectively felt. Saudade tends to be something one feels alone.
Many others have also tried their hand at rendering this distinctly Portuguese concept in English. Writing for NPR’s “Alt Latino” music and culture show, Jasmine Garsd floated the idea that saudade “carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again.” She then quotes a definition of saudade by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” A-ha!
Tabucchi, instead, offers the definition found in a Portuguese dictionary: “Melancholy caused by the remembrance of something precious that was lost; sorrow brought on by the absence of a beloved object; bittersweet memories of someone who was dear.” He adds that it’s therefore something excruciating that pierces your heart, but which can also be quite moving.
But it doesn’t end there. Tabucchi goes on to say that future events are within the temporal range of what the word saudade aims to describe. It can be used to “express a wish for something you hope will happen.” And as Tabucchi so aptly concludes, “That’s where things begin to get complicated because nostalgia for the future is a paradox.”
Tabucchi’s essay so moved me, I think, because it’s my story, too. Having lived in Florence after college, I’m forever tethered to the Italian language and to Italy, a land where I am not a native, but which owns me completely. Tabucchi, I believe, would understand the sentiment when I say Italian is like a person in my life, a twin who accompanies me everywhere—for better or for worse.
Indeed, if Tabucchi’s ghost will allow me, I’ll tell you that I’ve spent hundreds of bittersweet hours in Italy, knowing I’ll never be able to stay forever, that my roots were elsewhere, and that the only people with the right to settle in for good were Italians. Something I would never be. So when I was meant to be reveling in the country’s sunshine, in its superb cuisine, in the postcard-ready streets of cities large and small, I was sometimes already looking ahead to when it would be over. As Tabucchi tells it, that’s textbook saudade.
Tabucchi is moved to ponder the concept while strolling along a tiny street in Lisbon called, appropriately, rua da Saudade. Perched as it is high above the castle of São Jorge, which naturally draws tourists, it’s a street he says most visitors will overlook.
As he writes in this essay named for the rua in Lisbon that so captivated him, streets left out of guidebooks often offer many reasons for visiting. (That line alone convinced me I had bought the right book, even though it was purchased on a whim; indeed, that line actually made me ache slightly at the thought of what would have happened, had I not bought the book. The literary equivalent of _saudade_—but I digress).
In the case of rua da Saudade, one reason to visit is the view. From high above the city, the tiny street offers a vista that takes in all of Lisbon and the river (in the Italian, he says, “lo sguardo abbraccia tutta la’”—literally, one’s gaze hugs the entire city). Tabucchi notes that when the evening streetlights go on and “a veil falls over the city,” a visitor gazing out at that view will be overcome by a kind of anguish—a longing—that’s part and parcel of saudade.
While walking on this street, Tabucchi tells us, our imagination will time-travel ahead, to when we’ve returned from our trip and resumed our workaday lives. We’ll feel nostalgic for the privilege of having visited “such a beautiful and solitary little street in Lisbon,” he writes, to see “a view that’s heartbreakingly sublime.” At that point, he says, it’s all over. “You’re feeling nostalgic for the very moment you’re living right now,” he continues. “It’s nostalgia for the future. You’ve personally experienced saudade.”
Dear reader, you’re feeling _saudade right now, aren’t you? Possibly for a place you’ve never visited. Me, too. Me, too.