“For Isabel: A Mandala” by Antonio Tabucchi [Why This Book Should Win]

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is from BTBA judge Jeremy Keng.

For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Italy, Archipelago Books)

The photographer shifted positions and lit another cigarette in his long ivory holder. He seemed uneasy. Silent, he eyed me from head to toe. And then he said: are you a journalist? I allowed myself a chuckle. Though I didn’t want to be sarcastic, his question somehow invited sarcasm, and so I told him: you couldn’t be further from the truth, Mr. Thiago, I assure you, your guess is completely off-track, death is a curve in the road, to die is simply not to be seen. Then why? he asked, even more perplexed, to what end? To make concentric circles, I said, to finally reach the centre. I don’t understand, he said. I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the centre, and I’m trying to reach that centre. To what end? He asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple, I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

Antonio Tabucchi was an Italian writer and with his wife, Maria Jose de Lancastre, a translator himself, from Portuguese. He won France’s “Médicis étranger” for Notturno indiano and the premio Campiello and the Aristeion Prize for Sostiene Pereira. He’s one of the many authors who, if they lived a little longer, may have won the Nobel.

Private obsession; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles soothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.

For Isabel: A Mandala, translated by Elizabeth Harris, follows the narrator, Tadeus, sometimes introduced as Slowacki, as he travels on a metaphysical journey from Lisbon to Macao to Switzerland and to the Italian Riviera, looking for Isabel, the love he lost during the dark days of Salazar’s Portugal. Rumored to have been pregnant, not only did Isabel disappear, but so did any trace of a child. As he travels from place to place, eyewitness to eyewitness, Tadeus assembles the pieces of the puzzle. He also arrives at a clearer understanding of writing, photography, and of the impermanence of life.

The novel is divided into nine circles, the mandala. A mandala is a circular figure in Hindu or Buddhism symbolism and represents the universe. It’s a spiritual tool to focus attention and aid mediation.

Reading For Isabel: A Mandala you get a detective story, a fable of sorts, a poem, a tour of European cities, and a series of wild and eccentric characters. By the end you will want to read it again, then you just won’t be able to stop thinking about it. Elizabeth Harris’s translation is outstanding. This book should win because not only will it stand the test of time, it is one of the most fascinating and unique books I’ve read all year.

The people Slowacki converses with become more removed from Isabel’s origins the book goes on, yet closer to what he needs to find. One, conversation, with a woman named Lise, is over dinner in the Swiss Alps.

What do you mean by losing the boundaries? I asked, excuse me, Lise, I’d like to know. She smiled her distant smile. It means the universe has no boundaries, she answered, that’s what it means, and that’s why I’m here, because I too have lost my boundaries. She sipped her tea that the waitress had brought. I sipped mine as well. It was green tea, very fragrant, jasmine-scented. And so? I said. She looked at me with her vague smile and asked: do you know how many stars there are in our galaxy? I have an idea, I said, do you know? About four-hundred billion, Lise answered, but in the universe we know, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, the universe has no boundaries. Excuse me, Lise, I said, but how do you know all these things? She stared into empty space, and said: I’m an astrophysicist, or at least I was.

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