“Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.” So states Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012) in the opening note to his posthumous novel, For Isabel: A Mandala. Recently translated from the original Italian into English by Elizabeth Harris, For Isabel revisits a theme that is dear to its author: that of the journey during which truths are revealed.
Thus, the one hundred luminous pages of For Isabel follow the narrator, Tadeus, as he travels from Lisbon to Macao to Switzerland to the Italian Riviera, looking for Isabel, the love he lost during the dark days of Salazar’s Portugal. A leftist, Isabel seems to have been arrested while a university student. Rumored to have been pregnant, not only did Isabel disappear, but so did any trace of a child. Proceeding from eyewitness to eyewitness, Tadeus assembles the pieces of the puzzle. As he progresses, not only does he learn of Isabel’s fate, but he also arrives at a clearer understanding of photography, of writing, of the impermanence of life itself while meeting wild and zany figures, some of mythic proportions, from the past.
Divided into nine sections, here called circles, the novel’s structure evokes the mandala of the subtitle. Indeed, the word mandala refers to a circular figure that in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism represents the universe. As a spiritual tool, the mandala serves to focus attention and aid meditation. Tadeus is conscious of the power of the mandala. As he states: 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 center, and I’m trying to reach that center…. It’s simple to reach consciousness, you photograph reality.”
The story begins with the First Circle, the circle of Evocation, which is set in modern day Lisbon. Tadeus states he is from The Greater Dog, or the Canis Major constellation. According to myth, Canis Major guarded Europa, but failed to prevent her abduction by Jupiter. Likewise, Tadeus failed to protect Isabel from Salazar’s thugs. It is therefore his fault she is gone: “You might say I’ve lost track of her and I’ve come from the Great Dog just to look for her, I’d like to know more about her.”
He meets her childhood friend, Mónica, who recounts how she and Isabel would catch frogs, slice their heads off and then turn their legs into a sumptuous dish à la Provençal; it was while chopping off the frogs’ heads that Isabel tells Mónica how she might commit suicide: “Listen, Isabel would say, someday if I kill myself, I think I’ll go just like this, with a few kicks, because if you can’t cut off your own head, you can always hang yourself, which is something similar, four kicks into empty air, and goodnight everybody.”
But at university, Mónica too, loses track of her friend when she joins the Communist party. Not able to give up-to-date news, Mónica directs Tadeus to Isabel’s old nanny, Bi, in the Second Circle, who also doesn’t know what has happened to her. Tadeus proceeds onward. In the Third Circle, the circle of Absorption, set in a Lisbon nightclub, nostalgia reigns. Not only does Tadeus drink absinthe straight up, because in so doing it’s a serious drink, like in the past, but he meets Tecs who plays tributes on her saxophone to Sonny Rollins, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Tecs sadly informs Tadeus that long ago Isabel was arrested and taken to Caxais prison:
“… we heard news of her from a prison guard who risked coming to the university and giving us a note, he was a prison guard in the opposition, who aided political prisoners … I went off … and when I returned, they told me Isabel had died, that she committed suicide in prison and they showed me her death notice in the paper … But they told me that she killed herself in prison … that she swallowed glass.”
Not convinced by this version of events, Tadeus prods Tecs who finally remembers the prison guard’s name, Mr. Almeida.
Read the rest published at Numéro Cinq Magazine here: