I don’t know why I have begun this letter telling you about a palm tree after you haven’t heard from me for eighteen years. Maybe it’s because here there are lots of palms; I can see them from the window of this hospital with their long fronds waving in the hot wind, lining the scorching streets that disappear in a white haze. There was a palm tree in front of our house when we were children. Maybe you don’t remember it because it was felled, if my memory serves me right, the year that that business happened, therefore in ’53, I believe in the summer. I was ten years old. We had a happy childhood, Lina, you can’t remember it and no one has been able to talk to you about it. Our aunt, where you grew up, couldn’t possibly know how it was –yes, of course, she could tell you something about papa and mama but she can’t tell you about a childhood that she didn’t experience and you don’t remember. She lived too far away, up in the north. Her husband worked in a bank; they considered themselves superior to the family of a level crossing attendant. They never came to our house. The palm tree was cut down in compliance with an order from the transportation department that maintained it impeded the view of freight trucks and could cause an accident. Who knows what kind of accident our palm could have caused, tall as it was, its fronds brushed against our window on the second floor. That which, if anything, could have been a very slight bother from the signal man’s house however, was the trunk; a trunk that was more slender than a lamp pole and certainly could never have impeded the view of anybody on the road. In any case, we had to cut it down. There was nothing that could be done; the land didn’t belong to us. One evening at dinner, mama, who at times had great ideas, proposed writing a letter to the Minister of Transportation signed by the whole family, a kind of petition. It said, “Dear Transportation Minister, concerning truck route #—, protocol #—, regarding the palm tree situated on the small piece of land facing the level crossing attendant’s house #— on the Roma-Torino rail line, he and his family would like to inform Your Excellency that the aforementioned palm does not constitute any impediment to the view of passing vehicles. It is requested, therefore, that you allow the aforementioned palm to stand as it is the only tree on the property, a part from a sparse grape vine on a trellis that grows over the door, and being as it is much loved by the attendant’s children, especially by the little boy who is sickly by nature and often confined to his bed where he, at least at present, has a palm tree in his window that keeps him company, which if it weren’t there, he’d be looking at air, which is sad, and to testify to the love that the signal man’s children have for the aforementioned tree, it’s enough to say that they have given it a name and don’t call it a palm tree anymore, rather Josephine, owing to the fact that we took them once to the cinema in town to see “ Forty-seven Dead” with Toto”, in which the famous black French singer with the aforementioned name danced around in a beautiful headdress made entirely from palm fronds, and since when the wind blows, the palm tree sways as if it were dancing, the children decided to call their tree Josephine.”
This letter is one of the few things that I have left of Mama’s. It is written in her own hand on a page from my composition notebook which, by chance, when I was sent to Argentina, I brought along without even realizing it, without imagining what a treasure that page would become for me. Another thing that I still have of Mama’s is a photograph taken by Signor Quintilio under the trellis at our house, around the marble table, probably in summer. Seated around the table are: papa and Signor Quintilio’s daughter, a thin girl with long braids wearing a flower print dress, and me playing with a wooden rifle, pretending to shoot at the camera. On the table, there are some glasses and a straw covered flask of wine. Mama is coming out of the house carrying a large soup tureen. She has barely entered the picture that Signor Quintilio has just snapped. She has entered by chance, was moving, and for this reason a little out of focus. She’s not easy to recognize, and for that reason, I prefer to think of her the way I remember her, because I remember her well. That year, I mean the year the palm tree was cut down, I was ten years old, it was definitely summer and the thing happened in October.
One remembers well what happened when he was ten and I will never forget what happened that October. But Signor Quintilio, do you remember him? He was the bailiff of a large estate about two kilometers from our house where in May we used to go to pick cherries. He was a small, nervous but cheerful man who was always telling jokes. Papa teased him because under fascism, he was the assistant to the local Party Secretary or something of the sort and he was ashamed. He would shake his head and say, “water under the bridge,” and papa would start to laugh and give him a big pat on the back. And his wife, do you remember her, Signora Elvira, that huge depressed woman who used to suffer in the heat. When she came over to have lunch with us she always brought a fan. She huffed and puffed and complained about the heat, then went outside and sat under the trellis on the marble bench and fell asleep with her head against the wall; not even the sound of the passing trucks would wake her. I loved it when on Saturdays they came over after dinner. Sometimes Miss Palestro came too, the old unmarried woman who lived alone in a kind of villa on the estate’s land, surrounded by a battalion of cats. She was obsessed with teaching me French because when she was young, she had tutored the children of a count; she would always say, “pardon,” “c’est dommage,” and her favorite exclamation which she used at every turn to call attention to something serious or if she merely dropped her glasses, “eh-la’-la”. On those evenings, mama sat down at our small piano—how she loved that piano; it testified to her upbringing, to her comfortable youth, to her father the court clerk, to vacations in the Tuscan mountains. How she loved to tell stories about those vacations, about her graduation from high school in home economics.
If you only knew, in those first years in Argentina, how much I wished it were I who had been on those vacations. I wished it so much, I imagined them so much that at times a strange spell came over me and I remembered taking vacations at Gavinana and at San Marcello—just you and me, Lina, we were small children, only that you, instead of being you, were mama when she was small and I was your brother and I loved you so much. I remembered the time we went down to a stream below Gavinana to catch pollywogs. You, that is mama, had a small net and a large funny hat with wing-like brims similar to those of Vincenzian nuns, you kept running ahead repeating, “let’s run, let’s go, the pollywogs are waiting!” and it all seemed to me so hilarious and I laughed like a crazy one and I couldn’t keep up for all the laughing. Then you disappeared into the chestnut grove alongside the stream and shouted, “catch me, catch me!” At that point, I gave it my all and reached you, I caught you by the shoulders, you gave a little cry and we slipped; it was a hillside and we began to roll down and then I threw my arms around you and whispered in your ear, “mama, mama, hold on to me tight, mama,” and you hugged me tight as we rolled. You had become the mama like I had known. I smelled your perfume, I kissed your hair, everything became confused, the grass, your hair, the sky, and in that blissful moment, the baritone voice of Uncle Alfredo said to me, “entonces nino, los platinados estan prontos?” They weren’t ready, no. I found myself under the open hood of an old Mercedes with a box of ignition points in one hand and a screwdriver in the other; the pavement was spotted with blue puddles of oil mixed with water. “But what’s this kid dreaming about,” said Uncle Alfredo good-naturedly and gave me an affectionate cuff on the head. We lived at Rosario in 1958. Uncle Alfredo, after many years in Argentina, spoke a strange mix of Italian and Spanish. His garage was called La Motorizada Italiana and worked on everything but mostly on tractors and old Ford wrecks. His sign, next to the Shell Oil symbol, was a little leaning tower in neon, only half of which lit up, however, because the gas in the tubes was practically gone and nobody had ever had the patience to replace it. Uncle Alfredo was a portly, passionate but patient man, a lover of good food with a nose plowed by hundreds of tiny blue veins and a constitutional tendency towards hypertension, exactly the opposite of papa. You would have never said that they were brothers.
Ah, but I was talking about those after dinner encounters at our house when friends visited and mama sat down at the piano. Miss Palestro was crazy for Strauss waltzes but I much preferred it when mama sang. It was so hard to get her to sing though; she evaded the topic, she blushed, “my voice is gone,” she would say smiling, but then give into Signora Elvira’s entreaties. She too preferred the stories and songs over the waltzes, and in the end, mama acquiesced. Then everyone went quiet and mama began with entertaining little tunes like, Rosamunda or Eulalia Torricelli to enliven the room. Fanning herself and with her enormous breast heaving, Signora Elvira laughed with delight and a little bit of difficulty emitting the glottal sound of a mother hen. Then mama played an interlude on the piano, without singing, and Miss Palestro requested something more demanding. Caressing the keyboard with her hands, mama raised her eyes to the ceiling as if she were searching for inspiration or probing her memory. It was a dead hour on the road and there were no disturbing sounds of traffic. The sound of crickets entered the room through the windows opened wide onto the fields of the Maremma. Some moths batted against the fly screen trying vainly to enter, mama sang Luna Rosa,All’Alba se ne Parte il Marinaro, or else a love song by Benjamin Gigli, Oh Begli Occhi di Fata. It was wonderful hearing her sing! Miss Palestro had tears in her eyes and Signora Elvira even stopped fanning herself. Everyone watched mama in her light blue shift. You were sleeping in your room, unaware, too young to remember these moments, to have them in your life. I was happy, everybody applauded. Papa, brimming over with pride, circulated with a bottle of Vermouth filling the glasses of the guests, saying, “Please, please, allow me, it’s not like we’re in the house of the Turk!” Uncle Alfredo also used this curious expression. It was funny to hear him mix it in with his Spanish. I remember one time, we were at the table; he absolutely loved Trippa alla Parmigiana. He thought the Argentineans were stupid because of all the cow’s meat, they prized only the beefsteak, and helping himself to an enormous portion from the steaming tureen, he said to me, “Anda a comer, nino, non siamo mica in casa del Turco. (Come and eat son, it’s not like we’re in the house of heathens.) It was a phrase from Uncle Alfredo and papa’s early childhood. Who knows how far back it goes. I understood the concept; it had to do with a house in which there was abundance and where the master was generous; who knows why the contrary situation was attributed to the Turks, maybe it went back to the Saracen invasions. And my Uncle Alfredo was in effect very generous with me. He raised me like I was his own son, the son he never had; generous and patient, just like a father because maybe with me, there was a need for patience. I was an unhappy distracted child; I got into lots of trouble because of my nature. The only time I saw my uncle lose his patience, it was terrible but it wasn’t for something that I had done. We were eating lunch, the main meal of the day; I had caused a disaster with a tractor. I had to bring it into the shop with a difficult maneuver. Maybe I was distracted, because at that moment, over the radio came Volare, sung by Modugno, and Uncle Alfredo turned up the volume because he was crazy about that song, and as I entered, I scraped against the side of a Chrysler, significantly damaging the car. Aunt Olga wasn’t mean. She was a grouchy gabby woman from the northeastern part of Italy known as the Veneto who was still fiercely attached to her dialect. When she spoke, it was almost impossible to understand her, the way she mixed the Veneto dialect with Spanish, a complete disaster. She and my uncle met in Argentina and decided to get married when they were already middle aged, so in other words, it couldn’t be said that they married for love; let’s just say that it was good for them both, for her, because she had quit her job in a meat packing plant, and for Uncle Alfredo because he needed a woman to keep his house clean. But they loved each other or at the very least, liked each other well, and Aunt Olga respected him and treated him like a king. Who knows why she uttered that phrase that day, perhaps she was tired, irritated, had lost her patience, it certainly wasn’t necessary, Uncle Alfredo had already scolded me and I was properly mortified. My eyes were fixed on my plate and Aunt Olga, from out of nowhere, but not to offend me, poor woman–like that, almost as if she were making an observation– said, “He’s the son of a madman, only a madman could have done that thing to his wife.” And then I saw Uncle Alfredo calmly stand up, his face white, and give her a frightening slap. The blow was so violent that Aunt Olga fell from her chair and in falling, grabbed hold of the tablecloth, dragging it down with her with all of the plates. Uncle Alfredo slowly walked out, descended the stairs and returned to work. Aunt Olga got up as if nothing happened, began picking up pieces, swept the floor, put on a new tablecloth because the other was badly soiled, reset the table and stepped out into the stairwell. “Alfredo,” she shouted, “lunch is ready!”
When I left for Mar del Plata I was sixteen years old. I carried a roll of pesos sewed into my undershirt and in my pocket, a business card from the Pensione Albano, “agua corriente fria caliente,” and a letter for the proprietor, an old Italian friend of Uncle Alfredo; they had sailed for Argentina on the same ship and remained in touch. I would attend an Italian boarding school run by Salesian monks that had a music conservatory or something of the sort. It was my aunt and uncle who decided. By this point I had finished elementary school and it was clear I wasn’t cut out for the automobile repair business, and then Aunt Olga hoped that the city would change me. I heard her say one evening, “at times his eyes fill me with fear, they are so frightened, who knows what he has seen, poor boy, who knows what he remembers.” Of course the way I was, was a little worrisome, I recognize that now. I never talked, I just blushed, spilled food all over myself and cried all the time. Aunt Olga maintained that the songs were ruining me with all those stupid words. Uncle Alfredo tried to shake me out of it by explaining to me all about camshafts and clutches. In the evening, he tried to convince me to accompany him to the Café Florida where there were many Italians who played Scopone, but I preferred to sit by the radio and listen to music; I adored the old tangos by Carlos Gardel, the sad sambas of Wilson Baptista, the light hearted tunes of Doris Day, I liked it all. And so maybe it was best for me to study music, as that was my interest, but far from the fields and in a civilized place.
Mar del Plata was a city both fascinating and bizarre, deserted in the winter and crowded in the vacation season, with enormous white nineteenth century hotels, which in the off season made one depressed. In those slack months, it was a city full of foreign hotel personnel and old people who had chosen to spend their last years there, who kept each other company arranging tea dates on the hotel terraces or in cafes where small shabby orchestras scratched out popular tunes and tangos. I attended the Salesian Conservatory for two years. I studied on the organ with Father Matteo, an old, half blind monk with colorless hands: Bach, Monteverdi and Pierluigi da Palestrina. Padre Simone held classes in the area of general knowledge, on the scientific part, and Padre Anselmo, on the classical part where I was particularly gifted. I gladly studied Latin but preferred history, the lives of the saints and of illustrious men, amongst whom I particularly liked, Leonardo da Vinci and Ludovico Antonio Muratori who studied by eavesdropping under the window of a school until one day, the teacher discovered him and said, “Why don’t you join our class, poor boy!”
In the evening, I returned to the Pensione Alban where I also worked because the money Uncle Alfredo sent me each month wasn’t sufficient. I slipped on a jacket that Senora Pepa washed twice a week and positioned myself in the dining hall, a large light blue room with around thirty tables and scenes of Italy on the walls. Our clients were pensioners, salesmen and an occasional Italian immigrant from Buenos Aires who could afford the luxury of passing fifteen days at Mar del Plata. Signor Albano managed the kitchen. He knew how to make pansotti with walnuts and trenette al pesto. He was from Liguria, from Camogli, and supported Peron, said Peron had improved a country of stingy mean people, and of course, Evita was an angel.
When I found a regular job at “Birchinho,” I wrote Uncle Alfredo and told him not to send me any more money. It’s not that I was paid that much but it was enough, and it didn’t seem right to me that Uncle Alfredo repaired tractors all day in order to send me those few pesos every month. “O Birchinho” was a restaurant-nightclub managed by a chubby, cheerful Brazilian fellow, Senhor Joao Paiva, where one could eat till midnight and listen to the music typical of the area. It was an establishment with pretensions of respectability, keen on distinguishing itself from the other shabby clubs and even if those who went there in search of “companionship” had no trouble finding it, usually with the help and discretion of the waiters because this part of the business wasn’t really above board— everything gave the appearance of respectability. There were forty tables with candles. At two of those tables in the back of the club, near the coatroom, there were two young ladies seated behind a forever empty plate, sipping aperitifs as if waiting for their order. And if a gentleman entered, a waiter promptly approached him and discreetly asked, “Would you like to dine alone or would you welcome the company of a lady?” I knew quite a bit about those little tricks because I was responsible for the back of the room while Ramon waited on the tables closer to the stage. It took tact and grace to present those offers, you needed to understand the client so as not offend him, and who knows why, I understood the client immediately. In short, I had the nose for it, and at the end of the month, I ended up with more tips than wages. Moreover, Anita and Pilar were two generous girls. The highlight of the show was Carmen del Rio. She didn’t have the voice that she used to have, certainly, in the good days, and yet she was still an attraction. With the passing of the years, that husky timbre that made her interpretation of the more desperate tangos so fascinating, began to weaken, to clarify, and she tried in vain to bring it back by smoking two cigars before every performance. But what was spectacular about her and always sent her audience into delirium wasn’t so much her voice but the whole complex of her art: the repertoire, the makeup, the outfits. Behind the back drapes of the stage, she had a small dressing room chock full of trinkets, odds and ends, and a majestic wardrobe with all the dresses she used in the 40’s when she was The Great Carmen del Rio: long chiffon gowns, marvelous white sandals with cork high heels, feather boas, tango shawls, a blond wig, a red one, and two jet black wigs parted in the middle, each with a large bun pierced by a white comb, Andalusia style. Carmen del Rio’s secret however was in her makeup and she knew it. She spent hours painting her face without neglecting the smallest detail: the tinted foundation, the long false eyelashes, the glittering lipstick like they used in her day, her very long, irresistible, vermillion nails. She often called me to help her. She said that I had a light touch, exquisite taste, that I was the only person in the club that she trusted, and then opened her closet and asked me to advise her. I had her tell me the evening’s program. She knew what to wear for the tangos but I chose the makeup for the mournful songs; I usually went for light colors, frothy gowns, pastels like apricot that fit her to a T, or a pale indigo which for me was unexcelled for Romona. And then I did her nails and eyelashes. She closed her eyes and stretched out on the love seat, threw her head back on the pillow rest and whispered to me as if in a dream, “I once had a lover as delicate as you; he spoiled me like a child. His name was Daniel and was from Quebec; who knows what became of him.” From up close and without makeup, anyone could see how old Carmen was, but under the spotlight and after my makeup, she was still a queen. I went heavy on the foundation and grease paint, naturally, and as for powder, I obliged her to use a very pink Guerlain product instead of those overly white Argentinian brands that accentuated her wrinkles. The result was fantastic and she was very grateful; she said that I had taken years off her face. And for her perfume, I had converted her to Violetta, lots and lots of Violetta, and at first she protested because Violetta is a common, low class perfume used by young girls. She didn’t understand, really, that this was a contrast that enchanted the audience; an old exhausted beauty who sang the tango made up like a pink doll. It was this that created sympathy and brought tears to the eyes.
Afterwards, I went to work in the back of the room, inconspicuously circulating between the tables, “Mas carabineros alla plancha, senor?” “Le gusta el vino rosado, senorita?” As I did, I knew that Carmen was looking for me, was watching for a sign. When I went to light a customer’s cigarette with the owner’s gold lighter, I first raised the lighter to the level of my chest and let it flare for a moment, our signal that her singing was heavenly, was going straight to the heart, and then I noticed that her voice began to resonate more, became more sincere, more animated. The splendid aging Carmen del Rio needed encouragement. Without her, however, O Bichinho would have been nothing.
The night Carmen stopped singing we all panicked. She didn’t stop of her own volition, however. We were in her dressing room, I was putting on her makeup, she was reclining in her lounge chair in front of the mirror, smoking a cigar, holding her eyes closed and suddenly the powder began to smear on her forehead and I realized she was sweating. I touched her, it was a cold sweat, “ I feel sick,” she murmured and said nothing more. She brought her hand to her breast, I took her pulse, I couldn’t feel anything and so I called the manager. Carmen trembled as if she had a fever but she didn’t have a fever, she was ice cold. We called a taxi to take her to the hospital. I helped her walk to the stage door so the audience wouldn’t see her. “Ciao Carmen,” I said, “It’s nothing, tomorrow I’ll come to see you,” and she gave a little smile. It was 11:00, the customers were eating; the spotlight cast an empty circle of light on the stage, the pianist played quietly to cover for her absence. Then a small rhythmic applause rose up in the room, they were calling for Carmen. Behind the curtain, Signor Paiva was becoming more and more nervous, was anxiously sucking on his cigarette. He called the club manager and told him to start serving the Spumante, free. Maybe he thought he could appease the crowd this way. But at that moment, a small chorus of voices began chanting, “Car-men! Car-men!” and then, I have no idea what got into me, it wasn’t something that I’d planned. I felt something pushing me into the dressing room. I turned on the makeup light circling the mirror and chose a form fitting sequined gown with a slit up the side–style, theatrical vulgar–white high heeled shoes, black evening gloves that came up to the elbow and a red wig with long curls. I put on a heavy layer of silver eye shadow but, for my lips, chose a light opaque shade of apricot. When I walked onto the stage into the glare of the spotlight, the audience stopped eating. I saw many faces staring at me, many forks suspended in mid-air. I knew that audience but had never seen it arrayed before me like that, in semi-circular fashion, it was like I was under siege. I began with Caminito Verde. The pianist, an intelligent sort, understood immediately the timbre of my voice and improvised a discreet accompaniment with all low notes. I signaled to the electrician to install a blue disc, grabbed the microphone, put it to my lips and began to sing in tremulous hushed tones. I encouraged the pianist to play two intermezzi, to extend the song, because the eyes of the audience were all fixed on me. And while he played, I slowly moved around the stage with the blue cone of light following me. Every so often, I stopped and moved my arms as if I were swimming in that light, then spread my legs slightly and while caressing my shoulders, swung my head from side to side so that my curls fell over my shoulders, as I had seen Rita Hayworth do in Gilda. And then the crowd began to applaud energetically, enthusiastically, and I realized it had worked and reacted without thinking. Before the enthusiasm could wane, before the applause ended, I launched into another song, this time, Lola Lolita la Piquetera, and then a Buenos Aires tango from the 30’s, Pregunto, that sent the crowd into raptures. I got applause that Carmen only got on her best nights. And then I had an inspiration, a crazy idea. I went over to the pianist and had him give me his jacket, put it on over my gown, as if for a joke, but with great melancholy. Then I began to sing a torch song by Benjamin Gigli, Oh Begli Occhi di Fata (Oh beautiful angel eyes) as if it were directed to an imaginary woman that I longed for, and little by little, as I was singing, the woman I evoked, came to me, called by my song. And as I crooned the last stanza into the mic, “della mia gioventù cogliete il fiore” (pick the flower of my youth), I slowly slipped off my jacket and completely surrendered to my lover, that is to the audience where my passion was directed, became me again, and with my foot, pushed away the jacket that I had let drop to the stage floor. And to keep the enchantment going, rubbing my lips over the mic, I launched into another song, Acercate Mas, and an indescribable thing happened. All the men got to their feet and began clapping wildly. An older man with a white jacket threw me a carnation, a British military officer sitting in the front row jumped up onto the stage and tried to kiss me. I escaped to the dressing room, I felt like I was going crazy with excitement and joy, I could feel a tremor run through my body. Panting, I closed the door, sat down and looked at myself in the mirror; I was beautiful, I was young, I was happy, and then an impulse came over me. I put on the blond wig, wrapped the blue feather boa around my neck allowing it to drag on the floor behind me, opened the door and skipping like a sprite, returned to the stage.
First I sang, Che Sarà Saraà, imitating Doris Day a little, and then, swaying my hips, plunged into Volare, sung to a cha-cha-cha beat. I invited the crowd to accompany me, directing them with my palms, so when I sang, “volare!” the chorus responded, “oh-oh,” and I, “cantare!” and they, “oh-oh- oh-oh!” It was absolute bedlam. When I returned to the dressing room, away from the excitement and noise of the crowd, I lowered myself into Carmen’s easy chair, crying with happiness and listening to the audience’s chants of, “nombre, nombre!” Signor Paiva came in. He was speechless, radiant; his eyes were alight. “You have to go out there and tell them your name,” he said, “we’re not able to settle them down,” and I went out again. The electrician put on a pink disc that flooded me in a warm light, I took the microphone, I had two songs in mind that were pressing to get out. I sang Luna Rosa and All’alba se ne parte il marinaro (At dawn, the mariner goes away). And when the long applause began to die down, I murmured into the mic the name that came suddenly to my lips. “Josephine,” I said. “Josephine.”
Lina, many years have passed since that night and I have lived my life as I felt I should. During my peregrinations around the world, I have always thought about writing you but have never had the courage. I don’t know if you ever learned about what happened to us when we were children; it’s very possible our aunt and uncle never managed to tell you, they aren’t things that are easy to tell. However it is, whether you already know or come to find out, remember that papa wasn’t bad, forgive him as I have forgiven him. I want to ask you a favor, from here, from this hospital in a faraway city. If what I’m about to undergo, voluntarily, should not come out well, I beg you to collect my remains. I have left explicit instructions with a notary and at the Italian embassy to the effect that my body be repatriated. You will receive a sum of money sufficient for the funeral rites and an additional amount as payment for your trouble, because I have earned quite a bit of money in my life. The world is foolish, Lina, nature is unfair and I don’t believe in the resurrection of the flesh. I believe, however, in memories and I’m asking you to grant me one. About two kilometers from the level crossing house where we spent our childhood, between the land where Signor Quintilio worked and the town, if you head up a small road through the middle of the fields that at one time had a sign that said, “Turbine,” because it led to the reclamation project’s drainage pump, after the locks, a few hundred meters from a group of red houses, you get to a small cemetery. Mama is resting there. I want to be buried next to her. On the tombstone, place a blow-up of the photo of me when I was six. It’s a photo that you’ll find in our aunt and uncle’s house, you have surely seen it a thousand times. It’s of you and me; you are very small, a baby on a blanket, and I am sitting next to you holding your hand. They’ve made me put on an apron and I have curls tied with a bow. I don’t want any dates or inscriptions on the stone—please put just my name, but not Ettore–use the name with which this letter is signed. With the affection of our shared blood that binds me to you,
Antonio Tabucchi, Italian writer and scholar (born Sept. 24, 1943, Pisa, Italy—died March 25, 2012, Lisbon, Port.), crafted lyrical yet frequently humorous stories and novels, many of which reflected his special love of Portugal, notably the melancholy and pantheistic elements in Portuguese literature known as saudade. Tabucchi’s best-known works include Notturno indiano (1984; Indian Nocturne, 1989; film 1989), Piccoli equivoci senza importanza (1985; Little Misunderstandings of No Importance, 1987), and Sostiene Pereira (1994; Pereira Declares: A Testimony, 1995; film 1995). The latter novel, the story of the 1938 crisis of conscience of a Lisbon journalist under the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, was frequently interpreted as a criticism of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom Tabucchi critiqued more directly in essays and newspaper columns. Tabucchi, who studied literature at the University of Pisa, taught Portuguese literature at the Universities of Genoa and Siena, served as the director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Lisbon, produced translations of such Portuguese writers as Fernando Pessoa, and wrote one novel in Portuguese.
Cover image: painting by Giacomo Cuttone.