In his note to this collection, the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi (1943–2012) refers to the 14 pieces as “drifting splinters.” These “fragments of novels and stories,” he writes, “have a larval nature.” They are “sketchy compositions,” “quasi-stories,” and “background noise.” Despite the author’s misgivings, a “residual pride,” plus “the chance of a few meagre words,” led him to gather and publish.
Not so promising an introduction, yet even in this self-effacing “note” we can see what has attracted readers to Tabucchi and made him a beloved icon of Italian literature: the elegance of the prose, the flow of the musings, the humor. Yes, The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico consists of odds and ends and “drifting splinters,” but like splinters they lodge in the skin.
Tabucchi is known for his short fiction, and so a miscellanea like this can be viewed as bearing the essence of his work. The opening, title piece alone offers substantial rewards. Fra Giovanni of Fiesole (aka Fra Angelico) is tending the monastery vegetable garden, picking onions that make him weep, when he encounters a wondrous creature, awkward and feathered and from another dimension, that has landed in the yard.
The father superior agrees to shelter the creature under a makeshift tent because it suffers from “the force of ascension” when darkness falls. Two other surreal companion creatures arrive the next day. The three ask Fra Giovanni to paint them; “that’s why we came,” explains the dragonfly-like one, whose face bears a resemblance to the monk’s early and only lover, Nerina. It’s a lovely parable that mixes Buñuel and Bosch (a detail of the latter’s The Garden of Earthly Delights graces the cover) — and, of course, the story’s namesake, the Dominican friar-painter Fra Angelico.
This act of reimagining is carried on in an epistolary manner in “Past Composed: Three Letters.” The first of the three missives, from Dom Sebastião de Avis, King of Portugal, to the painter Francisco Goya, opens thusly: “In this shadow world I inhabit, where the future is already present, I have heard tell that your hands are unrivalled in the depiction of carnage and caprice” — the last part a reference to Goya’s two series of prints, “Los Desastres de la Guerra” and “Los Caprichos.” In his letter, the king describes a painting he would like Goya to paint. The canvas would include the Sacred Heart of Our Lord in all of its bloody splendor and a ship, “something from a dream, an apparition, a chimera,” with a figurehead whose features resembles the king’s. In the other letters, Napoleon’s fortune-teller Mademoiselle Lenormand writes to the future Spanish Civil War revolutionary Dolores Ibárruri, and the nymph Calypso addresses an existential epistle to Odysseus.
“The Passion of Dom Pedro” also transports us back in time, to the mid-14th century, to the city of Coimbra in Portugal. The king’s son, the young prince Dom Pedro, angered by the execution of his wife, plans revenge in a manner worthy of Edgar Allen Poe. “His resentment at having been crushed by events now irremediable was not to be satisfied by the cardiac muscle of a few courtiers,” explains the narrator. Dom Pedro exhumes his wife, dresses the decomposed body in white, crowns it, and props it up alongside him in an open coach. As they set forth for her posthumous coronation, “The crowd, as ordered, followed on either side of the nuptial procession, marrying the reverence of subjects with their repugnance.”
Among the other pieces in the collection is a lyric response to the paintings by Davide Benati (written for an exhibition catalogue); a correspondence between the author and an admirer/detractor from Madras; an ekphrastic riff on an impressionist landscape painting; and a paean to Lisbon as a city that offers “an admirable range of options for suicides.” The latter story features a lovely Borgesian touch: the city’s telephone directory includes sixteen pages of undertaker listings — “a lot, you will have to agree, especially if one considers that Lisbon is not an enormous city.”
Tabucchi’s claims to literary fame include his translations, undertaken with his wife, Maria José de Lancastre, of the work of the great Portuguese poet and writer Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) into Italian. Like Pessoa, who invented a range of persona (heteronyms) in composing his verse, the Italian is comfortable taking on diverse identities, able to leap centuries to become a king or a fortune-teller or an early Renaissance painter of mystical flying creatures.
The translations by Tim Parks are mostly smooth and well crafted. Whether they do justice to the original Italian is beyond this reviewer’s knowledge. One thing is certain, however: Tabucchi, where have you been all my life?
Antonio Tabucchi’s The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico is available from Archipelago Books and other online booksellers.