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Sunday, 26 May 2013

Indian Nocturne


I do not know if I exist... it seems possible to me that I might be someone else's dream... I might be a character in a novel, moving through the long waves of someone else's literary style... — Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. by Richard Zenith)

Most traditionally published novels come with a recommendation on the cover from as famous an author as the publisher can get their hands on and this book is no different apart from the fact it’s probably the shortest one I can every remember reading as it consists of a single word, from Salman Rushdie, an author not exactly known for his laconism: “beautiful.” I was curious if that was all he had to say and so I did a search and I suspect that the quote comes from this tweet:

The great Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi died today. Read his beautiful, dreamlike Indian Nocturne (Notturno Indiano), translator Tim Parks.

That was on 25 March 2012. Indian Nocturne is not, however, Tabucchi’s final book. It’s actually an old one, his fifth, written in 1984. The book won the French Prix Médicis étranger in 1987 and is, arguably (at least according to the Boston Review), his “most acclaimed work”. About a dozen books are available in English translations that I could see but the only other by him I’d read is Pereira Maintains which I reviewed here back in 2010. I just read through that article and this quote jumped out at me:

His characters, like Pirandello's and Pessoa's, are often endowed with a multitude of personalities and his plots are full of reversals. He is particularly effective both in suggesting a dreamlike atmosphere of mystery and ambiguity and in conveying a message of libertarian commitment. He often presents an intellectual quest, which may take the form of travel to exotic places or purely of a journey in the mind, which allows him to create enigmatic and ephemeral realities. –

That last sentence could almost summarise Indian Nocturne in fact. Oddly the book reminded me a little of Ian McEwan’s 1981 novel The Comfort of Strangers in which a couple get lost in Venice—at least it’s Venice in the film—and encounter a strange couple. The protagonist in Indian Nocturne (a writer as it happens) is never lost—he always knows where he is geographically—but then there’s more than one way of being lost. What he has ‘lost’ is his friend Xavier and the plot—I use the term loosely—of the book involves his travels around India looking for him. Of course Xavier isn’t lost—he knows exactly where he is—but does he want to be found? I found the book discomforting and I think that’s why the McEwan jumps to my mind and for no other reason. This is how Tabucchi describes his novella:

Author’s Note

As well as being an insomnia, this book is also a journey. The insomnia belongs to the writer of the book, the journey to the person who did the travelling. All the same, given that I too happen to have been through the same places as the protagonist of this story, it seems fitting to supply a brief index of the various locations. I don’t know whether this idea was prompted by the illusion that a topographical inventory, with the force that the real possesses, might throw some light on this Nocturne in which a Shadow is sought; or whether by the irrational conjecture that some lover of unlikely itineraries might one day use it as a guide.


On the next page he lists the twelve locations, one for each chapter, that are the various settings of this novella. They range from a bus stop in the back of beyond to a luxury hotel and at each location he encounters an intriguing individual.

RequiemAn insomnia is an odd description for a book isn’t it? But then he describes The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa as “a delirium” and Requiem as “a hallucination” (yes, ‘a’, not ‘an’). But what about the word ‘nocturne’? The first thing I thought about was music to be honest—Chopin wrote several and Mozart before him wrote a Notturno and a Notturna—but the term dates back to the Middle Ages: the canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events and last one, the Night Office—sometimes referred to as Vigils—comprised of a number of sections called 'nocturnes'. Later on the artist Whistler took to using musical terms to describe his painting—e.g. the famous Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl—and the term has come to be applied—retrospectively in some cases—to any painting of a night scene, or night-piece, such as Rembrandt's The Night Watch. The thing is, most of this book doesn’t take place at night and even where it does it isn’t important: a conversation in a hotel room is just a conversation and frankly I’d have to wade through the book to see what the time of day was in each of the chapters because it didn’t register with me as important. Clearly Tabucchi is using the word allegorically or symbolically here. Rushdie called the book “dreamlike” but how can “an insomnia” be dreamlike? I agree totally with him; the book is like a dream, a waking dream, and in that respect I suppose it can be both insomnious and asomatous at the same time. To be fair there is actually a bona fide dream sequence in the eighth chapter so would that be a dream within a dream then or a dream within an insomnia? It gets very confusing. The best I can come up with is that our protagonist is travelling in the darkness of ignorance. I’ll leave it there.

The book opens with our narrator—this is a first person narrative—in a taxi on his way (so he thinks) to the Khajuraho Hotel on Suklaji Street in Bombay; his driver has other ideas:

‘The hotel you mentioned is in a very poor district,’ he said affably, ‘and the goods are very poor quality. Tourists on their first trip to Bombay often end up in the wrong sort of place. I’m taking you to a hotel suitable for a gentleman like yourself.’ He spat out of the window and winked. ‘Where the goods are top quality.’ He gave me a sleazy smile of great complicity, and this I liked even less.

Moments later his passenger has exited from the cab and is making his own way to the the Khajuraho Hotel. Irrespective of his motives—maybe he gets a bung for redirecting customers—the Khajuraho Hotel is exactly what the driver described. The nicest thing the man can think to say about the lobby “if you could call it that” as he enters the place is that it “was merely ambiguous without being sordid;” the hotel’s restaurant menu “promised an infinite variety of dishes but … they were all off. Except for number fifteen.” The variety of prostitutes on offer is slightly better: “from thirteen to fifteen years old, three hundred rupees, over fifty, five rupees.” And that is the reason he is there but whereas he was content to eat the fish and rice dish earlier he’s unwilling to be fobbed off with any piece of tail: “I want a girl called Vimala Sar.” Vilama Sar is also off the menu but he insists and, with the aid of two twenty-dollar bills, she is located and delivered to his room. Not for anything sordid I should add. The girl has written to him about his friend Xavier and so this is the logical place to begin his search for him.

        ‘When he found out I’d written to you he was very angry.’
         ‘And why did you write to me?’
         ‘Because I found your address in Xavier’s diary,’ she said. ‘I knew you were good friends, once.’
         ‘Why was he angry?’
        She put a hand to her mouth as if to stop herself crying. ‘He’d got to be very hard on me those last months,’ she said. ‘He was ill.’
         ‘But what was he doing?’
         ‘He was doing business,’ she said. ‘I don’t know, he didn’t tell me anything, he’d stopped being nice to me.’
         ‘What kind of business?’
         ‘I don’t know,’ she repeated, ‘he didn’t tell me anything. Sometimes he wouldn’t say anything for days and days, then all of a sudden he’d get restless and flare up in a furious rage.’

She has little else to offer him other than that the people Xavier had been doing business with were in or from Goa, someone was writing to him from the Theosophical Society in Madras and before he disappeared he burned all his writings:

         ‘Xavier had written a great deal,’ she said, ‘then one day he burnt everything. Here in this hotel, he got a copper basin and burnt everything.’
         ‘Why?’ I asked.
         ‘He was ill,’ she said. ‘It was his nature. He had a sad destiny.’

That about summarises the opening chapter. Where to look next? She said Xavier was ill so a hospital maybe. And that’s where we jump to, literally mid-conversation with a doctor (something Tabucchi does in most of the chapters which I suppose is dreamlike but it’s also a bit jarring, suddenly shifting from one location to another and into the midst of the action); we’re now having a brief tour of the Breach Candy TajMahalHotelHospital. Xavier’s not there; that would be too easy. From there he moves to a better class of hotel—on the recommendation of the doctor—the Taj Mahal Inter-Continental Hotel, still in Bombay. The next day we witness a conversation between him and a Jain, a follower of Jainism, an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings; it is one of the oldest religions of the world. This takes place in the Railway Retiring Rooms in which one can have the use of a bed as long as one is in possession of a valid railway ticket. On to Madras where he has a strange encounter with the former occupant of his hotel room that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with his quest for Xavier but everything’s not about that. A meeting with the Theosophical Society was on the cards and although the conversation dwells on Hesse and Pessoa I was not entirely convinced that the ghost of Kafka wasn’t lurking in the shadows there too.

We’re now up to chapter seven, the bus to Goa where one of the book’s two (for me) most fascinating encounters takes place at the waiting room adjacent to the bus-stop on the Madras-Mangalore road about fifty kilometres from Mangalore; the place has no name. There he encounters one traveller who catches his eye:

Sitting on the bench at the far end was a boy of about ten with short trousers and sandals. He had a monkey with him, hanging onto his shoulders, its head hidden in his hair and its little hands clasped together round the neck of its master in an attitude of affection and fear. […] I thought it strange, this boy alone in this place with his monkey, even if it is common to see children alone with animals in India; and immediately I thought of a child who was dear to me, and of his way of cuddling a teddy-bear before going to sleep. Perhaps it was that association that led me toward the boy and I sat down next to him. […] [O]nly then did I realise with a sense of horror that the tiny creature he was carrying on his shoulder was not a monkey but a human being.


The boy stroked the hands clinging together over his chest. ‘He’s my brother,’ he said affectionately, ‘he’s twenty.’ Then assuming an expression of pride … he said: ‘But he knows the Scriptures, he knows them off by heart, he’s very intelligent.’

The “monster” we learn as the conversation progresses is an Arihant, a Jain prophet.

        ‘He reads the karma of the pilgrims, we make a lot of money.’
        ‘So he’s a fortune-teller.’
        ‘Yes,’ said the boy innocently.

The man agrees to have his fortune told. The result is unexpected:

        ‘So,’ I asked, ‘can I hear it?’
        ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘my brother says it isn’t possible, you are someone else.’
        ‘Oh, really,’ I said, ‘who am I?’

Jain_hand-180x300Most of us know about karma—we equate it with destiny—but what about maya and atma? They were new to me. The Ātman is a philosophical term used within Jainism to identify the soul. The boy describes maya as “the outward appearance of the world … but’s it’s only an illusion, what counts is the atma.’ Needless to say the man wants to know where his atma is and, after a little pressing (and an additional ten rupees), the brother tells him, “He says you are on a boat.” After that the head is buried again and it’s clear the audience is over.

The second (for me) most fascinating encounter is in the final chapter which I’m saying nothing about other than to say if you’re a fan of metafictive writing (as I am) you will enjoy it. And, no, is doesn’t take place on a boat. Not sure a boat’s ever mentioned again actually.

So what and/or who is our narrator searching for in India? In an interview Tabucchi said:

Tabucchi: I've always been drawn to tormented people full of contradictions. The more doubts they have the better. People with lots of doubts sometimes find life more oppressive and exhausting than others, but they're more energetic—they aren't robots. I prefer insomnia to anaesthesia. I don't go for people who lead full and satisfying lives. In my books, I'm not on the side of the authorities. I'm with those who've suffered. My first novel, Piazza d'Italia, was an attempt to write history that hasn't been written, history as written by the losing side, in this case the Tuscan anarchists. My books are about losers, about people who've lost their way and are engaged in a search.

Lopez: What are they looking for?

Tabucchi: They're looking for themselves through others, because I think that's the best way to look for oneself. The main character in Indian Nocturne, who retraces the steps of a friend who's disappeared in India, is involved in such a quest. And so is Spino, the character in The Edge of the Horizon who tries to find out the identity of an unknown corpse. I don't know whether these people are going to find themselves, but as they live their lives they have no choice but to face up to the image others have of them. They're forced to look at themselves in a mirror, and they often manage to glimpse something of themselves. – Asbel Lopez, ‘Antonio Tabucchi: A Committed Doubter’ UNESCO Courier, November 1999

In a review back in 1989 when the first English edition appeared Amy Edith Johnson, writing in The New York Times had this to say:

Christine, a traveling acquaintance who makes her living “photographing wretchedness,” urges the narrator, over dinner: “Tell me about your novel, come on. . . . I'm intrigued, don't keep me in suspense.” “But it's not a novel . . . it's a bit here and a bit there, there's not even a real story, just fragments of a story. And then I'm not writing it, I said let's suppose that I'm writing it.” Clearly we were both terribly hungry.'' You will be, too, minutes after swallowing Indian Nocturne. – Amy Edith Johnson, ‘In Short: Fiction’, The New York Times, 16 July 1989

Okay, at 135 pages Indian Nocturne is not a feast, no, but it’s the difference between nouvelle cuisine and a Lancashire hotpot. This isn’t a book that will fill you up. This is a book to savour. I didn’t come away from it satisfied. I still have questions. I want to go back and read it all over again to see what I missed. I don’t see this as bad writing; far from it. It’s also not perfect writing—and I don’t just mean the lack of semicolons—but perfection is not open to interpretation.

Doubts are like stains on a shirt. I like shirts with stains, because when I’m given a shirt that’s too clean, one that’s completely white, I immediately start having doubts. It’s the job of intellectuals and writers to cast doubt on perfection. Perfection spawns doctrines, dictators and totalitarian ideas. – Antonio Tabucchi, from a 1999 interview

Why India though? Could this have taken place in, say, Venice? Yes, perhaps, but India is evocative of so much more. Carl Jung wrote an essay in 1939: ‘The Dreamlike World of India’. Is there any better place in the world to stand in for a dream landscape than India? Western sensibilities crumble as soon as you step off the plane. I suppose this story could’ve been told in Japan—I’m thinking Lost in Translation here which explores similar themes of loneliness, insomnia, existential ennui, and culture shock—but India is just perfect. The book has been filmed—a French version exists, Nocturne indien—and I was interested to see that they cast the same actor as Rossignol and Xavier. Odd choice of name for the lead especially as, towards the end of the book, he says, “I’m called Roux,” so it’s not right to say the narrator is nameless (assuming Roux is his real name) but the filmmaker’s choice is still an interesting one. Are Roux and Xavier the same person? And why was Shadow written with a capital letter in the author’s note? That’s very Jungian. I’m not sure how Roux and Xavier were rendered in the original Italian but I can’t help but notice that Roux begins with an ‘r’ and ends in an ‘x’ whereas Xavier begins with an ‘x’ and ends in an ‘r’. Or am I stretching? The shadow of doubt is unavoidable.

I thought this was a lovely book and I’d have absolutely no problems reading this guy again.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! I've never read Tabucchi but now certainly will.

By the way, "a hallucination" is correct because the "h" is aspirated. "A hard surface," "a heavy load," "a hilarious joke." Or is "an" a Britishism?

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not sure if it’s a Britishism, Joseph, but my American wife proofread this article for me and didn’t pick me up on it and I can assure you she lets me away with squat. The Guardian style guide says:

a or an before H?
Use an before a silent H: an heir, an hour, an honest politician, an honorary consul; use a before an aspirated H: a hero, a hotel, a historian (but don't change a direct quote if the speaker says, for example, "an historic"). With abbreviations, be guided by pronunciation: e.g. an LSE student

So, an hallucination would seem ‘right’ at least here in the UK.

Glad you liked the review. It was a book I was looking forward to reviewing and it didn’t disappoint.

Unknown said...

Yes, a wonderful post, as was the last one on niches.

I really liked The Comfort of Strangers, so would probably enjoy this one too.

Thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Jonathan. Bear in mind I’m basing my opinion here on the film adaptation of The Comfort of Strangers and not the novel. Apart from his first three books the only other work by McEwan I’ve read has been On Chesil Beach. Interestingly, I think my wife has read everything else.

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