"In the book I would be someone who has lost his way in India."
This is what the nameless narrator of Antonio Tabucchi's Indian Nocturne suggests is the concept of a book he would be writing if he were a novelist. Suggestion and actuality seem to blur in his definition as in most of the slim, elegant novel that lent itself to much of Tabucchi's fame during his lifetime. Notturno Indiano was first published in 1984 and then translated into English in 1989. A French film adaptation of the book Nocturne Indien directed by Alain Corneau was released in 1989. Tabucchi died in 2012, leaving behind a substantial corpus of writing and at the same time an extensive engagement with the literary world.
Tabucchi's work has been translated into several languages and he had in his lifetime encouraged a considerable amount of critical acclaim. His narratives have also been compared to writers such as Italo Calvino as well as Jorge Luis Borges. His best-known works include the novel Pereira Declares: A Testimony and Indian Nocturne as well as several short stories. His first novel Piazza d'Italia was published in 1975 and it follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a poor Italian family with anarchist leanings.
It is a family saga that leaps through several generations over a century. Declares Pereira, published in 1995, is based on a single protagonist. In this novel the ageing central character finds himself vaulted from being an almost-anonymous newspaper editor to taking on the role of a dictator.
Indian Nocturne is a short novel or even a novella and tells the story of a man who travels to India on a quest to seek out his lost friend Xavier.
As the narrative unravels, the protagonist seems to merge his own identity with that of his elusive friend so that the readers are left wondering who exactly is searching for whom. This lack of clarity and resolution, especially at the end of the novel, is quintessential Tabucchi. While he wrote with the full intention of engaging the readers with the quest or journey at the heart of the novel, he maintained an active spirit of offering readers the possibility of alternative outcomes.
There is a light humour about his prose, which at the same time displays a deep consideration of the countries and cultures and people he writes about, whether it is Italy, Portugal or India.
Some of the images of India in Indian Nocturne are disturbing. When the protagonist visits a hospital in Bombay he writes that "the walls were stained red from the spittings of chewed betel and the heat was suffocating. Or perhaps it was the overpoweringly strong smell that gave this sensation of suffocation."
But Tabucchi quickly manoeuvres the reader away from the uneasiness of the descriptions with a lighter tone. When the narrator asks the doctor, a cardiologist, "What do people die of here?" the doctor replies, "Of everything that has nothing to do with the heart."
Tabucchi's prose has been labelled as "dreamlike" and it does indeed reflect a gentle almost somnambulant state as the reader is never quite sure whether what is before them is reality or just the illusion of reality. Tabucchi himself begins the book with a 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."
The suggestion is that of a sort of travel guide, and indeed the protagonist does find himself seeking the guidance of Lonely Planet, yet this is just a superficial structure he has given to the trip the young man takes through India. It is a symbolic structure under which lies a journey of self- discovery, of creating and findings one's way towards an identity.
While we are taken along certain landmarks, beginning with a small seedy hotel, to the agony and despair and loss inside the hospital and then towards the artificially created glitz and glamour of The Taj hotel, Tabucchi seems to be nudging the protagonist to admit to his sense of rootlessness. He never stays anywhere for more than a night and often sleeps on buses and trains along the way.
On his quest, the protagonist reminisces not just about Xavier but also about moments with two women to whom he was obviously emotionally connected in the past. "I found myself at an old chapel on a Mediterranean hillside. The chapel was white and it was hot. We were hungry and Xavier, laughing, was pulling out some sandwiches and cool wine from a basket. Isabel was laughing too, while Magda stretched out on a blanket on the grass. Far below us was the blue of the sea and a solitary donkey dawdled in the shade of the chapel. But it wasn't a dream, it was a real memory."
Yet, Tabucchi never really allows the reader to get any deeper than the surface of these memories, they are almost there to tease and tantalise us as much as the protagonist as we move forwards.
Following in his friend's footsteps, the unnamed protagonist travels from Bombay (Mumbai) to Madras (Chennai) and then finally to Goa, stopping on the way at an obscure bus stop on the outskirts of Mangalore. Here he meets a little boy with what he initially thinks is a pet monkey around his neck.
The monkey turns out to be a monstrous deformed sibling. Here we see Tabucchi's masterful ploy of distorting images as happens in a dream. The deformed person turns out to be a fortune-teller. For a small price, he tells the curious protagonist, "You are someone else".
The crisis of the protagonist's identity deepens at this point. Is he really who we think he is, or is he really the elusive Xavier himself? He stays at the same hotels as Xavier, speaks to the women his friend knew and even tries to eat the same kind of meals. He moves around in a kind of haze from one place to another and stops to have sometimes quite interesting and philosophical discussions with people he meets.
On the train to Madras, he travels with a terminally ill man who says to him, "What are we doing inside these bodies?" and the narrator replies quite philosophically, "Perhaps they're like suitcases; we carry ourselves around".
The book comes together as an effortless, restless and uneasy sequence of events.
What ties all this together is the search for a friend who could possibly be just a figment of the narrator's imagination bound together by the myriad sounds, sights and smells of India: "India was this too; a universe of flat sounds, undifferentiated, indistinguishable."
Tabucchi's India is the ephemeral site of a dreamlike state. What it offers is a mystical metaphor for all that is fluid and illusionary, happening but not quite existing. This image, of course, is Tabucchi's image of an India in the 1980s. Certainly a lot has changed there in the last couple of decades, but perhaps a part of India still retains that dreamlike quality, despite the onslaught of modernity.
To some readers, Tabucchi's work holds a kind of obscurity. It does not have the weight of a bulky narrative or a carefully crafted plot outline. What it does have is an almost ethereal lightness, which is soul stirring and at the same time emotionally intuitive.
Erika Banerji has written and reviewed for The Statesman, The Times of India, The Observer and Wasafiri. Her short fiction has been published in several international literary journals. She lives in London.