Friday, February 24, 2006

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi

Headless bodies are a great opener for a novel. And they're even better when cops fake crucial details -- like the cigarette burns on the flesh. Some young reporter is just the type to identify the body and then the killer, who might be a fretful cop, a former war hero with some weird nickname (the Green Cricket will do nicely), who cut up a kid who interfered with his drug operation. There's nothing wrong, either, with introducing a grand lawyer doing penance for his family's abuse of power or a matron who was once the town's favorite barmaid and still hears the occasional confession. In an ordinary thriller, you might take all these characters at face value.

But Antonio Tabucchi doesn't write that sort of thriller. He's an Italian academic, theoretician and translator, a devotee of Portuguese literature. He's fascinated by the region of Portugal in which his story is set -- Oporto, a northern town of fishwives, the newly rich, corpse hunters, gypsies and memories. He also follows the crime reports in Portugal; this book is close enough to a true scandal of the 90's to have caused a sensation when the killer confessed after the book was published in Italy. But the story is also being told by a writer who seems almost nostalgic for the days when Portugal had a dictator and an infamous secret police -- a time when everyone saw the links between thuggish cops and the nature of the state.

So in "The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro," the body, the journalist, the cop, the lawyer and the barmaid operate in the service of a very complicated sensibility -- literary, philosophical, political. The reporter is simply fed the story; even the crooked cop talks to him. The drug dens are as safe and velvet-curtained as anything in Raymond Chandler. Even the big trial scene is a lesson in moral philosophy. All the mechanisms of a thriller are pushed onstage and left with nothing much to do.

Yet this is still a vivid book, for the oddest of reasons. For a start, Tabucchi keeps a proper notebook: he writes with all his senses. Unusually, he also sees the high economic value of a cliche: his grand old lawyer, known as Loton, is a dead ringer for Charles Laughton playing a grand old lawyer. Once we have that detail, we have the second-hand charm of remembered performances to bring alive Loton's philosophic rumblings.

You can find the review here

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