Authors: Antonio Tabucchi
Copyright © Maria José de Lancastre, 2015
English language translation © Elizabeth Harris, 2015
First Archipelago Books Edition, 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the publisher.
First published as
by Feltrinelli in 2004.
copyright © Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore Milano, 2004
232 3rd Street #
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Tabucchi, Antonio, 1943-2012.
[Tristano muore. English]
Tristano Dies : a life / Antonio Tabucchi; translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. – First Archipelago Books Edition.
I. Harris, Elizabeth (Translator) II. Title.
Cover art: Pablo Picasso
The publication of
Tristano Dies: A Life
was made possible with support from Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.
Who bears witness for the witness?
It’s hard to contradict the dead.
… Rosamunda Rosamunda on such a lovely evening I truly am believing it’s fairy dust I’m breathing a thousand voices thousand choices thousand hearts are all rejoicing such happiness is ours such joy beneath the stars Rosamunda if you look at me Rosamunda I’ll your sweetheart be … You like that one?… that’s from my time, when Rosamunda looked at Tristano and the more she looked at him the more he liked her … Rosamunda if you look at me Rosamunda I’ll your sweetheart be … Oh Rosamunda all of my love is for you oh Rosa-munda the more I look at you the more I like you Rosa-mu-u-u-undà … Hearts are all rejoicing such happiness is ours – not that it was so happy back then, it was cold in the mountains, frozen, really, outside, inside, I’ll tell you about it, get comfortable, you’ve got a bit ahead of you, but not too long, don’t worry, rough guess, maybe a month or so, you’ll see, I’ll be gone before the end of August, how was the drive?… it’s not easy finding your way around here with all the twists and turns, I told Frau to be really careful giving out
directions, I expected you earlier, but I’m sure she did her best to confuse you, not that her Italian isn’t good – it’s better than mine – been here her whole life – but when she doesn’t want to do something she starts turning German, just for spite. You’ll take Daphne’s rooms, tell her I said so.
… You know, all told, life’s more what you don’t remember than what you do … Frau popped her head in, not a ripple now, she told me, where you once swam with a woman, and she shut the door again. I don’t know if that was Sunday’s poem or some decree … Frau gets moralistic when there’s work to be done. But what work? – what’s there left to do in this house, and today’s not exactly Sunday, right?… You’ve got to have the memory of an elephant, but that’s not what we men have, who knows, one day maybe they’ll come up with an electronic memory, a card the size of your fingernail that they’ll slip into your brain to record your entire life … Speaking of elephants, of all the creatures of this world and all their funeral rites, I’ve always admired elephants’ the most, they have this strange way of dying – you know about it? When an elephant feels his time has come he leaves the herd, but not alone, he chooses a companion, and they leave together. They start out across the savannah, often at a trot, depending on how urgent the dying elephant is feeling … and they wander and wander, sometimes kilometers and kilometers, until the dying elephant chooses his place to die, and he goes round and round again, tracing a circle, because he knows it’s time to die,
he is carrying death inside him but needs to find it in space, as though he has an appointment, as though he wants to look outside himself, look death in the eye, and tell her, good morning madam death, here I am … of course it’s an imaginary circle, but it helps to geograph death, if you will … and he’s the only one who can enter this circle, for death is a private act, extremely private, so no one else can enter except the one who’s dying … and at this point he tells his companion he can leave, goodbye, thanks so much, and the other returns to the herd … I started reading Pascal when I was a young man, I used to like him, especially his Jansenist beliefs, it was all so black and white, so clear; see, back then, in the mountains, life was black and white, your choices had to be precise, here or there, black or white, but then life teaches you the different shades of gray … But I’ve always liked Pascal’s definition, a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, it reminds me of the elephants … And in a way, this has something to do with why I called you here … like I said, you’ll need to be patient because it’s not quite my time yet, but you knew at once to trot along beside me, to accompany the one who’s dying … I’m the only one who knows my circle, I know when the moment will arrive; it’s true that the hour chooses us, but it’s also true that you have to agree on being chosen, it’s something the hour decides but in the end it’s something you decide as well, as if you’d made your choice and were only giving in … For now, let’s trot along together, and while it might seem we’re moving forward, we’re really going backward, because I’m an elephant who’s called
you to go backward, but I’m going back to reach my circle that’s ahead. So for now, just listen and write. When the time comes for us to say goodbye, I’ll let you know.
I have something to confess … after I called you I had second thoughts. I’m not sure why, maybe I don’t believe in writing, writing falsifies everything, you writers are falsifiers. Or maybe it’s that a person must carry his life to the grave. I mean a person’s real life, the one he lives inside. What should be left to others is just the life outside, what’s already plain to see, obvious. But I feel like writing my life – telling it – writing it down by proxy – you’re the one doing the writing, though it’s me. Strange, don’t you think?
… I’d like to try and start from the beginning, if a beginning even exists, because … where does the story of a life begin, I mean, how do you decide? You can start with a fact, that’s true, and so I have to pick a fact, a fact concerning this life of mine you’ve come to write. So I’ll pick a fact. But does a fact begin with a fact? Sorry, I’m confused, I’m not sure how to explain … I mean, someone does something, and this thing determines the course of his life, but this thing he’s done, it probably doesn’t happen by a miracle, it’s probably inside him already, and who knows how it started … Maybe a childhood memory, the glimpse of a face, a dream from long ago that you thought
you’d forgotten, and here it is one day, this thing that occurs, but its origins … who can say … Tristano talked about Schubert that day in Plaka, it was winter, and in that eerie square people were lined up, bowl in hand, waiting for their
soup – you know what that is? – the swill those in charge back then gave to Greek citizens so they wouldn’t starve: nasty, lukewarm water, a few shreds of potato and cabbage floating on top … variations, said Antheos, though Tristano called him Marios because he reminded him of his friend in the outskirts of Turin, the spitting image of his dear friend Marios who hid in a barn with his lover, an extraordinary woman, until thirty-nine, when he said I prefer not to, and he started his own resistance early on, meaning, before the real Resistance began, but you didn’t know that for your novel … Sometimes I can’t help but smile at what you thought you knew, but other than that, I liked your book, really, it’s the very best testimony to that heroic time, the only heroic time we’ve ever known, for that matter … I’m using
loosely, because you couldn’t have been there, but it feels like you were, like you were witness to a time, a choice, a moral stance … but you also got the facts down, September eighth, the Republic of Salò that cropped up again with such arrogance, like an arbiter of Italian fate, a denial of the meaning of civil war, a strong position to take these days, a bit rash, maybe, you know better than me that back then people were shooting at their enemies and friends alike, but that’s not what’s important, what I enjoyed about your novel is how well-informed it is on the nature of heroism, loyalty, disloyalty, of pleasure and emotions …
You’re a very patient man, otherwise, considering how rude I was when you arrived, you’d have left already, said the hell with it, and this commitment you made, this book you’re writing in my place, you’d chuck it all and tell me what I’ve got coming to me … But instead, here you sit, not moving a muscle; you’re really something, writer; I don’t know if you’re chicken or braver than me, and that’s why you put up with me … I think there’s a big fly buzzing around – you hear it? – there’s a buzzing in this room, really loud, is it the music of the heavens?, no, the universe isn’t buzzing, it’s the sound of writers, the unpleasant scratching of pens on paper, but you, you’re not scratching the page, you tame the page, like a lion tamer at the circus … this heavenly music I’m talking about is truly great, the music that the angels played, the angels imagined by the painters in my Tuscany, and there’s no fixed score, because there are always variations … variations, that gaunt Greek soldier told Tristano across a small café table in Plaka, while the apocalypse loomed … Variations, he said: for now, I’m just introducing variations, you see, by now, all the music’s been played already, and the only thing left for us poor bastards is introducing variations, take Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 142 for the piano, you know that one?, there’s a sadness to it, a sadness that lays siege to the soul, that gives some idea of this occupation of yours, this siege on my homeland; there’s an obsession to this music, maybe something Schubert was obsessed with, that’s also present in the accompanying music to that piece titled “Rosamunde.” And then Tristano gave a tired wave toward the Parthenon, as though the gods themselves had
been trampled beneath the invaders’ boots … and at that point a boy approached from across the square, wheeling an old bicycle beside him, skinny, just a child, bundled in an enormous military coat that dragged along the ground, his aluminum mess-kit hanging from his neck by a piece of twine, he saw the German soldiers standing watch by the line of people, and he began to whistle a tune, a partisan song with a slow, grave refrain that his whistling made sound almost cheerful, almost a march … a German approached, pointed his submachine gun at the boy who wouldn’t stop, who kept walking, defiantly whistling, as if this were some sort of game, his face, teasing … everyone watching, everyone knew what was going to happen, but no one moved, no one budged, like they were all under a spell, the metallic sound of the magazine clip like a rock falling to the pavement, and the soldier fired, and the small boy crumpled to the ground, the bicycle on top of him … and then an old woman stepped out of line, her voice pierced the frozen silence of Plaka, and she screamed a curse at them, Tristano understood, it was an ancient curse of eternal damnation, the Germans along the portico heard but didn’t understand her words, they understood her tone, the soldier raised his submachine gun and fired again, the woman slumped to the pavement, a figure in black, arms thrown out in agony, and Tristano, as by divine gift – no, more like divine regulation, because he had his regulation musket – aimed his gun at the German’s chest, and killed him on the spot … and like magic Plaka came to life, and men appeared out of nowhere, because some unforeseen stagehand like Tristano had decided
it was time for the avenging furies in this Greek tragedy to enter the scene; he didn’t anticipate a revolt would break out due to something he’d done by instinct, not even thinking what might happen, but it was as though the gears had started turning on their own; through death, life had resumed at an uncontrollable pace, because that’s how life is, and history’s what follows, you ever think of it that way, writer?…