What a strange and wonderful book this is! If, like me, you have never heard of Antonio Tabucchi (I am not proud of this, since he's widely considered to be one of the foremost Italian writers of his generation), and if, like me, you are interested in shipwrecks, whales, the Azores and the unique way in which only literature can bring a location to life, and if you like the unclassifiable, small works by authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Italo Calvino — then have I got the book for you.
"I am very fond of honest travel books and have always read plenty of them," Tabucchi writes in his prologue. "They have the virtue of bringing an elsewhere, at once theoretical and plausible, to our inescapable, unyielding here." And in many ways "The Woman of Porto Pim" is a travel book. It's a guide to the Azores, but one that is rendered in fragments — short pieces, a blend of fact, myth, personal observation and digression, and stories that are alternately enchanting and unsettling — and that reads like a love note to a place, or a eulogy of sorts. This is the Azores, yes; but it's the Azores of Tabucchi's memory and imagination, an isolated volcanic archipelago that rises out of the sea "like the thin backbone of an extinct colossus."
Barely over 100 pages, "The Woman of Porto Pim" is split into two sections: "Shipwrecks, Flotsam, Crossing, Distances" and "Of Whales and Whalemen." There is no narrative through-line, but each short piece operates like a carefully placed tile in a mosaic. We meet early explorers to the islands, who discover a town made from shipwrecked hulls; an intimate conversation is overheard on a ferry; a whale tells its own story, and considers the sadness of men.
Tabucchi often cedes his stories to the tellers, the inhabitants of — or visitors to — the Azores, and it can feel, wonderfully, like you are simply overhearing snippets of conversation in a warm, salt-swept bar, or are recalling a vivid dream. The writing is frequently beautiful and surprising: A calm sea "breathed as though asleep"; a whale appears as "a huge dark, polished cylinder" that, when surfaced, lies like "an enormous bowler hat on the water." After a gruesome whale hunt, "the sail slaps somberly; motionless in sleep, the bodies of the whalemen are small dark heaps and the sloop slides over the water like a ghost."
This structure works. The book itself resembles an archipelago, each fragment an island, and this seems to be Tabucchi's intent. What is moving to me about this book, though, is what I would call its mournful quality. Tabucchi points out that in this "age of mechanical noises and artificial ultrasound," in vain the Azorean whales "go on transmitting calls and signals which wander about lost in the depths of the sea."
This book — a raft composed of tightly coiled literary flotsam — reads like Tabucchi finding his way back to a place he loved and, in the process, creating it anew.
Ethan Rutherford is the author of "The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories."