Over the past couple of years, Archipelago Books has made more of the rich, dreamlike work of the late Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi available in English. Less than six months after publishing his bravura short story collection, “Time Ages in a Hurry,” Archipelago brings us “Tristano Dies,” a novel Tabucchi wrote in 2004.
As their titles indicate, both books are concerned with the passing of time. With a larger canvas to work on, Tabucchi’s novel — excellently translated by Elizabeth Harris — chronicles the jagged course of a man’s life while simultaneously reminding the reader of the urgency of time and the illusoriness of memory.
The novel takes the form of a deathbed monologue. It is the dog days of summer, and Tristano is slowly dying. He summons a prizewinning writer to his home on Crete to listen to his life story: “Trot along beside me.” His tale begins with a bang. In occupied Greece, Tristano, an Italian soldier, shoots dead a Nazi officer who has just killed a mother and her child. He is given refuge by a beautiful woman called Daphne who introduces him to Greek partisans. Smuggled out into the mountains, Tristano joins the Italian Resistance and meets another enchanting woman, this time Rosamunda from Cincinnati.
Throughout, Tristano’s storytelling is episodic and elliptical — a consequence of his deteriorating condition and the morphine administered to him by his cigar-smoking German cohabitee, Renate. In fits and starts Tristano talks about his relationship with Rosamunda and his confession that his true love was Daphne — a woman he traveled the Greek islands looking for.
Intercut with his odysseys and romances are accounts of Resistance derring-do, meditations on history (“an icy creature”), dreams, nightmares, poems and half-remembered sessions with a Dr. Ziegler.
As Tristano maps the key coordinates of his life, it becomes apparent that the writer he is speaking to has written about Tristano before, exaggerating his heroism. Tristano’s replaying of events is thus an attempt to set the record straight. However, his trip down memory lane is also so full of misguided signals, embellished directions and hallucinatory wrong turns that we are forced to sift the many “memories, floating in their own sea foam” to separate fact from fiction.
Readers familiar with Tabucchi will recognize trademark tropes (those dilations on time; characters in search of their own identity) and recycled images (a man liquefied by the Hiroshima atomic bomb also cropped up in the Crete-set story “Against Time”). All readers can enjoy his deft withholding and manipulation of truth, his verbal riffs (a headache unfolds over two pages), his evocation of past thrills and trauma and his characters’ nostalgic yearning for long-gone wonders.
“Tristano Dies” is subtitled “A Life.” As with the best fiction about dying (“As I Lay Dying,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”), this book celebrates life, and does so with vibrant ideas and beautiful prose.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.