January 2016

K M McCann


Tristano Dies: A Life by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Elizabeth Harris

In 2006 I met a man named Earl who was in a constant care nursing facility, placed there by his wife and children. My job was to help Earl with what version four of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) called "adjustment disorder." I think I failed on many counts, especially where boundary setting was concerned. Each time I talked to Earl I was swept away by his stories as a seaman during WWII; his experience of shipwreck at the Marianas Trench; and his obsession with a woman named Wren whose favorite song was "String of Pearls" by Glenn Miller. I later learned that WRN stood for the Women's Royal Naval Service, aka "the Wrens" and wondered if Earl had been duped by a young woman during one of his furloughs, or, indeed, if I had been duped by Earl.

"The last time I saw Wren was just before the Marianas shipwreck," Earl told me over cafeteria coffee. "There's nothing blacker or deeper than the bottomless bottom of that trench."

Earl told me his wife placed him in the nursing facility so he could die; he told me he never loved a woman the way he had loved Wren; he told me he grew up in a tenement house and spent winters with frostbitten fingers and toes, always hungry and daily picking fights with neighborhood children. Each tidbit tied into the next seamlessly. Earl's storytelling chronology was not linear, instead it wove experiences from seventy years prior into the present moment: "That crazy dribbling jackass makes me sick," he said, talking about a fellow nursing facility resident. "Snot nosed, dirty, and talking like a fool. The wife only visits when she's feeling guilty about putting me in here."

I recall my conversations with Earl because I wrote many of them down. And while reading Antonio Tabucchi's Tristano Dies: A Life, I felt I came to understood Earl just a bit more. There is an interesting point of view at play in Tristano Dies. From the start, our role in Tristano Dies is active rather than passive: we are the "writer" recording a confessional and, by extension, we are also the distant reader-turned-voyeur who observes the discourse from the start, much the way I sat transfixed during my conversations with Earl.

Tabucchi's style has been compared to Borges's, but I intentionally resisted the urge to compare the two while reading this book. Tabucchi's style is his own; for me it was, from the first word, resonant of that old, bitter friend I made in a nursing facility a decade ago. Perhaps that is because Tristano Dies was my first time reading Antonio Tabucchi. There was a potent and Faustian edge to the narrative voice throughout the book. From the opening lines, "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."

The opening is both an invitation into Tristano's world, and a defensive conversational maneuver that alerts the reader to the layered and fragmented narrative that will be shared. The one-sided and confessional nature of this discourse (there is no traditional dialogue between Tristano and the writer) is suggestive of regret. The impression of regret is projected onto the nameless writer by Tristano and serves as an unspoken leitmotiv that ties the story together. Tristano orders the writer: "[J]ust listen and write. When the time comes for us to say goodbye, I'll let you know."

The assumption is that the writer/recorder is the conduit through which Tristano's experiences are relayed. We assume a degree of authenticity and honesty from the nameless writer, but there is no way to know how much the writer's own perceptions color Tristano's tale. This is, of course, a phenomenological challenge and one that Tabucchi brilliantly portrays. The philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in speaking about the problem of perception, said:

Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin [of silence], so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and as long as we do not describe the action which breaks this silence. The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.

Indeed this position is the one that pervades Tristano Dies. After the purification from confession comes rebirth; just as once cleansed, Tristano bids the writer adieu, but before he does so, he has one pressing question: "Check the clock, what time is it?" Throughout the story time has danced in and out, defying linear chronology, yet it is the structure that holds Tristano to a single moment and therefore a single and richly lived life. He has confessed and now he can be reborn and this is evident because he leaves us with the thought that "tomorrow is another day."

In the end most of us, like Earl and Tristano, want someone to hear our story before we say goodbye, if for no other reason than to purify ourselves by confessing to a nameless, faceless listener.

Tristano Dies: A Life by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Elizabeth Harris
Archipelago Books
ISBN: 978-0914671244
160 pages