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The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi

March 8, 2015 29 comments

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi (1997). French title: La tête perdue de Damasceno Monteiro, translated by Bernard Comment.

Tabucchi_DamascenoManolo, an old Gypsy living in a shanty town near Porto discovers the corpse of a headless man. Where is the head of the victim? Who is it? Who was so interested in hiding the identity of the dead man? Acontecimento, a popular newspaper of Lisbon sends a young reporter to Porto to investigate and write about the affair. The mystery of the beheaded corpse is right up their alley. Their reporter is Firmino who’s studying literature in Lisbon and writes as a sensation journalist for a living until he finishes his thesis about post-war Portuguese literature.

Firmino is not exactly happy to go to Porto. It interrupts his work on his thesis, his girl-friend is in Lisbon and he dislikes Porto as the city is attached to childhood memories of a boring aunt. But duty calls and he goes anyway. The newspaper has booked him a room in a boarding house managed by Dona Rosa. Soon, mysterious callers fill our young reporter with leads to help him with his articles and he finds himself more and more involved as an investigation reporter. He will get back up from a lawyer known as Loton. He’s a quirky man, coming from old money and willing to work pro-bono if it helps justice. Firmino and Loton engage in literate conversations and help each other on the case. As the investigation leads to incriminate the authorities, Firmino and Loton make a good pair. Firmino gets scoops for the newspaper and since details are published in a national newspaper, they can’t be buried which in return helps Loton.

The starting point of The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is a true story. In 1996, Carlos Rosa was killed in similar circumstances in the suburb of Lisbon. However, the novel is a lot more than a crime investigation. It also pictures Portugal after 20 years of democracy, the fragility of its institutions and the inequalities. While the reader wants to know how it will end, Tabucchi discusses the idea of justice and its transcription in law. To be honest, I’m not sure I was able to follow these parts. Abstract thinking is not my forte and I was lost in the literary references.

I liked Firmino a lot. For me, he’s the embodiment of the concept of saudade. I enjoyed following him in the streets of Porto, looking at buildings, going to restaurants (The poor guy can’t stand tripe and it’s Porto’s special dish) and meeting with people. He’s young and full of doubt about his writing and at the same time full of hope for the future. Loton the eccentric loner could become a mentor to him, someone to have challenging conversations with.

ManoloThe novel also opens with a poignant chapter about Manolo the Gypsy, his living conditions and his being a pariah. Tabucchi recalls how the Gypsies used to live in Andalusia at the time they were still breeding horses. Manolo is old and the weight of the years eroded his pride. The nostalgia seeping through this chapter reminded me of a childhood story, Le voyage de Manolo by Chantal de Marolles. It was about a little Gypsy whose parents traded the caravan and horses for a car and a trailer. He missed the old way of life. I loved this story.

It’s hard to say more about the book without spoiling the plot for others. I can’t say I was thrilled by The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro. It is an excellent novel and it shows that the boundaries between literary and crime fiction can be blurry. (Like in Incidences by Philippe Djian). However, I lacked cultural references to understand the intricacies of the conversations between Loton and Firmino and this is why I can’t leap from like to love when I think about this book.

Recommended anyway.

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