Home > 1990, 20th Century, Book Club, Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Novel, Tabucchi Antonio > The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi

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.

  1. March 8, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    You pick such interesting and lesser-known works… thank you (I think, although it does tempt me…)


    • March 8, 2015 at 5:04 pm

      He’s translated in many languages.
      See the upcoming billets list, lots of lesser-known writers to come!


  2. March 8, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Sounds like fun. What is saudade?


    • March 8, 2015 at 5:03 pm

      It’s a Portuguese concept of vague sadness and nostalgia. Listen to Cesaria Evora, she sounds like saudade.


  3. March 8, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    I only book by read by Tabucchi It’s Getting Later All the Time. I did find that there was a lot going on that went over my head. Your mention of cultural references here reminded me of that.

    I looked up “saudade”. It sounds like a concept that can help create a great character.

    Superb commentary as always Emma.


    • March 8, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      Like Tom, I’ll direct you to Cesaria Evora to hear what saudade is.


  4. March 8, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    What is saudade? This is saudade!

    That link is to a Cesaria Evora song, so it makes noise.

    Emma, very nice – a writer I should catch up on some day. Porto seems to have the same culinary specialty as Lyon.


    • March 8, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      You were quicker than me! I was about to give Cesaria Evora as a reference too.

      You’re aware this writer wasn’t born in the right century for Wuthering Expectations, right ? 🙂


  5. March 8, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    I’m intrigued! The only other Tabucchi I’ve read is “Pereira Maintains”, and I enjoyed it very, very much. So I should really give the man another chance, maybe with this one – despite the cultural references issue. I can see how it might make it harder to enjoy the book, but I like the idea of exploring Portugal after 20 years of democracy.


    • March 8, 2015 at 10:24 pm

      It’s worth reading, Bettina. He writes really well and you may be better than me at understanding the literate discussions. I’m not a reference.


  6. March 9, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Antonio Tabucchi has been on my TBR list for ages, but somehow I never got around to reading him yet although I own an Italian-German edition of “Pereira Maintains”.

    The book that you reviewed seems to be very much in my line, too, since he “discusses the idea of justice and its transcription in law” as you say – it’s a topic that has always interested me, or else I wouldn’t have studied law and worked in research for a while. Unfurtunately, as a lawyer you learn quickly that the law and justice are two pairs of shoes, so I still hold in high esteem justice and gave up the law ;-).

    I wonder if I’d be better prepared for the cultural and literary references… in general, I love books of that kind.


    • March 9, 2015 at 10:02 am

      …and thanks for another great review, Emma!


    • March 9, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      I’d like to read Pereira Remains too.
      This one seems right up your alley. I hope you read and review it. I’ll enjoy reading your thoughts about it.


      • March 10, 2015 at 10:56 am

        As a matter of fact Tabucchi (and Pessoa and Espanca and Barrico and Ferrante and…) will have to wait still for a while. There’s a lot of Nordic and Japanese literature on my programme this year… along with my usual Nobel reads. My days are far too short to read everything that I’d like to. Alas! But the right moment for Tabucchi will come!!!


        • March 14, 2015 at 7:51 pm

          It’s the same for everyone here: too many great books, too little time to read!


  7. Jeff
    March 9, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    I was struck by how the cover photo has adorned a Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet:


    If you haven’t read it, you might not like it if you don’t get on too well with abstractions.


    • March 9, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      Well done: it’s the same picture.
      It’s probably an homage to Pessoa as Tabucchi was his translator into Italian.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. March 10, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Emma – very nice piece. As you may know I’m a fan of Tabucchi. My favorites are probably Pereira Maintains and Indian Nocturne, but I liked the atmosphere of Porto in this one and the way Tabucchi combines political and detective fiction. One minor issue with reading Tabucchi is that, as you note, there are a few culturally specific references. Compounding this is that even though most of his work is set in Portugal, some aspects of his work are aimed directly at Italians. He was a great opponent of resurgent Fascism in Italy and one of the most public burrs in Berlusconi’s side, so allusions to Salazar’s Portugal were meant to resonate with Italian readers. As LaGraziana implies, Tabucchi was a writer highly concerned with justice. One other issue (thus the cover duplicating that of The Book of Disquiet) is that Tabucchi not only translated Pessoa and taught him, but had something of an obsession with the Portuguese writer. I know of no other writer whose work is so closely tied to another writer in this way. It’s not essential to know Pessoa to read Tabucchi (and not all of Tabucchi draws on Pessoa), but it can be enriching to have some notion of Pessoa’s “heteronyms” when approaching Tabucchi.


    • March 10, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      The few Tabucchi novels I have read – well, I don’t think there is much point in reading them without a pretty serious knowledge of Pessoa. I am thinking in particular of one called “The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa,” but Requiem was not so different. The latter was about Tabucchi’s love for Portuguese culture – art, food, and of course books, Pessoa.


      • March 10, 2015 at 11:03 pm

        Yes, those two – probably the most Pessoan of Tabucchi’s works – would be difficult. The first would make no sense whatsoever. Some of his other novels and stories just play around with Pessoan notions; a good number of the stories dispense even with that.


      • March 10, 2015 at 11:10 pm

        And I read those specifically because I had been immersed in Pessoa and Portugal, so they weren’t random choices. I read them because they were specialized. I need to try one of his less specialized books. If – no, when – I visit Porto I am definitely reading Missing Head.


      • March 14, 2015 at 7:59 pm

        That’s a bit disheartening, Tom.
        And in a way, it annoys me. Why should I need to be an expert of Pessoa to read Tabucchi? Isn’t it a bit elitist from a writer to expect that from your readers?


        • March 14, 2015 at 8:12 pm

          Yes, it is elitist.

          There are also beginning, intermediate, and advanced books for knitters, art historians, and bird watchers.


          • March 14, 2015 at 9:04 pm

            Well I don’t care about books for knitters, art historians, bird watchers and so on: they target a limited public anyway.

            But isn’t it the aim of the lit fiction writer to touch as many people as possible? Isn’t it the most enviable immortality to touch the largest audience possible several centuries later?


          • March 14, 2015 at 9:22 pm

            Full of doubts, I have been looking at definitions of “elitist.” The word is used more narrowly than I realized. This is what I get for reading old books.

            So no, Tabucchi’s works on Pessoa are not elitist, not trying to signal his superiority. They are merely specialized.

            Is the aim of the writer “to touch as many people as possible”? No, of course not! Writers have many different aims. One aim is to explore a specialized subject, or to express an abstruse idea. Or maybe a writer wants to touch just a few people, but the right people, the people who really understand what he is doing. Few writers are like Victor Hugo.

            I do not envy anyone’s immortality, so I will have to grant the last point.


    • March 14, 2015 at 7:54 pm

      Thanks for this very interesting comment Scott. I didn’t know he was also addressing Italian political issues in his novels. I have a French copy and as you know, these come without forewords or afterwords or explanations of any kind. English copies of books are so much better in that respect.

      It was a Book Club read and we all got lost in the discussion between Loton and Firmino, except for our member who’s a lawyer.

      I’ve never read Pessoa, so I missed references in the novel. Tant pis!


  9. March 17, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    As you know I love Tabucchi. Too bad iyou couldn’t love it but I can see why. I was lucky that the books I’ve read by him were accessible without any knowledge of Portugal or Pessoa – with one exception that is. Maybe you’d like Indiand Nocturne. That one I reallly loved.


    • March 17, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Caroline. I’ll be happy to try another one by him. I enjoyed his style.


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