Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi was born in Pisa in 1943 and died in Portugal last weekend at the age of 68. One of Italy's most renowned postmodern writers, Tabucchi was the author of more than two dozen novels, including 1994's Pereira Declares, and 1997's The Missing Head of Damascenio Monteiro, a crime novel about a police investigation following the discovery of a headless man. During his life, Tabucchi was an accomplished academic, philosopher, and a devoted champion of Portuguese literature—he taught Portuguese literature at the University of Siena in Italy—as well as the foremost translator of Fernando Pessoa into Italian. Below is an excerpt from the beginning of The Missing Head, translated by Patrick Creagh. Excerpt courtesy of New Directions.
Manolo the Gypsy opened his eyes, peered at the dim light creeping through the cracks in his hovel, and got to his feet trying not to make a sound. He had no need to dress because he slept fully clothed, and the orange jacket given him the year before by Agostinho da Silva, known as Franz the German, tamer of toothless lions in the Wonder Circus, now served him for both day and night. In the faint glimmer of dawn he groped around for the battered sandals-cum-slippers that were his only footwear. He found them and slid his feet in. He knew every inch of the hut, and could move about in its murk knowing perfectly well where its few wretched sticks of furniture were. He took a confident step towards the door, and in so doing his right foot clashed against an oil-lamp standing on the floor.
Damn the woman! exclaimed Manolo between his teeth. He was of course referring to his wife, who the previous evening had insisted on leaving this lamp beside her bed on the pretext that the blackness of night gave her nightmares and she dreamt of her dead. If she kept the flame burning as low as can be, she said, the ghosts of her dead dared not to haunt her, and so she could sleep in peace.
“And what is El Rey about at this hour of the morning, O afflicted spirit of our Andalusian dead?”
His wife’s voice was muffled and drowsy, as it is with anyone still half asleep. She always spoke to him in geringonša, a hotch-potch of Romany, Portuguese and Andalusian. And she called him El Rey—the King.
King of a heap of shit, Manolo felt the urge to answer, but he said nothing. King of a shitheap. To be sure he had once been El Rey, when the gypsies were honoured, when his people freely roamed the plains of Andalusia, when they made copper trinkets to sell in the villages and dressed in black and wore fine felt hats, and their knives were not weapons to fight for your life with, but peerless treasures fashioned in chased silver. Yes, those were the days of El Rey. But now? Now that they were forced to wander, now that Spain made their lives impossible, and in Portugal, their place of refuge, things were perhaps even worse, now that they no longer had the means of making trinkets and mantillas, now that they had to get by as best they could with begging and petty theft, what sort of a fucking king was he, Manolo the Gypsy? King of a shitheap, is what he repeated to himself.
The Town Council had granted him that litter-strewn patch of land on the outskirts of town, just beyond the last outlying villas, but merely as an act of charity. He would never forget the face of the town clerk who signed the concession, with an air of condescension together with commiseration, for a twelve-month grant of land at peppercorn rent… and let Manolo remember that. The Council made no commitment to provide commodities of any kind, not so much as water and electricity, and as for shitting they could do it in the woods, after all gypsies were used to that, and they would manure the soil, and they must be careful, because the police were on to their small traffickings, and were keeping their eyes peeled.
King of a shitheap, thought Manolo, with those pasteboard hovels roofed with galvanized iron, streaming with damp in winter and ovens in summer. The dry, spick and span grottoes of the Granada of his youth no longer existed, this place here was a refugee camp, or worse, a concentration camp, thought Manolo, king of a shitheap.
“What is El Rey about at this hour of the morning, O afflicted spirit of our Andalusian dead?”
His wife was now well awake, her eyes wide open. With her grey hair spread over her breast, as she always arranged it for sleep after removing all the hairpins, and that pink nightshift she slept in, she looked like a ghost herself.
“I’m off to have a piss,” replied Manolo curtly.
“Best thing for you,” said his wife.
Manolo shifted his penis inside his underpants, because it was swollen and hard and pressing on his testicles enough to hurt.
“I’d still be able to finfar,” he said, “I wake up like this every morning, with my mangalho as taut as a rope, yes I’d still be able to finfar.”
“It’s your bladder,” said his wife, “you’re old, Rey, you think you’re young but you’re old, even older than I.”
“I’d still be able to finfar,” retorted Manolo, “but I can’t finfar you, your cunt’s full of spiders’ webs.”
“Then off you go and piss,” said his wife to end the matter.
Manolo scratched his head. For some days he had been suffering from a rash that started at the nape of his neck and spread up into his hair, and it itched intolerably.
“Shall I take Manolito?” he whispered to his wife.
“Leave the poor child to sleep,” she replied.
"Manolito likes having a piss with his grand-dad," claimed Manolo.
He looked over towards the camp bed on which Manolito was sleeping and felt a surge of tenderness. Manolito was eight years old. He was all that was left to him of his descendants. He did not even look like a gypsy. He had straight black hair, to be sure, like that of a true gypsy, but he also had blue-green eyes, as must have been those of his mother, whom Manolo had never met. His son Paco, his only son, had fathered him on a prostitute from Faro, an English girl he said, who was walking the streets of Gibraltar when Paco had started pimping for her. Then the girl had been packed off to England by the police, and Paco had found himself saddled with the child. He in turn had dumped him on the grandparents, having an important business deal to bring off in Algarve, he was in the cigarette-smuggling racket. But from that bit of business he never returned.
“He likes seeing the sunrise,” insisted Manolo stubbornly.
“Let him sleep, poor child,” replied his wife, “it’s scarcely dawn yet, have you no heart? – go and empty your bladder.”
Manolo the Gypsy opened the door of the hut and went out into the morning air. The compound ringed round by the huts was deserted, the whole encampment sleeping. The mongrel cur, which by sheer persistence had got itself adopted by the community, rose from its bed on a sand-heap and bounded up wagging its tail. Manolo clicked his fingers and it stood on its hind legs, wagging wagging its tail even more. With the little dog at his heels Manolo crossed the compound and took the path alongside the pinewood sloping down towards the Douro. It was only a few hectares, grandiloquently entitled “Municipal Park”, and officially publicized blazoned forth as the “green lung” of the town. In fact it was nothing but an abandoned area, with no patrols and no superintendence. Every morning Manolo found the place littered with condoms and syringes which the Council wouldn’t move a finger to clean out.
He started down the little path hemmed in with dense clumps of broom. It was August, and the broom for some reason was flowering on as if it were springtime. Manolo sniffed at the air with expertise. In the course of his life in the wilds he had learnt to distinguish all the many odours of nature. He counted the broom, lavender, rosemary, and so many others.
Beneath him, at the foot of the hill, the River Douro glittered in the slanting rays of the sun which was emerging from the hills. Two or three barges of merchandise were on their way downstream to Oporto. Their sails swollen with wind, they nevertheless appeared motionless on the winding ribbon of the river. Manolo knew they were carrying great casks of wine to the vast wineries of the city, wine that would be matured, bottled, and labelled as “Port”, and make its way all over the world. Manolo felt an enormous yearning for the great world which he had never seen, for distant harbours in foreign climes with cloudy skies, where the mists swirled in as they had in a film he had once seen. But he knew only the blinding white Iberian light of his native Andalusia, and now the dazzle of Portugal, the whitewashed houses, the stray curs, the groves of cork-oaks and the cops who sent him packing wherever he was.
For his piss he had chosen a massive oak that cast its great shadow over a grassy clearing just on the verge of the pines. Who knows why it gave him a sense of comfort to piss against the trunk of that tree, perhaps because it was very much older than he was, and Manolo liked to think there were living things in the world older than him, even if they were only trees. The fact is that it made him feel at his ease, and filled with peace, in harmony with himself and with the universe. So he walked up to the great trunk and urinated with relief. And at that moment he saw a shoe.