The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"'Millions of stars,' he said, 'millions of nebulae, fuck, millions of nebulae, and here we are fretting about electrodes applied to people's genitals."
Antonio Tabucchi's The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro (1997), is an unusual but overall enjoyable read; while it does not impress as a crime/mystery novel, the serious political and social overtones redeem the book, at least in the eyes of this reader. The back cover blurb that presents the novel as a "genre-bending literary thriller" is only two-thirds accurate: yes, genres are mixed and the quality of writing is far better than in a run-of-the-mill crime/mystery, but - luckily for me - there is not much of a thriller in the book. The criminal affair plot leads to a discourse on the abuse of power, and all this is sprinkled with interesting literary and philosophical references. The author is a famous Italian writer and academic, who throughout his life was fascinated with Portuguese culture and taught Portuguese language and literature at universities in Bologna and Siena.
The plot takes place mostly in or near the northern Portuguese city of Oporto (the original name is Porto). Manolo the Gypsy finds a headless corpse in the bushes and when Lisbon's popular tabloid, Acontecimento, learns about the grim discovery, they send their young crime correspondent and an aspiring writer, Firmino, to investigate and write reports on the progress of the case. He makes the acquaintance of some interesting personages of whom the most important is the grossly overweight attorney, Don Fernando Mello Sequeira. As the criminal plot slowly progresses, the novel begins to focus on Don Fernando, and we learn a lot about his left-leaning political views and his fight against the illegal use of force and torture by the Portuguese police and military, many years after the 1974 fall of Salazar's authoritarian regime.
With Firmino ostensibly being the main character of the novel, it is actually the lawyer who provides the center of attention. Young and naive Firmino is no match for the worldly, experienced, and extremely well-read attorney. Don Fernando's obesity and intellectualism may make him resemble the famous Rex Stout's creation but, in fact, he is not much like Nero Wolfe: Don Fernando's ferocious defense of civil liberties is in stark contrast with Mr. Wolfe's cynicism.
The book contains numerous passages that may seem totally extraneous from the point of view of a crime story: lengthy literary and philosophical discussions on topics such as writings of Elio Vittorini, the philosophy of Georgy Lukács, poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, and the Portuguese neo-Realism. These discussions are well-written and I find them much more interesting than the crime plot.
There are several unusual touches in the novel with none better than the treatment of the final speech by Don Fernando during the criminal proceedings in court. It could have been presented in the vein of great closing arguments, like those memorable monologues that are requisite components of famous legal thrillers and novels, but the delightful twist here is that only small snippets of the speech, individual sentences and even just their pieces are available. Most of the speech is unreadable from the tape because of faulty sound recording. How's that for the war on cliché. Bravo!
The author's passion about the lawlessness pervading the Portuguese police and military forces is palpable and convincing. The prose is accomplished (one needs to praise the English translator, J.C. Patrick, for doing a flawless job). So - despite my objections as to the certain incoherence of focus in this novel - I will look for other books by Antonio Tabucchi.
Three and a half stars.
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