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  • David Savill

Novel Thoughts - Antonio Tabbucchi, Requiem: an hallucination (Penguin 1994)

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

It is nearly always dull to hear other people’s dreams recounted, partly, because in dreams there are no dramatic stakes. Whatever happens, there will be no consequences. The protagonist of the dream is always safe, no matter how dangerous the adventure or wild the journey. Events in dreams are only seemingly dramatic – as well as having no stakes, they hold no dramatic weight.

Without material reality, or the laws of physics, events in dreams have a lightness that means they won’t impact on the dreamer, and a solipsistic character that makes them uninteresting to the person listening to the dream. Anyone who has ever read a story that ends with ‘and then she woke up’, knows how unsatisfying the conceit of a dream story in literature can be. And yet, there is a successful literature of dreams which appeals to the amateur psychologist, philosopher, and meaning maker in us all. It belongs to those writers in touch with surrealism, because they know the techniques of realism, with their focus on drama, are the wrong tools for the reader of dreams.

Think Kafka, Leonora Carrington, or WG Sebald. Antonio Tabucchi’s beguiling Requiem: A Hallucination could be usefully considered in this tradition if we want to understand how its techniques work. These are writers who produce work shaped by the obsession that life contains a meaningful mystery beyond the sensations of our physical and emotional life. They use the form of the novel as an enquiry into the metaphysical, or to manifest a feeling that we can approach the metaphysical through the novel (which is, I accept, probably a non-sequitur for any serious philosopher!).

Tabbucchi sets the unreliability of first-person narration to work on this task. A first-person narrator can limit exposition and leave gaps in a narrative in a way that feels more natural, and less contrived than a third person narrator (whose job is surely to make things clear for us!). It is natural for a first-person narrator to be subject to the fog of memory and confusion, to misinterpret conversation, or to refuse to listen.

In Requiem, our narrator can recall some scenes from his life, but cannot remember exactly how he came to be here on the single day the events take place. Conventional exposition is dumped and time has the continuum of a dream. This is also a flaneur’s novel, (another rich tradition), with all the events inspired by a walk, through Lisbon. Unlike many flaneur novels, Requiem is more interested in the characters met on the walk, than the material environment and setting.

Tabbucchi is not a psycho-geographer, but an anthropologist interested in folk history. The narrative is structured by a series of encounters and conversations that provoke half-formed thoughts about the nature of memory and time, touching upon, (although not explicitly referencing), the ancient idea of the 'eternal return'. The effect is a kaleidoscope of voices, something accentuated by the long paragraphs, unbroken by dialogue, which is instead presented in the body of the text without speech marks.

The feeling of lightness produced by a dream comes in part from the equivalence of all events, voices and descriptions. Without foregrounding, without dramatic use of detail, without the drivers of motivation and consequence all used by realists, the world of Requiem takes on an airiness that is dizzying, like a thin atmosphere.

In a note preceding this book, the author alludes to the musical process of the novel’s composition in a beautiful picture of process: “I chose to play my music not on an organ, which is an instrument proper to a cathedral, but on a mouth organ that you can carry around in your pocket, or on a barrel-organ that you can wheel through the streets…I’m happy with the noises that drift up from the street, which bear no message, and are lost, just as we are lost.” It is perhaps interesting that Milan Kundera - whose Unbearable Lightness of Being also meditated upon the eternal return, was also fond of comparing his own process to the musical. Requiem exists in that place where the novelist strains reality and language to speak of a dreamlike quality to existence.


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