Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Short-a-Day: Antonio Tabbuchi's "The Dead at the Table"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 33.

[Translated by Will Schutt as part of the FOCUS: Italy series.]

Ah, the Wall! How he missed the Wall! There it stood: solid, concrete, marking a boundary, branding one for life, assuring one of belonging. Thanks to a wall one belongs to something, to this side or that. At least he knew where to go when Renate was still alive, even with the Wall gone, because then the housework fell to him. He never did trust the little Indian woman who came by the hour, with her shifty eyes and her awful German, who constantly repeated yes, sir, even when he told her to go to hell. Go to hell, you stupid ugly darkie! Yes, sir.

Here's an interesting narrator: Karl, who was once tasked with spying on Bertolt Brecht, now finds himself alienated, an old man left behind in Berlin, without purpose. ("He caught his reflection in the door window despite the rubber partition that split his image in two. Split in two is fine, my dear, always split in two, half here, half there, that's life, life's like that. Not half bad either: he was a handsome man getting on in age....") The doctor tells him he must give up the few pleasures he has left in life -- cigarettes, salty foods, etc. -- and he finds himself growing weary simply in walking around the city, remembering the past. Tabbuchi's rhythm is full of repetitions, in which you can clearly see the previous thought connecting to the next: a cool, logical man with a bit of rage built up for immigrants, those who change what he remembers. ("A little girl stopped in front of him. Her dress dragged on the ground and at her bare feet. He glimpsed the words I come from Bosnia written on a piece of cardboard. 'Go on back then,' he said, smiling. The little girl smiled and wandered off.")

But for all that we can get inside the mind of this character, there isn't much of interest in there, not any more. Tabbuchi spends a lot of time detailing interiors and exteriors, walking about in thoughts of the past, but none of the future or even of the present. The story suddenly chooses to reveal the Brecht connection, like resting all your hopes on the idea of alienation, and then resolves itself with a visit to Brecht's cemetery, where he'll make another last minute confession: he found out his wife, his only love, had been cheating on him, but he couldn't tell her at that point because she'd wound up having a stroke, and he lacked the courage to tell her at that point, when she was so defenseless. These last thoughts needed to be a part of the story throughout, to be a part of his life; instead, the whole thing feels like a well-written but overly arty work: desultory, to say the least. Yes, the world has changed, no need to keep repeating the same observations; what of it?

No comments: