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Winding Roads without Signposts or Destination: Thwarted Desire in Two Stories from Tabucchi's Piccoli equivoci senza importanza

Carla M. Bregman

This presentation discusses the relationship between a common central theme, nar­rative techniques, and theoretical understanding of those techniques in two stories by Antonio Tabucchi, "Piccoli equivoci senza importanza" and "Rebus." Notwithstanding that the first story is similar to an interior monologue that relates an event in the present through the filter of memory and imagi­nation, having no specific addressee, and the second a recollection of a past episode recounted as an exterior mono­logue addressed to a silent interlocutor, Tabucchi's elusive and fragmented first-person narration in both reflects each protagonist's inconclusive search for a desired woman.

The opening of "Piccoli equivoci senza importanza" presents the narrator, a jour­nalist, observing his boyhood friend, Federico, now a judge, enter a courtroom for a trial, and simultaneously remembering something called Strada anfosa. Watching the mem­bers of the court take their places, he recreates scenes from the past: initially of an episode in which another friend, Leo - the defendant for alleged terrorist activities in the trial - and Federico take turns dancing with Maddalena, the girl loved by all three of them, while the narrator simply replays the record Strada anfosa at their request. He then recalls the incident in which a university employee mistakenly enrolled Federico in the Faculty of Law instead of Classics: "è un piccolo equivoco senza importanza," as the secretary said, became their motto, but Federico decided to stay in Law, thence to be­come the judge in Leo's trial. Tabucchi's use of contingent events to define lasting roles is further underlined in the narrator's memory of Maddalena's receiving her label of "la Grande Tragica" from crying for real in her part in a school play. The narrator shows a reverse disposition to enter a role - playing Art in Life - when, visiting Maddalena in the hospital years earlier, he is unable to express his feelings for her, instead repeating a line he had recited to her in the same play. (12).

The story provides other examples of temporary circumstances hardening into perma­nent roles: for example, the narrator imagines Federico explaining to the jurors that at their political seminars to instruct other students at the university in revolutionary ideol­ogy they did not stockpile bombs but ate olives, and that because of his eloquence but mostly to impress Maddalena Leo took the leading role, pretending to be more radical than he really was. The narrator observes that "anche per lui fu un piccolo equivoco che lui credeva senza im­portanza. E poi sapete com'è, succede che la parte che uno si assume diventa vera davvero, la vita è così brava a sclerotizzare le cose, e gli atteggiamenti diventano le scelte." (15). But Federico says none of this, and the narrator realizes that all of the actors in the scene he is witnessing, including himself, have pre-assigned roles, just as before. He makes a half-hearted attempt to change the script, telephoning another former friend of the group, now a senator, to request his intervention in the proceedings, but he is out and the narra­tor leaves no message. His wish to himself approach Federico turns to shame for his help­lessness, and longing for Semplificazione to replace Complicazione, he imagines all five friends transformed into microscopic beings sitting on a leaf, "senza sesso, senza storia e senza ragione." (17). That unscripted communication and real connection are problematic for the narrator is further demonstrated by his fantasy, during a break in the trial, of seeing Leo, Maddalena, and Federico on a barge in the canal, but as he is about to ask if they remember Strada anfosa he perceives that they are immobile, made of plaster. As the barge floats away he walks toward the docks, trying to step over cracks in the pavement in order to make sense of the confusing world of his imagining, as he had done when he was a child.

But Tabucchi defies this attempt. The permeability in the narrator's perceptions between past and present demonstrates instead what Laura Lepschy calls "the imprecision of existence" [1] that the writer conveys. Maddalena's importance to the narrator and her unattainability, embedded in this permeability, partake of its "imprecision": other of the narrator's memories during the trial include a fantasized declaration of love at the hospital, his wondering in whose lap she would rest her head on a summer trip, his concern at the seminars about which of their parkas most appealed to her. Several of Tabucchi's statements in interviews suggest the privileged position he accords unsatisfied longings situated in an imprecise reality; for example: "[m]i piacciono i personaggi monchi, che vivono in una situazione di privazione che è per loro continuo motivo di malessere;[2] and, "ho sempre forse preferito le persone appunto zoppicanti esistenzialmente, con una vita incompiuta, con una vita fatta di desideri.meno piena e meno compiuta."[3] The consideration of some theoretical aspects of narration may be useful in under­standing the incompleteness and imprecision of a story in which time dimensions are permeable, personal autonomy attenuated, communication "equivocal," and a van­ished woman glides by in the narrator's imagination, just as she actually did years ago dancing, without a backward glance.

In his book Teatro e romanzo[4] Cesare Segre observes that the sources of information available to the narrator in the first-person are reduced in comparison to, for example, an omniscient third-person author. (89). Further, if the narrator is present as a character in the action, he may recount events from an internal viewpoint, as he does in "Piccoli equiv­oci," versus an external, witnessing one. (97). The voice of the protagonist telling his own story may also include narration about another character, who in turn narrates about an­other, and so on. The narrator's memories in "Piccoli equivoci" include in­teractions of different characters with both himself and others, such as Leo's saying "Tonino, rimetti Strada anfosa," (9), the story of the university employee, (11), and the recollection in a collective voice of Federico's decision to stay in Giurisprudenza ("ebbene, ragazzi, potevamo non credergli ma...aveva preso la decisione di restare a Giurisprudenza, tanto i classici li conosceva già."). (11). Since the original source of observation resides uniquely within the primary narrator's limited, self-centered memory and perception, such narration within narration inevitably contributes to elusiveness and "imprecision" in communication and in the relationships that arise from it.

Seymour Chatman analyzes interior monologue in first-person narration[5] as using exclusively first-person references, the present tense, the narrator's idiolect, and allusions to his experience of only what is necessary to his own thinking, (250), thus creat­ing a detachment between his inner world and the outer one. (256). Although interior monologue strictly-speaking is not used in "Piccoli equivoci," the narrator's disconnection from the outside world is evident. We learn, for example, only indirectly, through his pri­vate allusions, to what Strada anfosa refers, and who Leo and Federico are now and were in the past. We know nothing of the developments, if any, in his relationship with Maddalena, or even the outcome of the trial. Again, this distancing characteristic of interior first-person narration reinforces the impression of an imprecise reality through the consequent elusiveness in the charac­ters' relationships, their difficulty in communication, and uncertainty about events.

Franz Stanzel's discussion[6] of the possible overlap between the first-person narrator as teller-character in mediated discourse and reflector-character in figural discourse (72) enables us to see how, in his view, the presentation of the outer world may serve as an antechamber to the narrator's inner world, as the information and explanatory comment of dialogue or report become more scarce. (154-5). Indeed, the first-person nar­rator in "Piccoli equivoci" oscillates in his focus on outside and inside perceptions and experiences; the outside world represented by the usher of the first line, for example - "[q]uando l'usciere ha detto: in piedi, entra la corte" (9) - immediately becomes internal - "proprio in quel momento...mi è venuta in mente" (9) - as the narrator returns to his past experiences, from the dancing to Strada anfosa and his role in those repetitive scenes, to the summer trip, the political meetings, the hospital visit, and other memories. Leo's speech in the courtroom and the narrator's failed call to the senator lead to further interior reflection, and then a dream-state in which the group of friends assumes simpli­fied, non-human form. The outer world as antechamber in such sequences highlights the narrator's unrequited feelings for Maddalena by leading to interior states of which she is the emotional center: the memories of Federico and Leo dancing with her, for example, underscore the paralysis of his own wishes, as does the vision of his friends sealed off from him and each other as plaster mannequins in a literal "sclerotizzazione."

These theoretical considerations of first-person narration in "Piccoli equivoci senza im­portanza" are useful in understanding the sense of elusiveness, uncertainty, and bewil­derment that characterize the story. And since the interiority it represents is one of "una vita incompiuta...una vita fatta di desideri...," it follows that the techniques of narration and the narrator's unfulfilled desire for Maddalena serve to reinforce each other.

In keeping with Tabucchi's stylistics and present time constraints, I pro­vide even less information about the events of the next story. "Rebus"[7] immediately intro­duces the issues of desire for a woman and her loss: in the first two sentences the narrator relates the appearance of Miriam in a dream walking along the beach; wearing what seems to be a nightgown, she ignores his sign to come sit with him. A gust of cold air hits him as she passes, and he realizes she is dead. (29). He next speaks of dreams as solving through simplicity the mysteries of life, which reason cannot do because of its tendency toward complication and incompleteness in responding to events themselves incomplete. As in "Piccoli equivoci," here too an alternative reality consisting of the "simplicity" of dream-states and dreams, as opposed to the "complicazione" and incompleteness of reason and reality, provides what is missing from the protagonist's life. Thus the narrator pro­poses that in another dream Miriam will yield to his call and they will keep their ap­pointment together. (29-30).

In "Rebus" dreams and fantasy do not literally intrude on the present as they do in "Piccoli equivoci" because the present is almost entirely a recollection of the past, recounted to a silent listener unnamed except as "Monsieur." Nonetheless, and even partly as a result of this artifice, the story takes place in a kind of limbo between dreamed and undreamed re­ality. "[L]'idea di una spiaggia" (29) and the uncertainty of its location - perhaps Biarritz, perhaps not - as components of the initial dream announce the vagueness and mystery of the narrative; the similarity between this dream and the narrator's final memory of waiting for Miriam on the beach, sitting in a deck chair and watching high waves in the chilly air, also mark its circularity and inconclusiveness. Thus, despite chiding "Monsieur" for listening to his rebus because he perhaps has "la passione dell'enigmas­tica," (30), the narrator knows that it has no solution, or that if it does he cannot under­stand it. (39). In the hope of discovering it he continues to tell the riddle, and to dream of Miriam dead, hoping for a different outcome.

The narrator's "telling" of his rebus is as elusive as its solution, filled with tangents and digressions that interrupt and fragment it. A long excursus on Proust and his driver's car, for example, (31), deviates from his description of how he got into the business of selling luxury automobiles; his reflections on Céline (32) do the same; his digression about a rich Egyptian client interrupt his thoughts about his encounter with Miriam; (34), and his observations about San Sebastiano, where he wanders after the car rally in which he participates with her, break into their interaction about the other drivers trying to kill them. (43). Telling his story in this way, the narrator must continuously "riprendere il discorso," (31), or "fare un passo indietro," (35), thus augmenting the "imprecision" of reality. The use of such discourse represents one aspect of Michela Meschini's observation that:

Tabucchi frustra l'attesa di un mondo narrativo immediatamente decifrabile e lascia al lettore il compito di ricercare, in un itinerario temporale reversibile e molteplice, il senso del testo, che il più delle volte risiede in un non-senso, vale a dire in una irriducibile incompiutezza.[8]

Such an incomplete, obscure, and reversible trajectory is conveyed by truncated, provocative speech: Miriam's exchanges with the narrator, for example, consist largely of utterances such as "[s]ono la contessa du Terrail.devo raggiungere Biarritz" (30); "la prego, non scherzi" (35); "mi vogliono uccidere" (35); "ti prego, non insistere" (41); "[a]ndiamo.ti prego, non perdiamo tempo." (43). Marina Spunta notes that "short sen­tences.powerfully convey the theme of missed communication.a search in the dark.for the other.that turns out to be a quest for the self."[9] She further observes that gaps and reticence, also conspicuously present in the interactions between Miriam and the narrator, as well as in the total silence of "Monsieur," are "clear means of conveying the dysfunctional communication and unsolved quest that ground [Tabucchi's] narrative." (110). The narrator of "Rebus" remains forever in the dark, never really communicating with Miriam or discovering what she wants, reaching the conclusion of the story wondering why, at her bidding, he is holding a gun in his hand - how his quest for her has impinged on his quest for himself - as both she and her husband fail to keep their respective appointments.

The "non-senso" of the text and its digressive and elliptical style of narration share the apparent directionlessness of the remote, winding roads that the narrator and Miriam take on their way to the rally at Biarritz. These roads, following a "percorso assurdo" and "inutile," (40), recall the revolutions of Strada anfosa in "Piccoli equivoci" uselessly repeating in the narrator's memory. The recurrence of the memory of the record and the dancing in that story marks the narrator's inability to express or even fully recognize his desire for Maddalena; in "Rebus" the circuitous roads signal the frustration of the narrator's wishes for an emotional con­nection with Miriam, beyond their physical closeness. Her secrets continue to lead him on, as he fails to uncover them and thus to find her, himself, life, and love.

Maria Giuffrè, using the examples, among others, of Miriam's inexplicable flight and Maddalena's transformation into a plaster statue, maintains that "[l]a donna di ogni protag­onista, nelle storie di Tabucchi, è creatura elusiva, le sue azioni, solo apparizioni talvolta, restano per lui inesplorate, spesso incomprensibili."[10] We will look again at some of the relevant theoretical aspects of narrative to more fully understand the foregoing observations about "Rebus."

Segre's notion of the reduction of information available to first-person narrators is aptly applied to the story, in which Miriam withholds almost all facts about herself. The impossibility of knowing who she really is, of what she is afraid, from whom she is fleeing, who if anyone among the drivers or other people is trying to kill her and for what reason, why she disappears and her ultimate fate, as well as related information concerning her reason for going to the rally, for taking such a round-about way to reach it, her inconsistent and confusing conduct with the narrator, as well as other mysterious circumstances concerning her husband's behavior toward both of them and the change of elephants on the hood of the Bugatti they drive, all leave the narrator in the dark regarding this "creatura elusiva," and the story, based on "le sue azioni per lui...imcomprensibili," incomplete.

Chatman maintains that the limitation on available information in first-person narra­tion should be compensated for to the extent necessary to fulfill the expository needs of other characters or of the reader. (250). The presence of "Monsieur," however, much less of the reader, does not elicit this kind of textual response; on the contrary, it renders more striking the incompleteness and inconclusiveness of the story. Conversely, by remaining in the shadows, uninformed, listening to what may be "apparizioni," "Monsieur" becomes a dark mirror of all that isn't known, of the mystery and uncertainty within which the narrator's quest for knowledge and for Miriam, and his telling of it, fruitlessly and repetitively take place.

In addition to the issues treated by Stanzel noted above, he also proposes that the mo­tivation of a first-person narrator is existential: "it is directly connected with his practical experiences, with the joys and sorrows he has experienced, with his moods and needs. The act of narration can thus take on something compulsive, fateful, inevitable." (93). This notion is perverted in "Rebus" as the narrator compulsively, fatefully, but evasively expresses, instead, experiences he can't grasp and feelings he avoids, and thus, on the contrary, a manifest disconnection from his own needs.

 Stanzel adds that first-person teller characters are nonetheless obliged to find a nar­rative strategy appropriate to readers as well as to the story. (147). Understanding this requirement as distinct from Chatman's "fulfillment of expository needs," it can be argued that the digressive organization of the narrative strategically in­volves the reader in its winding journey. In addition, a rhetoric of irony by which the narrator mini­mizes his experience as something to tell to "qualche amico, ogni tanto, raramente, bevendo un bicchiere," (30), belies its impact on him, thus contributing to its sense of unreality and establishing a contradiction to which the reader responds with a discomfort that reflects the speaker's underlying anguish. Such a narrative strategy might be said to be "appropriate" to a story that concerns the mystery and irresolution of the narrator's quest.

The differences between the interior and exterior discourses of "Piccoli equivoci senza importanza" and "Rebus" are thus greater in appearance than reality. A narrative exposition that should consider the needs of an audience, in the external monologue of the latter, does nothing to clarify the story's mystery. The confusion and uncertainty concern­ing reality within both the past and present of "Piccoli equivoci," and the movement be­tween them, have been displaced to the confusion and uncertainty entirely within the past recounted in "Rebus." This difference represents a shift in the primary locus of ob­scurity in the stories, but does not alter the theme uniting them: the narrator's inability to be with a desired woman.

The source of obscurity is also the same in the stories; namely, the elusiveness and inertia in communication and relationships, connected in turn to the fragmented, digressive man­ner of narration, present in different stylistic form in both. Since the first-person narrator's detachment from the outer world - as distracted interior dreamer in "Piccoli equivoci" and compulsive teller of himself in "Rebus" - and his lack of access to both outside information and inner wishes signifi­cantly contribute to this dynamic, a vicious circle is activated by which the content and presentation of the stories exacerbate each other. The protagonists, by virtue of both the inherent distortions of their first-person status and their own deficits, cannot but narrate in ways that reflect their frustration and confusion, and thus what is narrated - in memory, dream, or fantasy, in the past or present, spoken or unspoken - can only be elusive and fragmented.

The narrators' pursuits are neither guided by legible signposts nor reach a destination; rather, they trace the inconclusive, circular repetition of an unsolved quest. We are thus inclined to agree with Giuffrè's observation that "la...scrittura sommessa e inesoribile [di Tabucchi] non offre soluzioni al lettore, lo irretisce." (96). We can escape the net by finish­ing the stories and our papers about them; Tabucchi's narrators, its second-level fabricators, remain trapped in it forever.

[1] Lepschy, Laura. "The Role of Memory in Antonio Tabucchi's Piccoli equivoci senza importanza." Antonio Tabucchi: A Collection of Essays. Eds. Bruno Ferraro and Nicole Prunster. Spunti e Ricerche 12 (1996-97): 61-70, 69.

[2] Botta, Anna, a cura di. "Intervista a Antonio Tabucchi." L'Anello Che Non Tiene 3.1-2 (1991): 83-84.

[3] "Dibattito con Antonio Tabucchi." Piccoli finzioni con importanza: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Anversa, maggio 1991. A cura di Nathalie Roelens e Inge Lanslots. Ravenna: Longo, 1993. 147-166, 151.

[4] Segre, Cesare. Teatro e romanzo. Torino: Einaudi, 1984.

[5] Chatman, Seymour. "The Structure of Narrative Transmission." In Style and Structure in Literature. Ed. Roger Fowler. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975. 213-257.

[6] Stanzel, Franz. A Theory of Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

[7] Tabucchi, Antonio. "Rebus." Piccoli equivoci senza importanza. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985. 29-46.

[8] Meschini, Michela. "Tra storia e finzione: il gioco del tempo nella narrativa di Antonio Tabucchi." Quaderni d'Italianistica 19.2 (1998): 101-113, 107.

[9] Spunta, Maria. '"Dialoghi mancati'": Uses of Silence, Reticence and Ellipsis in the Fiction of Antonio Tabucchi." Quaderni d'Italianistica 19.2 (1998): 101-113, 107.

[10] Giuffrè, Maria. "Antonio Tabucchi; variazioni su temi d'ombre." Tempo Presente 87-88 (1988): 94-96, 96.

Works Cited

Botta, Anna, a cura di. "Intervista a Antonio Tabucchi." L'Anello Che Non Tiene 3.1-2 (1991): 83-97.

Brizio, Flavia. "La narrativa postmoderna di Antonio Tabucchi." Filologia Antica e Moderna 4 (1993): 249-266.

Chatman, Seymour. "The Structure of Narrative Transmission." In Style and Structure in Literature. Ed. Roger Fowler. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975. 213-257.

"Dibattito con Antonio Tabucchi." Piccoli finzioni con importanza: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Anversa, maggio 1991. A cura di Nathalie Roelens e Inge Lanslots. Ravenna: Longo, 1993. 147-166.

Giuffrè, Maria. "Antonio Tabucchi; variazioni su temi d'ombre." Tempo Presente 87-88 (1988): 94-96.

Lepschy, Laura. "The Role of Memory in Antonio Tabucchi's Piccoli equivoci senza importanza." Antonio Tabucchi: A Collection of Essays. Eds. Bruno Ferraro and Nicole Prunster. Spunti e Ricerche 12 (1996-97): 61-70.

Meschini, Michela. "Tra storia e finzione: il gioco del tempo nella narrativa di Antonio Tabucchi." Quaderni d'Italianistica 19.1 (1998): 71-91.

Segre, Cesare. Teatro e romanzo. Torino: Einaudi, 1984.

Spunta, Marina. "'Dialoghi mancati'": Uses of Silence, Reticence and Ellipsis in the Fiction of Antonio Tabucchi." Quaderni d'Italianistica 19.2 (1998): 101-113.

Stanzel, Franz. A Theory of Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Tabucchi, Antonio. "Piccoli equivoci senza importanza." Piccoli equivoci senza importanza. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985. 9-18.

_______________. "Rebus." Piccoli equivoci senza importanza. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985. 29-46.


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