Antonio Tabucchi - Indian Nocturne
Another thing that can happen to one in the course of a lifetime is to spend a night in the Hotel Zuari. At the time it may not seem a particularly happy adventure, but in the memory, as always with memories, refined of immediate physical sensations, of smells, colour, and the sight of a certain little beasty beneath the washbasin, the experience takes on a vagueness which improves the overall image. Past reality never seems quite as bad as it really was: the memory is a formidable falsifier. Distortions creep in, even when you don't want them to. Hotels like this already populate our fantasy: we have already come across them in the books of Conrad or Somerset Maugham, in the occasional American film based on the novels of Kipling or Bromfield: they seem almost familiar.
A man arrives in India in search of Xavier, a friend long vanished. He follows Xavier's itinerary, traveling from Bombay to Madras, and then on to Goa, replicating, as best he can from the hazy notes provided, the journey his friend followed – the same hotels, the same sites, the same lengths of time. He meets the same women, has the same conversations, eats the same food. Or, at least, he tries. Italian author Antonio Tabucchi's Indian Nocturne is a dream, a restless, shifting, indistinct sequence of events tied together by the heat and smells of Indian and, more tenuously, the search for Xavier, who may not even exist.
The narrator is nameless, though at one stage he proffers a (spectacularly false) pseudonym, and another time he even offers Xavier as his name. He wanders from hotel to hotel, staying one night only, and very rarely two. He looks out from windows to watch the shimmering heat, and he samples the cheap food on offer. Nothing seems real to him, as though a piece of thick gauze has been placed over his eyes, ears, and mouth. He floats, dreamlike, from one scene to another, and on many different occasions has pleasantly philosophical or religious discussions with taxis drivers, waiters, doctors and travelling Europeans. The conversations often turn to Xavier, or more correctly, to the search for Xavier, which is alternately represented as the search for identity, for self, for meaning, for purpose:
It was a simple, practical question, but I hesitated over the answer, for I too felt the weight of memory, and at the same time I sensed its inadequacy. What does one remember of a face in the end? No, I didn't have a photograph, I only had my memory: and my memory was mine alone, it wasn't describable, it was the look I remembered on Xavier's face. I made an effort and said: “He's the same height as I am, thin, with straight hair; he's about my age; sometimes he has an expression like yours, Doctor, because if he smiles he looks sad.”
The scenes Tabucchi creates are like blurred photographs blown to life-size, with a small square patch of tremendous clarity. His narrator moves through India like a dream, and like dreams, small pin points of the journey are exceptionally clear, while much remains hazy, foggy, indistinct, unexplained. Chapters breaks are frequent and occur in the midst of conversation, action or activity, and resume somewhere else, in the middle once more. These chapters breaks compare favourably to dreams, which have a habit of shattering and coalescing at will, while somehow also remaining a certain sense of coherency. The narrator handles these sudden shifts as well as one manages to do so during a dream, which is to say the shifts are not commented upon, seem hardly noticed, and serve to reinforce the indistinct, untrustworthy nature of the text.
At other times, the text will jump to a memory, loosely falling in and out of a dream-within-a-dream:
The lazy, comforting hum of the big fan lulled me and I just managed to reflect that this too was a superfluous luxury, since the room temperature was perfect, when suddenly I found myself at an old chapel on a Mediterranean hillside. The chapel was white and it was hot. We were hungry and Xavier, laughing, was pulling out some sandwiches and cool wine from a basket. Isabel was laughing too, while Magda stretched out on a blanket on the grass. Far below us was the blue of the sea and a solitary donkey dawdled in the shade of the chapel. But it wasn't a dream, it was a real memory; I was looking into the dark of the room and seeing that distant scene which seemed like a dream because I'd slept for a long time; my watch told me it was four in the afternoon.
At one stage, the narrator is told by a fortune-telling Jain monkey that his karma cannot be read because “you are someone else”. He accepts this, in fact barely remarking upon what should be remarkable, and indeed hardly reacts when the interpreter of the monkey adds, “you're not there, he can't tell you where you are.”
Tabucchi uses India less as a real location than as the stand-in for a dream. “India” is exotic, it is far away and unknown, and it carries with it the heavy weight of mysticism, ancient religion, and unknowable (to Europeans) customs and rituals. It provides Tabucchi with a metaphor for the search for identity, its myriad false starts and endless side-streets that lead nowhere. Toward the end, the narrator confesses:
”I've come here to search for Xavier,” I confessed. “It's true, I'm searching for Xavier.”
He looked at me triumphantly. There was irony in his expression now, and scorn perhaps. “And who is Xavier?”
I saw this questions as a betrayal, because I felt he was going back on a tacit agreement, that he 'knew' who Xavier was and shouldn't have had to ask me. And I didn't want to tell him, I felt that too.
“Xavier is my brother,” I lied.
He laughed cruelly and pointed his forefinger at me. “Xavier doesn't exist,” he said. “He's nothing but a ghost.” He made a gesture that took in the whole room. “We are all dead, haven't you realised that yet? I am dead, and this city is dead, and the battles, the sweat, the blood, the glory and my power, all dead, all utterly in vain.”
“No,” I said, “there is always something survives.”
The narrator visits many people in different cities around India. They tell him their story, or they tell him about themselves, but he rarely offers anything of his own. When confronted by a direct question he vacillates, and often he lies. This is all done in a very genial sense, and no matter how esoteric, exotic, or religious the situation becomes, the narrator remains calm and breezy, as though floating, untouchable, above it all. It's important to note he isn't pretentious or snobbish – he simply remains unaffected. To live or to die, to learn or to lie, to be robbed or to eat a delicious meal or drink wine or find an answer or find Xavier – it's all the same serene indifference, an apathetic numbness to life often found in the very sick, or the very tired – the insomniacs.
The novel creates a mood that is formless, ephemeral, concrete only in spots, and then not for long. But the ending changes this, it loops the novel back on itself and offers a fresh perspective on the events preceding it. We come, in a flash, to understand the protagonist better than we thought we would, and the novel, just like that, possesses an unexpected weight.
India binds the chapters, tenuously stringing them together, and so too the search for Xavier, but these links are weak. Tabucchi has deliberately made them so, for this novel is to be read as dream-like, or more accurately remembered with the lack of focus and haziness of an insomniac's dozing state, not quite awake, and not quite asleep. He has a strong ear for the rhythm of the insomniac's lulled existence. An insomniac, if you have ever had the (mis)fortune of being one, exists on the fringes of sleep and wakefulness, swaying first toward one and then the other, never quite wholly shifting into one discrete state. Indian Nocturne offers its own insomniac dream, a cyclical, recurrent, repetitive journey from nowhere to nowhere. Answers, when offered, are weak, or they are shrouded in mysticism. The journey continues, the night goes on.
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