"In the book I would be someone who has lost his way in India."This is what the nameless narrator of Antonio Tabucchi's Indian Nocturne suggests is the concept of a book he would be writing if he were a novelist. Suggestion and actuality seem to blur in his definition as in most of the slim, elegant novel that lent itself to much of Tabucchi's fame during his lifetime. Notturno Indiano was first published in 1984 and then translated into English in 1989. A French film adaptation of the book Nocturne Indien directed by Alain Corneau was released in 1989. Tabucchi died in 2012, leaving behind a substantial corpus of writing and at the same time an extensive engagement with the literary world.
Tabucchi's work has been translated into several languages and he had in his lifetime encouraged a considerable amount of critical acclaim. His narratives have also been compared to writers such as Italo Calvino as well as Jorge Luis Borges. His best-known works include the novel Pereira Declares: A Testimony and Indian Nocturne as well as several short stories. His first novel Piazza d'Italia was published in 1975 and it follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a poor Italian family with anarchist leanings.
It is a family saga that leaps through several generations over a century. Declares Pereira, published in 1995, is based on a single protagonist. In this novel the ageing central character finds himself vaulted from being an almost-anonymous newspaper editor to taking on the role of a dictator.
Indian Nocturne is a short novel or even a novella and tells the story of a man who travels to India on a quest to seek out his lost friend Xavier.
As the narrative unravels, the protagonist seems to merge his own identity with that of his elusive friend so that the readers are left wondering who exactly is searching for whom. This lack of clarity and resolution, especially at the end of the novel, is quintessential Tabucchi. While he wrote with the full intention of engaging the readers with the quest or journey at the heart of the novel, he maintained an active spirit of offering readers the possibility of alternative outcomes.
There is a light humour about his prose, which at the same time displays a deep consideration of the countries and cultures and people he writes about, whether it is Italy, Portugal or India.
Some of the images of India in Indian Nocturne are disturbing. When the protagonist visits a hospital in Bombay he writes that "the walls were stained red from the spittings of chewed betel and the heat was suffocating. Or perhaps it was the overpoweringly strong smell that gave this sensation of suffocation."
But Tabucchi quickly manoeuvres the reader away from the uneasiness of the descriptions with a lighter tone. When the narrator asks the doctor, a cardiologist, "What do people die of here?" the doctor replies, "Of everything that has nothing to do with the heart."
Tabucchi's prose has been labelled as "dreamlike" and it does indeed reflect a gentle almost somnambulant state as the reader is never quite sure whether what is before them is reality or just the illusion of reality. Tabucchi himself begins the book with a note: "As well as being an insomnia, this book is also a journey. The insomnia belongs to the writer of the book, the journey to the person who did the travelling."
The suggestion is that of a sort of travel guide, and indeed the protagonist does find himself seeking the guidance of Lonely Planet, yet this is just a superficial structure he has given to the trip the young man takes through India. It is a symbolic structure under which lies a journey of self- discovery, of creating and findings one's way towards an identity.