The back cover of my copy of Antonio Tabucchi's 'Indian Nocturne' proclaims it to be a "prizewinning modern masterpiece" and the front cover carries a quotation from Salman Rushdie with just the one word "Beautiful". I have to agree that 'Indian Nocturne' is a fascinating and intriguing little book though I might perhaps draw the line at the adjective chosen from Mr Rushdie. If 'Indian Nocturne' has one quality that's seldom found in Rushdie's work it would be brevity rather than beauty.
Indian Nocturne follows a man in search of an old friend who has disappeared. The protagonist is not fully identified, referring to himself by various aliases including the name Roux, short for an old Portuguese nickname based on the word for nightingale. We meet him in the back of a Bombay taxi, being taken for a ride both literally and euphemistically by a crooked driver, a man who tells the oldest lie in the battered guide book - that the hotel is closed, that he knows a much better place for a gentleman such as his passenger. The man knows he's in the wrong part of town, stops the taxi, throws money at the driver and hails an auto-rickshaw to take him to his hotel in a seedy part of the city, an area where women in cages sell their bodies for a few rupees and where his hotelier offers him all manner of exotic delights. But he is there for one specific girl, someone who knew Xavier, the man for whom he's looking.
The girl gives him clues to Xavier's movements, tells him of his involvement with the Theosophical Society in Madras, tells him he did business in Goa and these clues set up the travels that Roux will take in the following pages. She tells him Xavier was ill so Roux goes to a hospital, to look for his friend the "Portuguese who lost his way in India", to trawl the wards of the dying and despairing, hunting for Xavier. He meets a doctor, a European-trained cardiologist, who finds his specialisation useless in a land where nobody dies from heart problems, instead being carried away by "everything that has nothing to do with the heart". I found this a fascinating observation, though I fear that thirty years after the book was written, heart disease is probably catching up with that doctor's disappointment.
After a night at the glorious Taj hotel in Bombay, he's off again, spending a night at what he calls the 'Victoria Station Retiring Rooms' before taking a train across the country to Madras. I assume what he calls 'Victoria Station' is the Victoria Terminus, now renamed as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the city's only land-based UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is one of two of his passing conversations with other travellers and he talks to an educated and philosophically challenging Jain gentleman. In Madras he visits the headquarters of the Theosophical Society and receives a new tip to return to the west coast and visit Goa. Taking the bus, he stops for a connection in the middle of the night and meets a monkey-man, a badly disfigured fortune teller who can only tell him that he is not himself, that his soul is missing. And eventually he finds himself in Goa where he finds his friend, or possibly he doesn't and we are left wondering what the previous hundred pages were really all leading up to.
~Is it better to travel than to arrive?~
To say the ending is ambiguous and a bit unsatisfying is probably an understatement. Different readers will take different things from this ending and there's no real way of knowing what the writer intended. It's often said that the journey is more important than the destination, and that's how I felt about this book - that I enjoyed the road and rail trip even if I wasn't entirely sure quite where I ended up.
There are many fascinating characters with which the narrator crosses paths. The Jain in the station, the boy and his monkey-brother in the waiting room, a woman who has stolen her husband's money and then left it in a drawer, and my personal favourite, the Philadelphia mailman who has fled the country with a copy of the telephone directory and is sending un-stamped post cards to the addressees in the book, one at a time, alphabetically.
The whole book reads as a confused dream sequence of reality and fantasy twisted together so that the reader is never sure what's real and what's not. This is enhanced by the author providing a list of all the locations at the beginning of the book which make everything that follows seem somehow more factual. Of course if you know some of the places, as I do, that makes it even more intriguing.
~No more journeys for Mr Tabucchi~
The book was originally published in 1984 in Italian and then translated into English by Tim Parks. It's not clear if this edition is a new translation or just a reissue to mark the author's death in March 2012 but I suspect the latter case since the translation copyright inside the cover is dated 1988. 'Indian Nocturne' won the Prix Medicis etranger (which I have to admit is an award of which I've never heard) and Tabucchi won numerous other prizes for his writing as well as being twice shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. I should probably be ashamed not to have heard of him before.
There are things in this book that are factually incorrect. You cannot see Elephanta Island from Marine Drive in Mumbai and the birds which eat the dead in the Towers of Silence are vultures and not crows. However, such is the nature of this clever little book that I can't rule out the possibility that such errors may well have been entirely intentional.
~Short and Confusing~
At just 115 pages long, and with a font size that's more than easy on the eye, this is not a book that will take you long to read. I polished it off in the bath on a Friday evening, cutting myself off from the world for an hour whilst I read it. It's no exaggeration to say it took longer to review it than to read it and I thought about it for considerably longer than I spent reading. Even after such thought I'm still unsure about whether I actually liked or enjoyed it. The observations are clear and authentic, the people he meets along the way are made vibrant by his descriptions but the actual plot is left dangling in a way that - for me at least - was rather unsatisfying.