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la testa perduta di damasceno monteiro

24 september 2018

La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro begins with a Roma man in Oporto finding a headless body. For some time, investigators are stumped about the identity of the corpse, though one keeps wanting to refer them to the title of the novel. Eventually they match up the body with the missing head of Damasceno Monteiro.

Like Antonio Tabucchi's masterpiece Sostiene Pereira, this noirish novel is set in Portugal, but written in Italian. The author was bicultural and traveled continually between homes in Italy and Portugal. Sometimes it can seem odd, as I noted of Pereira, to have Portuguese culture and language represented in Italian, particularly when something Italian comes up and one has to adjust for its sudden foreignness. But this oddity only adds to the rich texture of Tabucchi's narratives.

You also can't tell where a Tabucchi novel is going. (I make this confident pronouncement after having read all of two of them.) Testa perduta starts out like many a crime novel. The unfortunate Damasceno has lost his head, and a young investigative journalist named Firmino is dispatched from Lisbon to Oporto to dig up what he can on the case. Firmino doesn't have to do much digging. He soon finds that various interested parties from the shadier side of Oporto life are eager to use him as a conduit for their stories. Even Dona Rosa, who runs the bed and breakfast where he's staying, knows more about Damasceno Monteiro than the average detective. For Firmino, the case becomes as much about negotiating the informers as negotiating the witnesses and suspects.

Then about halfway through, the novel takes a sharp turn. Firmino starts to work with, or perhaps for, an obese lawyer called "Loton," after Charles Laughton. This character, whose real name is Fernando Mello Sequeira, is an independently-wealthy crusader who fights for the poor of his city against the corruption that still pervades even post-Salazar Portugal. "Loton" loves good food and drink, and loves to see young people happy, and loves to see the powerless vindicated. Firmino starts to play Archie to Don Fernando's Nero Wolfe. In turn, Don Fernando commences Firmino's philosophical education, all the while running to ground a nasty corrupt cop who has evidently put a slug in Damasceno's skull in the course of a drug deal gone bad.

I'm not sure that the turn toward the philosophical is a turn for the better, but it's hard to put La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro down. "Loton," Don Fernando, is an admirable counterpart to Pereira in Tabucchi's greater novel, an elder, phlegmatic hero who plods his way toward justice. There is much here to delight and inspire.

Tabucchi, Antonio. La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro. 1997. Milano: Feltrinelli, 2016.