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For Isabel: A Mandala

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I did not find this an easy read. It starts out in a relatively straightforward manner with the narrator Tadeus, a Polish writer, on a search for Isabel, the woman he loved and lost during Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal. He goes from eyewitness to eyewitness and assembles pieces of the puzzle. Was she arrested? Did she die in prison?  Each of her old acquaintances has his or her story to tell. But this isn’t in fact a straightforward detective tale at all, something which I only really appreciated after reading some articles and reviews. Tadeus is in a “metaphysical journey across continents and time”. Apparently he is dead and comes from a distant star, from Outside Sirius, where he has become a “pure light”. The novel’s structure references the mandala of the subtitle , a mandala being a colourful circular design representing unity, the idea that life is never-ending, and can also symbolise a journey through life.  Well, I’m afraid much of this passed me by. And without knowing all this the novel soon becomes pretty meaningless. But if enjoying a novel relies so heavily on being already knowledgeable about certain esoteric aspects of it, then to me it hasn’t succeeded, and I didn’t enjoy it this one at all. The basic story of Isabel’s disappearance under Salazar interested me, but the symbolism of the mandala, and Tadeus being from a star was just too much for me.
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Tadeus Slowacki, a writer, goes to Lisbon searching for a girl he once knew. But his search for her whereabouts and the truth of what really happened to her is far from straightforward as he sets about following the trail of breadcrumbs populated by people who also once knew her.
A mandala is a ritual symbol used as a focus of meditation. In this case the mandala consists of nine circles set one inside the other as Tadeus meets the different people who have one way or another been involved with Isabel’s life.
With its quiet ways and careful observations of the minutiae of people and life, the novel is indeed a meditation as Tadeus contemplates his past and interviews of the people in each circle. This is a subtle book which appears, like Isabel’s life, to be a series of episodes simply narrated by Tadeus. Yet Antonio Tabucchi, holds the reader between a state of tension and anticipation of the outcome of each interview and thoughtful contemplation of Tadeus’s experiences.
For Isabel: A Mandala is an ethereal book because not only does Isabel prove elusive, but Tadeus himself is far from substantial. At one point a photographer takes a picture of Tadeus holding a photograph of Isabel, but only the photograph of Isabel can be seen in the photographer’s polaroid.
This is a book to be read more than once to squeeze everything out of it, and a valuable reference for a writer with regards to how to tell an effective and affecting story without embellishment.
Mention also should go to Elizabeth Harris’s smooth translation which manages to bring out the quality of Tabucchi’s writing.
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A mandala, a colourful circular design, represents unity, the idea that life is never-ending. Definitions include the idea that a mandala reinforces one’s relationship to infinity, and can also symbolise a journey through life. Taking these definitions, Antonio Tabucchi’s novel: For Isabel: A Mandala is the narrator’s search for a woman he knew long ago.

For Isabel

Tadeus, a writer over age 50, says he’s travelled to Lisbon to search for Isabel, a woman from his past. While he’s driven by “private obsessions, personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river,”  we never quite know what his relationship was with Isabel–although there’s a clue early on. As he seeks the truth, he instead finds conflicting stories about Isabel. The book presents nine interview-style chapters, called “circles,” as various people give their stories of Isabel, or their version of events. Those who offer Tadeus information include Mónica, a school friend of Isabel,  Isabel’s old nurse, Beatriz Teixeira, a photographer, a female saxophonist, a prison guard named Uncle Tom, and a dying poet called “The Ghost Who Walks.”

Over the course of Tadeus’s journey, he discovers that Isabel, who “came from an old Portuguese family that had nothing to do with Salazarism, a family in decline,” was radicalized in university. Mónica claims that Isabel had a great love affair that “was the ruin of her,” and that she was mixed up in triangular affair with a Spaniard and a Polish writer (possibly the narrator?). While Mónica says that Isabel, who lived an “underground existence,” hiding from the secret police, was pregnant and subsequently died, Isabel’s old nanny thinks she is still alive. ..

In this esoteric mystery, while the big question seems to be: will Tadeus find Isabel, other questions emerge. Narrative strands offer multiple versions of Isabel and her life. What is the truth? The narrator sets out on a journey to find Isabel, but in the end, while the journey, which becomes increasingly surreal, involves travel, it’s essentially a spiritual journey towards a central truth.

Tadeus’s search for Isabel is complicated by the fact that she became a communist and was hunted by the secret police. Was she “disappeared” while incarcerated? Now the political times have changed, but Tadeus still has to find and question former subversives who are suspicious of his motives. In the “fifth circle,” for example, Tadeus questions a photographer named Tiago who asks Tadeus what he hopes to achieve in trying to discover what happened to Isabel:

I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center,

To what end? he asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

The photographer doesn’t answer directly, but instead shuffles around some photos. Then he has an enigmatic reply:

Do the photographs of a lifetime represent time divided among several people or one person divided into different times?

It takes a while to ‘break into’ this thoughtful, dreamlike novel, but I found myself being submerged by its elusive mystery. The conclusion is stunning, brilliant and well worth the read.

Translated by Elizabeth Harris
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"The photographer went over to what seemed to be a storage shelf. He rummaged in a box a while, then returned with some photos and held one out to me. Take a look at this picture, he said, a photo’s something that watches us, pursues us, maybe; look at this baby sitting on a blanket, a bow in his hair– that’s me. He paused. Now I ask myself, is this who I am? Is this who I was? Who I’ve been? Who was this I that I now say is Tiago and is with me every day? He held out another photo. A more recent picture this time, of a boy and girl. He smiled pensively and said, look at these two on their little bike, the girl in back is hugging the boy and leaning forward, smiling innocently for the camera, I took this picture years ago, and these were my children, and I ask myself, are they still my children? That’s not possible, I tell you, and I’d like to do a better job of documenting what was, but what was?

"Do the photographs of a lifetime represent time divided among several people or one person divided into several different times?"

This cyclical, poetic novel is full of quotes like these above, and beautiful mediations on time and death. And yet, I failed to engage much with the world of Tadeus, who is in search of the mysterious Isabel, who disappeared during the time of Salazar. The story ranges through Lisbon – but the city is like a dissolving presence. This is less a novel rooted in the gritty grounds of reality than a metaphysical journey into concepts and theories, bordered by the effects of oppression and dictatorship. 

It’s a hard read, if you like your fiction real and tangible, with characters you can empathise with and touch with your imagination. If you let that go, and revel in the concepts and the beautiful writing, you’ll be submerged and intrigued by this story. 

"I’m from endless time, I answered, from the endless time that outstrips us both, you, living in this now of yours, and I who lived in my then, you, writing your poetry, and I who wrote my poetry, not as beautiful as yours, mind you, simpler, without the personal tragedies of yours. There’s no personal tragedy in my poetry, he whispered, it’s the story of my generation, a period transformed into poetry."
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Hmmm... a rum one this, partly because of it's very nature - an Italian specialist in Portuguese writing, pretending to be a Polish author in search of a political victim of the Portuguese dictatorship.  The modernist style, with no speech marks and extended paragraphs, is not exactly a problem, but what remains as such is the fact that the journey, taking our narrator from Lisbon to Asia and then outer space, is pretty much only for the specialist.  This has some entertainment for the average reader (like myself) but can ultimately remain too obtuse.  As a swansong from someone oft deemed in line for the Nobel Prize for Literature, it's OK, but it's hard to love without inside knowledge.
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Who is Isabel, where is she, what happened to her so many years ago in a Lisbon that was still under the iron fist of the dictatorship? And furthermore, who is this mysterious man that keeps circling this mandala made of concentric figures in order to get closer to her and unravel the past? 

When the book came up for grabs on Netgalley I jumped for the opportunity because, as a Portuguese born in Lisbon, I always like to know how other people perceive my country, my city and my history. Of course, Antonio Tabucchi is no stranger to either of these things, and often uses them as the background of his books, but being this my first read by this author I was curious all the same. 

Funny enough, this was his last book, and in it the author duels on things like mortality, the closeness to the ones that have left, the search for the things left unsettled in our past. 

I really liked it, and even tough it is prose, it feels like a poem, and it mixes a real story with some mysticism. Not for those who live their lives surrounded only by hard facts, recommended to all the dreamers.
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This book takes place in Lisbon. It is not just a search for Isabel, but a search for oneself as well. I loved the concept 
of a Mandala and found it interesting. I would read this book again.
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Thank you Net Galley. Another wonderful story from Antonio Tabucchi. The title captures the nature of the story well. The search is not just for Isabel but for self. Beautiful and lyrical, this is a book to read again. Superb.
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Review published on Goodreads on May 20th 2017

'For Isabel: A Mandala' by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Elizabeth Harris 

4 stars/ 8 out of 10

I have read other novels by Antonio Tabucchi, so was interested in reading this latest work, which was published posthumously and has now been translated into English.

The volume starts with 'Justification in the Form of a Note'. I recommend reading this both at the beginning of and on completion of the book. 

As you would expect from Tabucchi, there is much in this novel about existence and about time. At times the novel, told as a first person narrative, reads very much like a detective story. At other times it moves into fantastical and thought provoking directions.

Much of the novel is set in Tabucchi's beloved Lisbon, which is a location that I always enjoy reading about. His writing is as concise and well expressed as usual. It feels as if the translation is sticking very much to the author's original text and meaning.

I intend to re-read this novel. I have a feeling that there is much more that I could get out of, it on a  second time of reading it.

Thank you to Archipelago Books and to NetGalley for an ARC.
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