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Hyper-Literary Spy and Movie-Star Stories : LITTLE MISUNDERSTANDINGS OF NO IMPORTANCE by Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye (New Directions: $16.95; 144 pp.)

December 13, 1987|Brian Stonehill | Stonehill, whose study of "The Self-Conscious Novel" will be published in the spring by the University of Pennsylvania Press, teaches in the English Department at Pomona College.

This is Tabucchi's second collection of stories to appear in English; the first was "Letter from Casablanca" (originally "Il gioco del rovescio," "The Backwards Game"), well received last year.

In an "Author's Note," penned in a Borgesian tone, the 44-year-old Tabucchi observes that he feels "driven" to seek out ambiguities and to speak of them in his short stories. "Misunderstandings, uncertainties, belated understandings, useless remorse, treacherous memories, stupid and irredeemable mistakes, all these irresistibly fascinate me, as if they constituted a vocation, a sort of lowly stigmata."

That phrase, "lowly stigmata," technically an oxymoron, exemplifies the way in which Tabucchi manages to play simultaneously in the treble and in the bass. He dabbles in the hyper-literary--"too booky"--while telling detective or espionage or movie-star stories.

Tabucchi sounds the neo-classical note, a register shared, appropriately enough, by fellow Italians Primo Levi and Italo Calvino.

These neo-classicals balance the cemetery of existence with its symmetry--and they italicize the symmetry. Chaos itself is harmonized in the mirror of its recollection, in the limpid prose that reflects it.

What's new about this particular wave of neo-classicism is that it requires the presence of an observer--a narrator, a reader--in order to work. No inhumanely harmonious Parthenons are possible now, except as briefly seen images. But the magic of language, artfully used, is that it can embrace its own imprecision and in so doing create a story of precise balance and beauty.

For example, the title story offers an aesthetic allegory. Rather than studying the classics, says the narrator of his college days, we, instead, had opted for modern literature. "It's closer to us," said Leo, "and you can't compare James Joyce with those boring ancients, can you?"

Through a series of "little misunderstandings of no importance," the character, Leo, who thus rejects the classics, winds up in a courtroom, on trial before a judge who is a former classicist. It seems that our culture is always having to pull up its classical socks. Tabucchi's wise fictions offer us elegant and amusing garters.

Yes, comedy is crucial here, for indeed the neo-classical movement is from the cosmic toward the comic. One might reasonably look for the same tendency in the neo-classical architecture that is concurrently rising from our postmodern streets. Tabucchi throws a bridge--several short neo-classical arches, actually--between the isles of postmodern self-consciousness and the mainland of classical narrative. And his range is jet age; he can impersonate a Parisian mechanic or whisk us through a dinner at Lutece.

The fifth of these 11 genuinely short stories, "Rooms," ends perhaps with an act of euthanasia, as Amelia administers an injection to ailing Guido.

"She thought of how bogus all writing really was--the implacable tyranny of circumscribing words . . . . But things are fuzzy-edged, thought Amelia; they are alive because they are fuzzy-edged, without borders, and do not let themselves be imprisoned by words."

The postmodern accomplishment, including that of neo-classical short fiction, is to capture the illusion of freedom, to imprison life's evasiveness; to \o7 eff\f7 , so to speak, not the ineffable, but its ineffability. To have it both ways, speaking from the heart and just kidding. Like another contemporary lover of paradox, Thomas Pynchon, Tabucchi reaps a bonus from the bogus; he dramatizes, convincingly, the limitations of imitation itself.

Tabucchi insists, with thematic persistence, that the roles we play become us, literally. One seemingly insignificant "misunderstanding"--a registration error that obliges a student with no interest in the law to feign a semester's interest--eventually produces the judge who presides in the title story.

Storytelling's latest technology tugs at deliberately modern fiction too. Thus, Tabucchi's last story in this finely translated collection is called "Cinema," and it plays neat, Pirandello-esque games with actors playing lovers playing actors and so on. Those facing mirrors give you a vertiginous sense of fictional feedback. They reflect images of a happy romance between the classical and the hip: avant-garde nostalgia in the best Italian style.

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