The Woman of Porto Pim
Antonio Tabucchi
Tim Parks, Translator

(Archipelago Books)
This is not really about a woman of Porto Pim --- although she does figure in the story. It's not even all about whales and whaling and the nine islands that make up the Azores, although that is the subtext. It is mostly about Tabucchi's thoughts, as we travel together with him: mostly in his mind, as it were.

These trips include journeys in and out of love, and in and out of the spirit, along with lessons on how to live simply (often poorly) on an island chain 1,000 miles from Europe on the one side, 2,000 miles from the Americas on the other. Some miles and miles from the other.

The attraction here is not only a book which is laid out with grace and elegance, the Archipelago touch, but in Tabucchi's lovely style, telling us, for instance, in his Prologue,

    Having reached an age at which it seems more dignified to cultivate illusions than foolish aspirations, I have resigned myself to the destiny of writing after my own fashion.

"Having said this, it would nevertheless be dishonest to pass these pages off as pure fiction: the friendly, I might almost say pocket-size muse that dictated them could not even remotely be compared with the majestic muse of Raymond Roussel, who managed to write his Impressions d'Afrique without ever stepping off his yacht."

This gives Tabucchi the chance to invent many marvels, including (perhaps) a tenth island, where you and I will never be allowed to go. The citizens may only reach it "after attaining a spiritual state,"

    which is but rarely achieved --- and once there they do not come back.

He calls it god's island, and its one city he tells us is "suppositional," for it is laid out like "a circular chessboard and stretches away for miles and miles:"

    and every day, using simple pieces of chalk, the pilgrims move the buildings where they choose, as if they were chess pieces; so the city is mobile and mutable and its physiognomy is constantly changing.

In the center rises a tower, at the top of which "rests an enormous golden sphere which vaguely recalls the fruit so abundant in the gardens of these islands. And this sphere is the god."

§   §   §

And so it goes with Tabucchi, until we get to the lady of the title, Yeborath, "a beauty who made my temple burn." When she leaves the botequim in the evening, he follows her, through the gate "in the big wall of Porto Pim," all the way to her stone house near the cane thickets. She opens the window. He looks at her. "I felt a great longing, the water lapped around me, everything was so intense and so unattainable." He begins to sing a song "like a lament, or a supplication." She opens the door and ... you don't want to know what happens to her then, nor after. Hint: it has to do with the way they do in whales.

Whales. The weight and power of the whale lends a richness to this book. Quotes from Michelet, Albert I --- Prince of Monaco --- and Moby Dick abound. But the best are pure Tabucchi:

    When whales float in the middle of the ocean they look like drifting submarines struck by torpedoes. And in their bellies one imagines a crew of lots of little Jonahs whose radar is out of operation and who have given up trying to contact other Jonahs and are awaiting their deaths with resignation.

There is more, of course. The hunting of the whale by the islanders, the harpooning, the awful spout of blood: it does make one quite sad ... reminds us why we never made it to the very end of Moby Dick.

Speaking of Moby Dick, Camille Paglia had a fine old time with it, letting us in on what many of us had suspected all along: that the book was a hot-bed of sexual innuendo. Speculation includes not only the very title, which caused much amusement back when we were juveniles just starting out on our studies of it in high school. There's Ishmael and Queequeg admitting to finding themselves in a "marriage" bed, and that "Queequeg now and then [was] affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy we were." Later, playing with the residue of a harpooned sperm whale gives Melville the chance to observe,

    I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes.

§   §   §

The author of The Woman of Porto Pim also goes along on the proverbial hunt: he chronicles the lifting of the harpoon, the thrusting it downwards, and so much blood comes from the wound that the sea all about them turns incarnadine. The passage concludes with the spent fishermen towing the dead whale to shore, a hole cut in the tail, a line cast through it, the giant creature being hauled backwards by a small, underpowered boat.

The topper is a passage drawn from Albert I. In the 19th Century, he made a voyage to theAzores in his private boat, the Hirondeele, and left some very lively pages about island life. Tabucchi quotes a passage telling of a whale that was harpooned, disappeared, and finally, weeks later, floated in to become lodged on the rocks of Santa Maria. "What struck me most of all," he writes, "was his description of the death of a sperm whale, a gigantic animal whose doom is as majestic and terrifying as the wreck of a transatlantic liner."

    In order to observe the normal guidelines of the maritime authorities, the whalers move quickly to tow the sperm-whale's carcass out to sea, since its decomposition would otherwise rapidly contaminate the whole surrounding area. It is not an easy task, for although it might seem sufficient to drag the carcass two or three hundred metres from the shore and rely on a favorable current to carry it away, the capricious wind can always bring it back; sometimes the whalers will struggle in vain to be rid of the stinking hulk for days and days...

    If the sea gets rough, the undesirable carrion may well be trapped by the waves beneath inaccessible cliffs whence its heavy stretch will for months and months constitute a torment to the inhabitants of the region. Finally, one hot sunny day, the large intestine, blown up with gas, will explode with a boom, covering the surrounding area with bits of offal which constitute a delicious food for the multicolored scavenger crabs. Sometimes these sinister creatures arrange to meet for their foul five o'clock tiffin with elegant shrimps which parade their delicate antennae over the enormous cake, always given that the high tide is so kind as to offer the latter a means of transport...

    But whatever the details, the fact remains that the poor sperm whale proceeds along the road of his ruin from the first wound inflicted on him by man right through to the action of the humble creatures who take him to the completion of fatal cycle which is the destiny of every living being. The death of a sperm whale is as majestic as the crumbling of a great building, and in the necropolis set up by the whalers in the little bays, the animal's remains pile up like the broken walls of a cathedral.

--- Oliver Morton
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