A series dedicated to literature in translation whether classic or contemporary.
Originally published as I volatili del Beato Angelico
Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks
Orphans, prodigies, larvae, and ghosts inhabit Antonio Tarbucchi’s short stories in his collection, The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico. As Tarbucchi writes in the introductory Note, these micro-stories “are the murmurings and mutterings that have accompanied and still accompany me; outbursts, moods, little ecstasies, real or presumed emotions, grudges, and regrets.”
Beginning with the titular story, it tells about Fra Giovanni of Fiesole’s strange encounters with angelic beings while he harvests onions. The short story rides a fine line between the whimsy of magical realism and the unsettling experiences in a docu-realistic approach. Fra Giovanni is visited by angelic beings, but they do not seem like the stereotypical angelic representations one sees in woodcuts or saccharine images around the holidays. One angel has legs like a plucked chicken, despite having gigantic multicolored wings. Another appears thin and frail, closer to a dragonfly. While the tone of the story is one of bucolic agricultural simplicity. Fra Giovanni, a farmer by trade, has a plain view of things. He is a monk but no scrivener, making his angelic encounters all the more perplexing. Eventually, his encounters inspire him to paint these angelic beings. While this summary may seem perfunctory, reading the short story leaves one with an overwhelming strangeness
The next story is “Past Composed: Three Letters,” a collection of three correspondences. Like “Flying Creatures,” the story possesses an ecstatic strangeness. The first letter is from Dom Sebastião de Avis, King of Portugal to the painter Francisco Goya. Dom Sebastião was raised in a courtly life steeped in mysticism and ceremony, whereas Goya was a painter known for his brutally honest depictions of the Peninsular Wars and the atrocities of Napoleon’s troops. The King of Portugal led a doomed crusade in the 16th century with the end result of having his entire army obliterated, his dynasty ended, and Portugal under Spanish rule. These perplexing correspondences continue with a letter from Napoleon’s fortune-teller, Mademoiselle Lenormand, to a female revolutionary named Dolores Ibarruri. Ibarruri was a leader in the Spanish Civil War. Finally, after all this mysticism, we get a letter from Calypso to Odysseus, with Calypso yearning for Odysseus and the desire to become mortal.
The Passion of Dom Pedro” is written like an author’s summary for a novel. Tarbucchi simultaneously regales the reader with a story of passion and betrayal, all the while peppering the account with metafictional jabs at his own creation. “The opening scenario smacks of the banal.” But the next story, “Message from the Shadows” is like a brief prose poem, about the in-between shadow world between light and dark. On one level, it is a succinct little poetic fragment. On another level, it is a commentary on the shadow world his writing inhabits, halfway between classical myths and fables and halfway in postmodernist metafictional contraptions.
A second epistolary short story is a fictional correspondence between an Indian Theosophist and Tarbucchi. We learn that Tarbucchi went to India to research his novel, Indian Nocturne, and he was a translator for the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. This short story collection subtly weaves together collisions and recollections of previous stories.
The final story, “Last Invitation,” is told in a formalized language. It begins,
For the solitary traveller, admittedly rare but perhaps implausible, who cannot resign himself to the lukewarm, standardised forms of hospitalised death which the modern state guarantees and who, what’s more, is terrorised at the thought of the hurried and impersonal treatment to which his unique body will be subjected during the obsequies, Lisbon still offers an admirable range of options for a noble suicide, together with the most decorous, solemn, zealous, polite and above all cheap organisations for dealing with what a successful suicide inevitably leaves behind it: the corpse.
Again we encounter Portuguese culture and the threat of death. The narrator continues on with his analysis of Lisbon and a noble suicide. Death, the inevitable end, the mortal threat we all face, but also, as the last story, the inevitable end of the reading experience.
Tarbucchi’s short stories vary widely in tone and form, but throughout we meet ghosts and angels and kings drenched in mysticism and agnostic Italian writers. With these short stories, Tarbucchi teases out the strangeness, the uncanny, and the humorous in poetic fragments, epistolary stories, and arch satires.