“It is a sultry August at the very end of the twentieth century, and Tristano is dying. A hero of the Italian Resistance, Tristano has called a writer to his bedside to listen to his life story, though, really, ‘you don’t tell a life…you live a life, and while you’re living it, it’s already lost, has slipped away.’ Tristano Dies, one of Antonio Tabucchi’s major novels, is a vibrant consideration of love, war, devotion, betrayal, and the instability of the past, of storytelling, and what it means to be a hero.”
When I saw Tristano Dies: A Life on NetGalley and read the description, it immediately piqued my interest – not only did it fit in with my translations kick I was on at the time (and am still on), it also sounded really good. But I’m going to be honest and say that I found this really hard to read. So hard in fact, that I had to take a break from it and read something lighter before I was even a quarter of the way through.
The problem for me was the way it was written. The narrator, Tristano, is a man on his deathbed attempting to recall memories of events in years long past. But time, being the fickle thing that it is, has blended these memories together, making his storytelling jump around in both time and location. Add to that the fact that he is often in a morphine induced haze and you’re basically left with a storyline that has little in the way of structure and was very hard to follow at times. That being said, if the author, Antonio Tabucchi, was attempting to replicate the confused mind of a dying man then he most certainly succeeded.
To read Tristano Dies is to read a non-stop flow of information; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it a little overwhelming, but it was also the best thing about it. As I read I reflected on how memories blur and blend and change with time and I thought about how I would remember my life in years to come. Will things be clear, or will I remember things how I want to remember them?
While I struggled to get through the story, there are some really beautiful observations on life scattered throughout Tristano Dies, and there were enough of them to make me glad that I’d picked up the book. Observations such as this:
“…You know, all told, life’s more what you don’t remember than what you do…”
And this one:
“… a word in one person’s mouth is different in the mouth of another.”
There’s a whole bunch of little gems like these strewn throughout Tristano Dies, and they’re made all the more special because of the moments of clarity they bring to an otherwise foggy story. When Tristano says these things it is without uncertainty or hesitation, so they stand out from the words around them and immediately demand attention. These are the things he believe and neither time nor drugs will make him waver in his belief – there’s a lesson in that.
While the level of concentration required to read this book is a level that I am not in possession of, I’m glad I read it, and I would probably read it again. I genuinely enjoy books that get me thinking about memory and life, and humanity as a whole – this is definitely one of those books.