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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


For Isabel

Antonio Tabucchi

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To purchase For Isabel

Title: For Isabel
Author: Antonio Tabucchi
Genre: Novel
Written: (2013) (Eng. 2017)
Length: 140 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: For Isabel - US
For Isabel - UK
For Isabel - Canada
Pour Isabel - France
Für Isabel - Deutschland
Per Isabel - Italia
Para Isabel - España
  • A Mandala
  • Italian title: Per Isabel
  • Translated by Elizabeth Harris
  • Apparently written in the 1990s, but first published posthumously in 2013

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing, unusual quest-tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 6/11/2014 Fabio Gambaro
NZZ . 14/5/2014 Maike Albath
TLS . 5/12/2017 Samuel Graydon
Wall St.Journal . 1/9/2017 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2017 Carson Schatzman

  From the Reviews:
  • "Une écriture maîtrisée, faite de pauses et d’attentes, des détails réalistes, des ouvertures vers le fantastique… : Antonio Tabucchi livre ici un roman habité par les fantasmes mais aussi très ancré dans le réel. Un récit qui dilate le temps et l’espace, à la poursuite d’un être aussi fuyant qu’un rêve." - Fabio Gambaro, Le Monde

  • "Eine einzige Wahrheit gibt es in diesem strikten Sinne ebenfalls nicht: Der Akt des Erzählens wird zur sinnstiftenden Erfahrung, denn über das Erzählen verleihen wir unserem Dasein innere Kohärenz. Für Isabel ist die elegante erzählerische Variation eines Mandalas. Alles folgt dem Formprinzip des Kreises: der Rhythmus der Satzketten, die Folge der Figuren, die Anordnung der Schauplätze." - Maike Albath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Despite its familiar structure, For Isabel is not just a satisfactory rounding-off of Tabucchi’s career, but a fantastic coda to it. (...) Most of the novel is comparable to a painting by René Magritte, in which reality takes missteps and the impossible is logical. (...) To find one’s way through For Isabel is certainly not easy, but it is rewarding, and its joyful confusion always rests firmly on the edge of genius, ready to be found." - Samuel Graydon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The story’s procedural structure rather pleasingly echoes an episode of "Law and Order." (...) But whether its setting is real or supernatural, this tantalizing, quicksilver novel, subtly translated by Elizabeth Harris, illuminates a soul in transit, yearning to complete the story that will release him from his suffering." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "On first look, the story is a straightforward search for resolution. Yet the logic of For Isabel is strange, dreamlike. Tadeus claims to be pure light but frequently eats and drinks -- absinthe, cachaça, mandarin liquor affect him. Though Isabel lived in the twentieth century, the name Slowacki and his profession are suggestive of the nineteenth-century Polish romantic poet. Time itself is malleable for certain spontaneous characters, like the telepathic bat and the Mad Fiddler. Taken together, these facts are suggestive of some supernatural order, but in the end they only hint at one." - Carson Schatzman, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       For Isabel is narrated by Waclaw -- but called Tadeus -- Slowacki, who goes in search of a young Portuguese woman he once knew, Isabel, moving through nine circles of a mandala in seeking out information about what became of her. What begins as a seemingly normal quest -- he meets an old friends of Isabel's in a Lisbon restaurant, and she tells him her story -- become increasingly sur-and ethereal; indeed, Tadeus proves to be an elusive being as well: a photographer who takes his picture can't capture the image ("Where are you ? he said, it's like you don't exist") and to another person who wonders about what (rather than who) he is, he suggests:

I've lost all my mud, I explained, I've become pure light. He scratched his calves. What do you mean, he murmured. Think of me as a pulsar
       Tadeus is, or was, a writer ("I write books, I whispered, that is my sin"), and Isabel is also, in part, a literary creation; a poet Tadeus asks about her suggests:
Isabel, he said, there might be an Isabel in my poetry or in my thoughts, they're one and the same, but whether she's in my poetry or in my thoughts, she's a shadow who belongs to literature, why are you looking for a shadow who belongs to literature ? Perhaps to make her real, I answered weakly, to give some meaning to her life, and to my rest.
       Typically for a quest-tale: "the important thing is to search, and not whether you find something or not".
       Isabel's tale seems simple enough: a young woman growing up in a still reactionary Portugal under Salazar, she loses both parents, studies modern languages at university, becomes politically active. Then the details blur. Did she become pregnant ? She was apparently arrested -- but did she escape, or commit suicide, or die elsewhere ? Change, or exchange, identities -- blurring even further who she is ?
       Tadeus tries to follow the pieces, meeting a variety of people whose path she crossed -- a friend, her nanny, a jailer -- and some with more tenuous, unreal links to her. He seems to be able to move through space effortlessly, practically stepping from Portugal to Macao to Switzerland. Cultures overlap -- the colonial in Portugal, the Portuguese in China, India in the Swiss locale (with the image of Hermann Hesse as connection, gazing down on the scene ...).
       Tadeus looks for the substantial -- the facts -- but is himself entirely unsubstantial, practically a ghost, and his quest is ultimately spiritual. He knows, as he follows her trail: "anything's possible; with Isabel, anything was possible". He wants to know everything -- but as he is reminded: "Everything is nothing".
       Circling around and then ever-closer to Isabel, Tadeus finds resolution, Tabucchi nicely, lightly, leading him on. It makes for a charming, eerie little tale -- politically tinged, with a touch of mystery to it, and a spiritual element, yet none of which weigh too heavily on the story.
       For Isabel is, in the best sense, weird, with its unusual feel and (ir)reality. Nicely done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 August 2017

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For Isabel: Reviews: Antonio Tabucchi: Other books by Antonio Tabucchi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Antonio Tabucchi lived 1943 to 2012.

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© 2017 the complete review

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