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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Missing Head
of Damasceno Monteiro

Antonio Tabucchi

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To purchase The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

Title: The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro
Author: Antonio Tabucchi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 186 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro - US
The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro - UK
The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro - Canada
The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro - India
La Tête perdue de ... - France
Der verschwundene Kopf des ... - Deutschland
La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro - Italia
La cabeza perdida de Damasceno Monteiro - España
  • Translated by J.C.Patrick
  • Italian title: La Testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro

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Our Assessment:

A- : simple yet striking mystery (of sorts)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 17/5/1997 .
FAZ . 30/8/1997 .
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 20/2/2000 Michael Pye
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction B Fall/2000 Thomas Hove
Salon B+ 5/1/2000 M.L. Rosenberg
The Washington Post B 9/4/2000 Roland Merullo
World Lit. Today . Winter/1998 Charles Klopp

  Review Consensus:

  Generally positive, though all find some fault with it. Reviews also tend to be more descriptive than critical, especially those referring to the Italian edition (The Economist and World Literature Today).

  From the Reviews:
  • "You may sometimes want to snort with exasperation and send Tabucchi's book skirling across the room. But, then again, when did you last find a novel this interesting?" - Michael Pye, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Disappointingly, Tabucchi makes little effort to integrate Lotonís speculations and Firminoís literary interests into his somewhat conventional plot. But his elliptical use of allusions lends this thrillerís bare events an intriguing range of philosophical and political overtones." - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Though sometimes preachy, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is a gripping read: Lithe, elegantly plotted and, with its unblinking scrutiny of the measures deployed against "people aiming to subvert our culture," disconcertingly timely for readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Patrick Creagh's translation is on the clunky side, far from the apparent artlessness of the original." - Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Salon

    (NOTE: While the New Directions press release does say "translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh", the book itself is presented as translated by J.C.Patrick (and that is also who holds copyright). Either Ms. Rosenberg knows something we don't about secret pseudonyms or she and her editors were lackadaisical in their copy-editing. Poor Mr. Creagh deserves better.)

  • "Tabucchi (...) writes in a terse, elegant style and sprinkles the novel with journalistic dispatches, twists of ironic humor, humanistic philosophy and Portuguese history. (...) In its best scenes, the novel has the fragrance of real life and a light, compassionate mood. But, lacking a supporting structure of intricate motivation, the ideas and some of the plot twists seem more forced than organic." - Roland Merullo, The Washington Post

  • "As elsewhere in Tabucchi's writings, readers of La testa perduta are forced to speculate about the probable conclusion to a tale that is left deliberately unresolved, though the book's central message of protest against state-countenanced torture is unambiguous." - Charles Klopp, 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:

       Like a number of Tabucchi's works, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is set in Portugal. On this occasion most of it is set in the more provincial northern city of Oporto. The novel begins there, with Manolo the gypsy finding a headless body.
       The Lisbon journalist Firmino, a man of some literary ambitions who works for the tabloid O Acontecimento, is sent to Oporto to cover the story. The book follows his journalistic investigations as he discovers the identity of the dead man, the crime that was committed, and the perpetrators. Of course, Tabucchi would never write a simple, straightforward mystery novel, and this book is, in fact, something quite different. Indeed, there isn't much of a mystery here: the reader is told the identity of the victim without even opening the book (though it does take Firmino a bit longer to discover it), and the crime is "solved" with relatively little effort.
       Firmino is assisted by Dona Rosa, who runs the pension he stays at in Oporto, as well as a lawyer, Don Fernando, known to all as Attorney Loton (for his resemblance to the actor Charles Laughton). Both Dona Rosa and Don Fernando seem a bit too all-knowing and well-connected, guiding Firmino easily each step of the way, but Tabucchi can get away with this here. The crime itself involves drug smuggling and police corruption and brutality: a member of the Guardia Nacional (the National Guard) is clearly responsible for first torturing Damasceno Monteiro, and then killing and beheading him.
       Many of the characters are outsiders, from poor Damasceno Monteiro to the Gypsies to a transvestite (who witnessed the killing). Even the wealthy lawyer, Don Fernando, who comes from a family that was right at home in the old Portugal has become a rotund outsider (as well as a noble defender of the poor and outcast), huffing and puffing his way around this city of contrasts where new money and old poverty uneasily meet.
       As he files story after story (for lots of special editions about this sensational crime) Firmino is handed the evidence he needs on a platter -- including Monteiro's head. Part of the fun is that he is in a sense a pawn, with Don Fernando carefully leading him on. In order to get justice done the press must reveal the facts behind the case, information which the police does not make public. The fact that Monteiro was tortured, the fact that he had on a t-shirt providing a clue about his identity -- it is Firmino that reveals these bits of information. The affair can thus not be swept entirely under the rug, and comes to trial. The outcome there is not entirely satisfactory, but Tabucchi closes the book with the small possibility of justice being done, carefully ending the book without making it clear what will finally happen.
       Beside the engaging descriptions of Firmino's small adventures, Oporto (and its fine food), and the nicely drawn characters -- Don Fernando, Manolo the gypsy, and others -- Tabucchi also puts a lot of thought into this novel. Firmino's ambition is to write on Elio Vittorini and his influence on the Portuguese novel, and he speaks of finding Lukács' methods useful in his studies. More significantly, Don Fernando speaks extensively of being greatly influenced by the legal scholar Hans Kelsen -- having gone so far as to follow him to Berkeley and Geneva as a student. "His theories about the Grundnorm had become my obsession", Don Fernando admits.
       Heady stuff, but Tabucchi presents it fairly well. Don Fernando mentions others -- Freud, Mitscherlich, Jean Amery -- as well. And, significantly, the lawyer chose finally not to write about torture or the concept of Grundnorm, but to defend those who had suffered in courts of law, choosing action over words. He decided to "dump theory and put things into practice", and his attitude ultimately also influences his new journalist-friend Firmino.
       Tabucchi's book is an odd one. It is surprisingly gentle for one about such a horrible deed. Well-written, it is affecting and thoughtful, and it resonates lightly long after one has finished it. Recommended.

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The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro: Reviews: Antonio Tabucchi: Other books by Antonio Tabucchi under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Italian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Italian author Antonio Tabucchi lived 1943 to 2012.

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