A mandala, a colourful circular design, represents unity, the idea that life is never-ending. Definitions include the idea that a mandala reinforces one’s relationship to infinity, and can also symbolise a journey through life. Taking these definitions, Antonio Tabucchi’s novel: For Isabel: A Mandala is the narrator’s search for a woman he knew long ago.
Tadeus, a writer over age 50, says he’s travelled to Lisbon to search for Isabel, a woman from his past. While he’s driven by “private obsessions, personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river,” we never quite know what his relationship was with Isabel–although there’s a clue early on. As he seeks the truth, he instead finds conflicting stories about Isabel. The book presents nine interview-style chapters, called “circles,” as various people give their stories of Isabel, or their version of events. Those who offer Tadeus information include Mónica, a school friend of Isabel, Isabel’s old nurse, Beatriz Teixeira, a photographer, a female saxophonist, a prison guard named Uncle Tom, and a dying poet called “The Ghost Who Walks.”
Over the course of Tadeus’s journey, he discovers that Isabel, who “came from an old Portuguese family that had nothing to do with Salazarism, a family in decline,” was radicalized in university. Mónica claims that Isabel had a great love affair that “was the ruin of her,” and that she was mixed up in triangular affair with a Spaniard and a Polish writer (possibly the narrator?). While Mónica says that Isabel, who lived an “underground existence,” hiding from the secret police, was pregnant and subsequently died, Isabel’s old nanny thinks she is still alive. ..
In this esoteric mystery, while the big question seems to be: will Tadeus find Isabel, other questions emerge. Narrative strands offer multiple versions of Isabel and her life. What is the truth? The narrator sets out on a journey to find Isabel, but in the end, while the journey, which becomes increasingly surreal, involves travel, it’s essentially a spiritual journey towards a central truth.
Tadeus’s search for Isabel is complicated by the fact that she became a communist and was hunted by the secret police. Was she “disappeared” while incarcerated? Now the political times have changed, but Tadeus still has to find and question former subversives who are suspicious of his motives. In the “fifth circle,” for example, Tadeus questions a photographer named Tiago who asks Tadeus what he hopes to achieve in trying to discover what happened to Isabel:
I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center,
To what end? he asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.
The photographer doesn’t answer directly, but instead shuffles around some photos. Then he has an enigmatic reply:
Do the photographs of a lifetime represent time divided among several people or one person divided into different times?
It takes a while to ‘break into’ this thoughtful, dreamlike novel, but I found myself being submerged by its elusive mystery. The conclusion is stunning, brilliant and well worth the read.
Translated by Elizabeth Harris