“It can’t be ruled out that for László, imagination was stronger than reality,” muses the narrator of “Between Generals,” the fifth in a collection of short stories by the late Italian author Antonio Tabucchi. This statement does double duty to affirm the power of “imagination.” Both the narrator and the protagonist are absorbed by possibilities—how a story might end, how one would explain themselves to a friend, where a lost romance would have led. This keen interest in one’s mental world of theories and memories is threaded throughout the collection, titled “Time Ages in a Hurry.” The book is hugely diverse in its range of characters, settings, plots, and storytelling techniques, yet its nine stories are linked not only by their underlying concern with the passage of time but also by Tabucchi’s incredible ability to represent consciousness and his care for the everyday.
In almost every superficial aspect, the stories in “Time Ages in a Hurry” are widely varied. They are peopled by Italians, Hungarians, Romanians; they are located in Berlin, Tel Aviv, Crete. Even more colorfully, the stories are told in many different ways. The plot of “Clouds” is entirely driven by the dialogue between a young girl and a middle-aged man who strike up a conversation while sitting on the beach. “The Dead at the Table” follows a man walking the streets of Berlin alone deep in thought. “Between Generals” and “Against Time” call attention to the process of storytelling itself and nearly span whole lifetimes as they do so. In their distinctness, each of Tabucchi’s pieces feels like a treasure, a small gift or sweet to be unwrapped gleefully.
But the particular selection of works is far from random. The most obvious unifying feature of the stories is thematic: Each, in its own way, explores the nature of time and memory. While the protagonists come from a wide range of professions—from writer to soldier—a majority of these men (and occasional women) are retired from their former careers. The plots, then, while focused very concretely on the present moment, depict the experience of looking back on actions and events that were carried out or took place in the past. The collection, then, may be a wide-ranging exploration, but it is nonetheless acutely driven.
Tabucchi’s time metaphors alone are arguably worth the price of admission. The main character in “The Circle,” for example, compares herself to a child holding a balloon that is suddenly punctured. The balloon seems to have been stolen, “but no, the balloon was still there, only the air had been stolen. So that’s how it was, time was air and she’d let it exhale from a tiny hole of which she was unaware?” In “Bucharest Hasn’t Changed a Bit,” a man who appears to be manifesting symptoms of dementia tries to justify to his son his refusal to take the pills he’s been prescribed. Memory, he explains, “takes the shape it wants to according to the moment.” It can’t be represented as the doctors would like: “They want to make it trigonometrical, that’s the right word, so it’s easily measured, like dice, this is reassuring for them, a die has six sides, you turn it over and can see them all, does memory seem like a die to you?”
Tabucchi doesn’t merely sum up time and memory in words—he also demonstrates their protean nature in his representations of consciousness. The action in these stories takes place largely in the mental worlds of the characters, but the tales are by no means claustrophobic. Some of Tabucchi’s most vivid scenic imagery comes from imaginary landscapes that enter a character’s mind, as when the protagonist of “Drip, Drop, Drippity-Drop” likens a dripping sound in his head to rain falling on a lakeshore. Likewise, the most meaningful conversations in the book are often those a character only imagines he might have with an unspecific figure from his life, revealing “internal monologue” to be in fact internal dialogue. Later in “Drip, Drop, Drippity-Drop,” for example, the same man considers calling a woman, possibly his half-sister, “and then he’d say: I know very well you can’t wake up someone at this hour after not calling him for three years.” Several of the short stories in “Time Ages in a Hurry” revolve around just this sort of hypothetical interaction in a nominally vague but emotionally specific relationship.
In this honest and gentle depiction of an individual’s private perception of reality exists a clear appreciation for the minute, even the mundane, which is transformed by Tabucchi’s linguistic caress into something dewy and new. In particular, his work is unafraid to engage with the contemporary. He is democratic in his description, lending fresh language to a set of car keys, a branded café napkin, the magazine in an airplane seat pocket. This was an author who understood that a great part of life is spent not doing but envisioning what one could do and remembering what one has done. “Time Ages in a Hurry” is a collection that showcases not only Tabucchi’s intelligence but also his wisdom.