Like many of Tabucchi's other works, this book is set in Portugal, and this time most of the action takes place in the more provincial northern city of Oporto. The novel opens there as Manolo the gypsy finds a headless body.
The Lisbon journalist, Firmino, working for the tabloid O Acontecimento, and a man of literary ambitions of his own, is sent to Oporto to follow the unfolding story. This book follows his investigation as he discovers the identity of the dead man, why the crime was committed and the perpetrators. Tabucchi, never one to write a simple and straightforward story, doesn't begin to do so here. Although the reader can learn the identity of the dead man without even opening the book and the crime is solved with very little effort, there are undercurrents that wend their way through every page of this novel.
Two people assist Firmino in his quest: Dona Rosa, the woman who runs the pension where Firmino stays in Oporto, and Don Fernando, a lawyer who is better known as Attorney Loton because of his strong resemblance to the actor Charles Laughton. Both Dona Rosa and Fernando seem a little too sure of themselves, a little too well-connected, to be genuine, but Tabucchi manages to pull this off without resorting to cliches.
The crime is based on an actual event that occurred in 1966, during the time of the Salazar dictatorship, although the novel is set in present-day Portugal. However, the fact that much has remained unchanged in Portugal is a point not to be missed. The crime, itself, involves drug smuggling and police corruption and brutality by the Guardia National.
The characters seem to be, for the most part, outsiders, from Firmino, himself, to the luckless Damasceno Monteiro, to the gypsies, to the transvestite who actually witnessed the killing.
Firmino, who files one story after the other regarding this crime, is finally handed all the evidence he needs on a silver platter...right along with the head of Damasceno Monteiro. It is at this moment that Firmino realizes that he is a pawn and that Don Fernando, huffing and puffing, is leading him on.
As is usually the case, the police do not make certain relevant facts public, but these are just the facts the public needs to know in order to ensure that justice prevail. It is up to poor Firmino to reveal these bits of hidden information, to make sure the whole affair is not swept under the rug and neatly forgotten. Tabucchi does not provide us with an altogether satisfactory ending, but he does hold open the small possibility that justice will be done.
This is a thoughtful novel. The characters are well-drawn, the descriptions of Oporto are engaging and the prose is smooth and even. The book is also rich in detail. Firmino's driving ambition is to write about Elio Vittorini and his influence on the Portuguese novel and he speaks of finding Lukacs's methods useful to his studies. Don Fenando speaks extensively of being greatly influenced by the legal scholar Hans Kelsen, even 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 says.
This is heady stuff, but Tabucchi handles it well. Don Fernando often speaks of others, including Freud, Mitscherlich and Jean Amery as well. Fernando, though, finally chooses to leave theory behind and opt for action instead, defending those who had suffered unnecessarily in courts of law. Don Fernando's choice of action-over-words has a profound influence on Firmino.
For a book about such a heinous crime, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is surprisingly gentle. Thoughtful and extremely well-written, it echoes lightly long after one has finished the last page.