It is often said that centuries-old literature is too remote from modern life to have any regard to current affairs. In fact, real classics are universal and timeless which allows every new generation to gain new insights from them. Moreover it’s a big mistake to believe that they are inconspicuous from a political point of view. As one of my teachers at university used to say, everything is politics – not one of us can live without making political statements all the time, be it through the choice of a read. The literature-loving protagonist of Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi learns it the hard way. The literary editor of a newspaper in fascist Portugal doesn’t expect that publishing the translations of French nineteenth-century classics will get him into trouble with the terror regime of António de Oliveira Salazar just like his young trainee Francesco Monteiro Rossi and his friend Marta who are active in the resistance.
Antonio Tabucchi was born in Pisa, Italy, in September 1943. Well-read and widely travelled, he fell in love with the work of Fernando Pessoa, Portuguese language and eventually Lisbon. Having graduated in Literature and Philosophy he became a teacher of Portuguese and literature in Bologna before taking to writing himself. In 1975 he made his literary debut with the novel Piazza d’Italia (Italy Square) which was followed by Il piccolo naviglio (1978; The Little Fleet). His first internationally noted works were the novel Indian Nocturne (Notturno indiano: 1984) and the short story collection Misunderstandings of No Importance (Piccoli Equivoci Senza Importanza: 1985), but it wasn’t until the publication of Pereira Maintains (Sostiene Pereira: 1994) that his fame as a writer was firmly established. Others of his important fiction works available in English are The Woman of Porto Pim (Donna di Porto Pim: 1983), Requiem: A Hallucination (Requiem: Uma alucinação: 1991 – written in Portuguese!), The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro (La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro: 1997), It's Getting Later All the Time (Si sta facendo sempre più tardi. Romanzo in forma di lettere: 2001), and Time Ages in a Hurry (Il tempo invecchia in fretta: 2009). In addition, he translated several works of Fernando Pessoa into Italian and published reasearch papers and essays on the Portuguese author. Antonio Tabucchi died from cancer in Lisbon, Portugal, in March 2012.
The testimony recounted in Pereira Maintains is set in Lisbon during the hot summer of 1938. The terror regime of fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar has been in power in Portugal already for several years, but Dr. Pereira doesn’t care about current affairs emphasising that he is only interested in literature not in politics. He is the newly assigned literary editor of an unimportant afternoon paper, a middle-aged widower who indulges in nostalgia of the past evoking memories of his late wife (to whose photo he keeps talking almost as if she were still alive) and their happy student days in Coimbra. Suffering from a weak heart and short breath largely owing to overweight and a lack of exercise, he leads a comfortable and quiet though also very lonely life both at home and in his editorial office far off the newspaper’s headquarters until reality in the person of the recent graduate of philosophy Francesco Monteiro Rossi begins to disturb his detached peace of mind. After having read an extract from his doctoral thesis on death Pereira offers the young man to write advanced obituaries of authors who might die unexpectedly one of these days. When Monteiro Rossi suggests García Lorca as subject of his first (trial) article, Pereira senses disaster looming over the young man, a fear that is heightened when he meets his girlfriend Marta who is much too outspoken in her support of communist ideas, and yet, he can’t escape their charms. They draw Pereira ever deeper into the terrible present and away from his passive reminiscences of a happy past. Pereira still clings to his adored French authors of the nineteenth century whose work he features on his cultural pages, but even there he is confronted with reality before soon... and driven to stand up against the regime at last.
The title of the novel Pereira Maintains already hints at the fact that it’s written in the style of interrogation records meant to prepare the case of Dr. Pereira, to show his innocence or guilt. The particular circumstances under which these records are taken, the intentions behind the testimony and its truthfulness remain entirely open, though, leaving room for all kinds of speculation. In fact, it isn’t even clear if the interrogation is reality or simply a dream. Consistent with this type of writing the language used is economical and matter-of-fact. Nonetheless there can be no doubt that the author filled the pages of the rather slim novel with heaps of subtext. The summer heat, for instance, which oppresses Pereira from beginning to end clearly represents the suffocating atmosphere in the terror regime which he is ever less ready to put up with thanks to the acquaintance with Monteiro Rossi and his friend Marta. By the end of the novel Pereira’s gradual awakening of political conscience reaches his personal point of no return which gives him the courage to set an open act of revolt against the regime, but unlike Monteiro Rossi he has settled his affairs and is ready to bear the consequences. After all, he is alone and has nothing important to lose. The novel is also full of historical and above all literary references to more or less famous authors and philosophers which make some background knowledge or annotations a useful tool for better understanding although I believe that not having either doesn’t ruin the pleasure of the read because the author often skilfully wove basic information about them into the testimony. Moreover the book is elegantly written, at least the original Italian version which I enjoyed reading very much.
For me reading Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi has been an instructive as well as pleasurable experience, but then the topic and the setting really are my cup of tea! Also one of my all-time favourite novels – Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier (»»» read my review) – is centred on the individual fate of a man under the terror regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi may have a less philosophical approach, there can be no doubt, though, that it’s an excellent novel which deserves being read.