Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2018

Pereira Maintains, by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Patrick Creagh

Pereira Maintains was a fortuitous find on the New Books shelf at the library, and it was not until I visited Goodreads when drafting this review that I discovered it was one of the 1001 books I’m supposed to read before setting off for The Great Library in the Sky. It was there at Goodreads that I also discovered that the book was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997, and won numerous European prizes including the Premio Viareggio (1994), the Premio Campiello (1994), the Prix Jean-Monnet de littérature européenne du département de Charente (1995), the Aristeion Prize (1997) and the Premio San Clemente for Novela Estranxeira (1997).

In my copy of 1001 Books it has the title Pereira Declares, a Testimony but I like the Canongate title better.  The novel is narrated by an unspecified narrator, each chapter introduced by and peppered with the words ‘Pereira maintains’.  Someone is reporting Pereira’s testimony, but the reader never knows who the narrator is, or who he is reporting to, or the circumstances under which Pereira came to give this testimony, willingly or otherwise.  The word ‘maintains’ suggests that Pereira is sticking to his story despite pressure to alter it.  This adds to the sense of menace as the story proceeds.

1001 Books tells me that Italian author Antonio Tabucchi has spent most of his life in Lisbon where he is a professor of Portuguese literature.  His descriptions of the city are evocative, even for someone like me who’s only been there once and only for a couple of days.

On that beauteous summer day, with the sun beaming away and the sea-breeze of the Atlantic kissing the treetops, and a city glittering, literally glittering beneath his window, and a sky of such blue as never was seen.  (p.1)

Pavement paving, Lisbon

The city is literally glittering because of what I dubbed The Perilous Paving, for which Lisbon is famous.  This paving – unique to Portugal and its former colonies – can be very beautiful though often they are just laid in alternating colours.  They are made up of thousands of small squares of shiny paving stones not much bigger than the palm of a child’s hand, and there is no pretence at laying them evenly or flat.  I discovered this as soon as I ventured outside the hotel – where the surface consisted of smooth, glassy undulating waves with the occasional missing stone presenting particular peril for anyone silly enough to wear high heels. Tabucchi’s story is set in high summer, where his protagonist is often sweating in the heat as well as in fear, but these tiles must be very slippery indeed in the rain.

The beauty of the city is a mask for what 1001 Books calls the early manifestations of Salazar’s regime.  It is 1938, with Europe menaced by Hitler and the Spanish Civil War on Portugal’s doorstep.   Salazar, the conservative, nationalist dictator who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968, enforced his rule with a brutal secret police and brutally-imposed censorship.  Pereira has been a crime reporter, but now – trying to keep politics out of his life – he is working for a small independent newspaper as the editor of the new Culture page (and is in fact its only contributor).   For Pereira, living with his memories of the past, when he was young, handsome and carefree, is preferable to his lonely life as an overweight and friendless widower who has heart trouble.  Lisbon’s wonderful cafés where he dines daily are his best source of solace, but he also talks to the photograph of his dead wife.

So.  Emotionally and intellectually preoccupied by death, he makes the acquaintance by chance of a young revolutionary called Monteiro Rossi.  Naïvely, because he doesn’t at first know about Monteiro’s covert activities, Pereira hires him, using his own money, to write obituaries for great writers who might die soon. (Newspapers, apparently, usually have these obituaries at the ready, because it’s hard to whip one up overnight).  Monteiro’s obits of proscribed authors include savage critiques of the regime and calls for democratic reform – obits which are of course unpublishable because of censorship even if Pereira’s boss were not a supporter of Salazar.  But Pereira pays him anyway (usually in advance) and stuffs these incriminating pieces away in a file.

The book is only 195 pages long, and it’s hard to put down.  Why does Pereira, so keen to avoid the dangers of politics, persist with Monteiro when it is obvious that he is never going to produce anything that can be published?  Monteiro’s girlfriend is imprudent: Pereira has to ask her to keep her voice down when she starts expressing opinions in the plaza.  Monteiro’s activities bring risks to Pereira that he cannot continue to ignore, yet he never withdraws his support. The answers lie in Pereira’s conversations with his dead wife, where he mourns the child they never did have because of her frailty, and in the counsel of Dr Cardoso from the cardiac clinic, a psychologist who sees what Pereira cannot see for himself, that by being obsessed with death he is denying the present in which he can – and should – play a part.

Death is the trigger for Pereira’s gradual transformation.  A shocking denouement shatters his wilful inertia and – using the power of his pen – he abandons his translations of dead 19th century French authors and rebels.  The reader would like to cheer, but there is that sense of unease because it’s not Pereira narrating this story, it’s someone else, and we don’t know who or why.

Highly recommended in an era when truth matters and we need brave people to tell it.

Author: Antonio Tabucchi
Title: Pereira Maintains
Translated by Patrick Creagh
Publisher: Canongate, 2010, first published as Sostiene Pereira, una testimonianza in 1994
ISBN: 9781847675712
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Pereira Maintains

 


Responses

  1. I thought you called those tiles “vicious”! I’ve often quoted you but seems like I’ve been misquoting you! They certainly are perilous, I agree, albeit very attractive.

    I’ve never heard of this book or author, but that cover would have appealed to me had ai seen it. It’s beautiful. I’ve only read down to the “beautiful city” paragraph, but it sounds like a book that would interest me. The 1930s is such an interesting time, and we don’t hear much about Portugal do we?

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    • Yes, the cover is gorgeous, and although I don’t remember that particular streetscape, it is very Lisbon, with its steep hills and gorgeous old buildings in some parts of the city. I think the only Portuguese author I’ve ever read is Jose Saramago, but I’ve loved everything I’ve read:)

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      • I’ve still to read Saramago, but I have read António Lobo Antunes whom I really enjoyed. And I do want to read some Fernando Pessoa. He pops up quite a bit I’ve noticed.

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        • Antunes is one for me to chase up. Pessoa was a poet, I think.

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  2. It’s a while since I read this but I remember not being able to put it down, and that sense of menace. I was attracted by that cover too!

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    • Yes, it’s awful that sense that something terrible might have happened to Pereira…

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  3. Hope to review this in Italian lit month have read it but will reread

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  4. It seems to.me a liberal misconception that power is afraid of the truth. They seem quite able to ignore or misrepresent it most of the time.

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    • Not sure about that, Bill… China is very keen to repress some of its truths…

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  5. I read this in Lisbon a year or two back and enjoyed it, as my post at the time should show. I didn’t get on with Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, though – his foray into prose. Porto last summer was also lovely.

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    • Hi Simon, I’ve never read Pessoa, one of these days….

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  6. It’s a wonderful book (I read it back when it was Declares,,,), probably Tabucchi’s best, but still worth seeking out his other work. Indian Nocturne was also published by Canongate, and Archipelago continue to translate him.

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    • Yes, I’ve begun to realise that I need to chase up some more of this author’s work:)

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