Antonio Tabucchi’s novel of pessmism and measured hope set in Fascist Portugal

Antonio Tabucchi in 1988

Antonio Tabucchi in 1988

Pereira Maintains, by the late Italian writer Alexander Trocchi, is a minature masterpiece. It is as satisfying in its form as it is morally, and contemporary literature doesn’t offer so many chances to say this. A smash success in Italy after it was published in 1994, it came out in English soon after, in a smooth and elegant translation by Patrick Creagh. Reviewers were highly positive, albeit anxious to pigeonhole the book as ‘an intellectual thriller’.

It’s about how a man makes a moral decision which in this case is also a political decision. The setting is Portugal, where under the (never named) dictator Oliviera Salazar the climate has become increasingly thuggish as the Civil War rages in neighbouring Spain. Pereira, newly appointed editor of the cultural section of his newspaper, is concerned, like most of us, with his immediate needs. He needs to find new contributors, meanwhile his overweight body is suffering in the stifling weather. Somewhat compulsively this widower of some years now finds himself in a bar ordering one sweet lemonade after another, and eating cheese omelettes, while turning over the pages of some periodical lying around.

There he reads an article about death, and you might say that the process of his decision begins to unfold. Trocchi though writes with a light touch, and the moral architecture of the novel only becomes clear at the end.

The contributor of the article on death is a young man, recently graduated. Pereira contacts this Monteiro Rossi and asks him to write obituaries for his paper. None is publishable, because each deals openly and honestly with a recently deceased artistic figure caught up in Europe’s madness. Articles attacking the Mussolini supporter and Futurist poet Filippo Tomasso Marinetti as a fascist warmonger, and defending the art and honour of the dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, recently murdered by the Nationalists in Spain, are unpublishable, but the increasingly weary Pereira finds himself so drawn to Rossi that he doesn’t object. He pays him anyway and when he meets Rossi’s attractive, politically outspoken girlfriend, there is a faint sense he is adopting Rossi as his son, and helping the couple make their way in life.

F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944). He also styled himself to look aggressive.

F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944). He also styled himself to look aggressive.

The relationship is put to the test when Rossi asks Pereira to hide a friend of his, a fugitive Spanish republican.  And then it is Rossi himself whom Pereira tries to hide, as the ununiformed and brutal political police get wind of his involvement with the anti-fascist activists.

At the beginning of the novel Pereira is reading classical French literature, and translating it for his feuilleton. He chooses stories of resistance and repentence which will cause no one offence though perhaps he might hope for their indirect influence on the present climate. Nevertheless the pressure from above comes soon enough, to pay more attention to Portuguese national poets and join the chauvinistic chorus of the Lisbon dictatorship. If Pereira is to resist then he must see that the classic intellectual resort to literature as only obliquely related to political events is not enough. (Remember that this novel was set around 1936, the year Lorca died.)

Federico Garcia Lorca

Federico Garcia Lorca

Is it this professional crisis, or is it the heat, that inclines Pereira to seek help from two parallel sources? One is his priest and the other is a kind of broad brush psychoanalysis dispensed by a sanitorium doctor who, after Pereira stays for a week, becomes his friend and confidante. It becomes clear in retrospect how these two help Pereira make his decision. The doctor talks about not one self but many selves, and how in a person it can happen that a long dominant version of the self can suddenly or gradually give way to another possible way of being. To the reader this seems to be happening to Pereira, as he confronts his suppressed fear of death. The witty and worldly priest discourages him from any political hesitation. He must know where his duty lies. Pereira himself has witnessed or heard of alarming stories of anti-semitism, revived every time he passes the local kosher butcher, and of murder. All the while he is in conversation with the photograph of his dead wife, a device which seems to combine the inevitability his own mortality with hints of the loneliness that makes him reach out to Rossi; and finally there is the sense of what his wife would have expected of him, as a good man, as he delivers his account of the days to her.

And so the violent climax of the novel unfolds which it would be a pity to reveal, for it is deftly handled and gripping. Out of it emerges a new, courageous and resolute Pereira who, having committed an act of irrevocable political suicide, quickly exits the country for exile in France.

It is possible, as some reviewers have suggested, that, since the narrative is punctuated every few sentences with the refrain ‘Pereira maintains’, Pereira has all along been giving an account of himself to his captors.

But essentially Pereira Maintains is a novel about how a man saves his soul. On my reading there can hardly be any doubt that a positive outcome is meant, and that it is an endorsement of Catholic faith. The standpoint is God’s, and the narrative turns out to be, retrospectively, what a man has to say about himself when he arrives at the gates of St Peter.

A wonderful fiction, like no other I’ve read for a long time. Tabucchi died in 2012.

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