One could be forgiven for thinking that Alfred Hickling, Guardian reviewer, fails to read at least some of the books he reviews. At best this is irritating but at worst it misleads potential readers so they miss out on some veritable masterpieces such as Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi [reviewed by Hickling in the Guardian Review, Saturday 6 August]. Tabucchi is a major Italian author whose book, published originally in Italian in 1994, sold 300,000 copies and was then picked up by Canongate Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and published in 2010 in Britain. It deserves better than Hickling's faulty summary.
The book is listed as a political thriller and it is, to a certain extent this, but it is more. It is set in 1938 Lisbon, six years after Salazar got into power and established a repressive, Catholic, fascistic dictatorship. Salazar was an admirer of Hitler and supporter of the Franco, anti-republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Dr Pereira, the eponymous hero, is an overweight, lonely man, a recent widower who talks to his dead wife's portrait and who eats vast quantities of omelettes aux fine herbes and drinks highly sugared lemonade. He is employed as editor of the literary pages of a low circulation Lisbon paper, the Lisboa. Censorship is of course rife and, though Pereira deplores it, he is also himself guilty of self censorship, rarely pushing the envelope, contenting himself with publishing translations of 19th century French novels. The closest he comes to rebelling at censorship is publishing the translation of a story by Daudet which includes the phrase 'vive la France' which brings down the wrath of the government and editor on him, Portugal being firmly opposed to France.
This changes however when he comes in contact with a young man, Monteiro Rossi, a university graduate with a first in Philosophy, who draws himself to Pereira's attention with an article on death and the soul which subject obsesses Pereira. He takes on Rossi to write obituaries for the files, all of which prove totally unpublishable but he continues to pay him even when he discovers Rossi is in fact a revolutionary organising volunteers and raising funds for the anti Franco International Brigade. The change is not sudden but rather is the theme of the book culminating in a catastrophe which does change Pereira's life for ever evincing a courage and commitment only hinted at to that point.
Tabucchi is a stylist in the postmodern tradition who writes with great thought if though somewhat at times enigmatic. The title is not lightly chosen as it is written in the third person in what is described as a testimonial style. The phrase 'Pereira maintains' is used continually giving the impression that one is reading a report drawn up by an interrogator - whether fascist or revolutionary we don't know. I like to think he is in the hands of the revolutionaries as, at one point, Rossi's girlfriend tells Pereira what a help he is being saying 'we of the cause will not forget it'. The book is littered with references to various authors - Rilke, Mann, Daudet, Marx, Pessoa and so on - none of whom are lightly chosen. Equally the characters Pereira meets or associates with are at times almost surreal, from the German Jewish lady with a wooden leg to the local priest, Fr Antonio, who is firmly opposed to Franco and, particularly, the waiter in his favourite cafe who supplies him with the international news on a daily basis. One day, the waiter, Manuel, in a rather perplexed tone, tells Periera that Portugal was mentioned on the news for the first time and that it was described as a dictatorship. He was genuinely upset to learn that he was living under a dictator!
Pereira Maintains has been made into a film though sadly it is only available in Italian with no subtitles. It clearly is highly regarded in Italy as representing almost a pastiche of how things were at the time of its writing just following the election of Berlusconi. Personlly I think it stands as a stark warning against the encroachment of the far right parties now growing in influence everywhere.