Tabucchi Week: Pereira Maintains

Antonio Tabucchi Week

Whadda you mean, “What’s Tabucchi Week?”

It’s a week of readings, reviews and blog posts about Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, organised by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. This is my contribution, a review of Tabucchi’s short and delightful novel Pereira Maintains.

The most striking thing about Pereira Maintains is the narrative voice. It’s narrated in the third person, but the two words from the title, “Pereira maintains”, occur regularly throughout the book to qualify what we’ve just been told. For example:

In Praca de Alegria there was no sense of being in a besieged city, Pereira maintains, because he saw no police at all…

The effect of these two words is incredibly interesting. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, these two oft-repeated words make it clear that this is Pereira’s own testimony – in that way it becomes similar to a first-person account, with all the issues of limited perspective and potential unreliability that go along with that. It also raises the question of who the narrator is – who did Pereira tell his story to, and who is now telling it to us, and why?

The word “maintains” has a defensive quality to it, too. It suggests that Pereira’s account is suspect, but nevertheless he maintains that this is how things happened. It suggests that he’s being accused of something, and is maintaining his innocence. If the novel had been called “Pereira Said”, it would have been very different. “Pereira Maintains” gives a more uncertain feel to the narrative, and heightens the interest. So much can be communicated by just a couple of words, in the right hands. For me, the clever use of this narrative technique was worth the admission price alone.

Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

Apart from this, the story is told in quite a conventional, chronological style. Pereira is a middle-aged journalist who edits the culture page for a minor newspaper in 1930s Lisbon. Portugal is suffering under a dictatorship, with freedom of the press so severely curtailed that Pereira has to get his news from the waiter in his favourite cafe.

When we meet him, Pereira is obsessed with death, living in the past, cut off from the world around him and talking to the photograph of his dead wife. Things change when he meets Monteiro Rossi, a young writer and, unknown to Pereira at first, a political dissident. Pereira hires him to write advance obituaries of famous writers, but Rossi’s articles contain political views that would never get past the fascist censors. The conflict between the characters, then, is the conflict between life and death, as Rossi explains:

Dr Pereira have you heard the Spanish nationalist slogan? their slogan is viva la muertel, and I can’t write about death, what I love is life, Dr Pereira.

The book charts Pereira’s gradual attempts to return to life again, and to find a way to live honestly. In the early parts of the book, political events are in the background, and although Pereira is upset at events like the killing of a carter by the police or the fact that a Jewish woman he meets on the train is unwelcome in Portugal, they don’t affect his life – he goes on eating omelettes at his favourite cafe and publishing translations of 19th-century French literature on the culture page. When he finds that the kosher butcher has had his windows smashed and his shop covered in graffiti, he is so naive as to suggest that the man call the police. The butcher replies “You must be joking.”

Gradually, though, Pereira is drawn into Monteiro Rossi’s life, finding a hotel for his cousin who’s wanted by the police for his political activism, sending him money, conveying messages for him. As this happens, Pereira is forced to ask himself why he’s helping this young man.

He comes to believe in a theory his doctor advances, of the Confederation of Souls. According to the theory, we have not a single soul but several, all of which battle against each other but ultimately submit to the domination of a single ruling ego. His doctor believes that Pereira is seeing the overthrow of one ruling ego by another.

Interestingly, the belief seems to comfort Pereira, because it makes him feel less guilty about abandoning his older self, the one who was devoted to the memory of his wife and lived only in the past. He starts to live in the present again, and this brings him into conflict with the editor-in-chief of his newspaper and ultimately with the regime itself.

I won’t give away the ending, but it’s satisfying and quite unexpected. Overall the book is worth reading for its clever narrative voice and its theme of living in the past vs the present. I have to admit I’d never heard of Tabucchi before, so am grateful to Caroline for introducing me to him. I plan to read more.

By the way, I used the book-reviewing framework suggested in an excellent post by Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room to help me construct this review. I found her suggested questions very helpful, and took more time than usual in thinking about this review up front – I even used a pen and paper, imagine that! I think I’ll use this approach more often.

For more views on this and other Tabucchi novels, see Caroline’s compilation under her Tabucchi Week post. Unless you’re a very fast reader, it’s probably too late to join in Tabucchi Week now, because it finishes tomorrow. But I’d definitely recommend reading Pereira Maintains one day anyway. And if you want to sign up for another of Caroline’s literary blogging events, why not try German Literature Month, coming up in November? I plan to take part – should be fun!

23 thoughts on “Tabucchi Week: Pereira Maintains

  1. I really enjoyed your commentary Andrew.

    This sounds like a really great book. For whatever reason a protagonist who is obsessed with death is often intriguing to me. Though not obsessed with the subject, intelligent musings about are mortality are usually intellectually stimulating.

    Your observation about the narrative voice is also very interesting, using the phrase seems very clever and meaningful.

    1. Thanks Brian! I know what you mean – death, after all, and tends to shed light on a lot of what we consider important in life.

      Have you read Death at Intervals by Jose Saramago? I think you might like it – it’s about a country where suddenly people stop dying, and what that means. I reviewed it here. I mean, just a suggestion – not like you’re obsessed with death or anything 😉

  2. Thanks so much for the contribution, Andrew and I agree with Brian, great commentary.
    I didn’t realize you followed the approach Litlove wrote about but that’s interesting as well, I noticed it was a very different review from those I’ve read so far on your blog.
    think the title and the constant use of the two words “Pereira Maintains” have intrigued people the most and it was cunning of Tabucchi to use this. I like your interpretation a lot.
    I regret I didn’t have the time to read this novel myself but will do so very soon.

    1. Thanks Caroline! Will be interested to hear your take on the novel. Regarding the meaning of the Pereira Maintains, I wonder if it would be different if you read it in another language. My interpretation was based on the nuances of the word “maintains” in English, but “sostiene” may have different connotations, and as you or someone else mentioned, the US version uses “declares”. Since it’s used so often in the book I think it would make a difference to the interpretation.

  3. It is interesting how different people read different things into the “Pereira maintains” phrase. I never thought it could make the narrative more uncertain — rather the other way around: these are the facts, and whatever is not pure and simple fact Pereira kept for himself. But I see how it could work the way it did for you too. As I said, interesting!

    1. Yes, it is interesting – lots of different interpretations. As I mentioned above, I think the translation is a factor. I agree that there is a certainty to Pereira’s declaration of the facts, and he does leave out things like dreams which he deems irrelevant. To me the word suggested that Pereira’s views are unreliable, but that’s in English, and I don’t know Italian well enough to know what “sostiene” implies and so what Tabucchi’s intentions were. Thanks for visiting! I enjoyed reading your take on the book.

  4. Loved your review, Andrew! I think this is one of my favourite reviews of yours 🙂 I liked very much what you said about the book being structured like a testimony and how it is very similar to a first person account with its limited perspective and its potential unreliability. It is making me think about the book a little bit more now. I think I will read the book again and see whether there are unreliable aspects to the narrator there. I also liked what you said about ‘maintains’ having a defensive quality. Thanks a lot for your wonderful review!

    1. Thanks Vishy! I’m glad I made you think about the book more, and even consider rereading it! For me the voice was really interesting, like a cross between 1st and 3rd person. Really got me thinking…

  5. Andrew, you are always an excellent reviewer and a fine writer whatever you are discussing! Loved hearing your thoughts on that tricky yet enticing repetition of ‘Pereira Maintains’ which does seem so key to understanding this book. I really wanted to join in the week as I very much want to rea Tabucchi. I will anyway, and just be a bit late.

    1. Thanks litlove, that’s really kind of you, and it means a lot coming from you especially, since I think your site really sets the standard for book blogs.

      I was a bit late to Tabucchi Week too, but Pereira Maintains was a short book so I managed to get my review in before the week ended. I’ll look forward to reading your review when it comes. Do you know which book you’re going to read yet?

      1. Definitely Pereira Maintains – I own that one! But that tiny detail aside, I also think it sounds really interesting. And bless you for the compliment – you made my day.

  6. I”m excited for German Literature month. I really enjoyed this novel and I like your interpretation about the use of maintains. I thought he was trying to distance himself from politics, but I can see your viewpoint as well. I love that about novels, there is always more than one way to look at it and it makes for great discussions.

    1. Yes, I was interested in the different interpretations of the phrase, and of the book in general, in all the different reviews. Sometimes when several people review the same book it can be a bit repetitive, but not in this case!

      Looking forward to German Literature Month as well. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to participate because I’m not even sure where I’ll be living at the time, but I’ll definitely enjoy reading your posts and those of others who take part, and will hope to contribute one or two things of my own. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Andrew –

    I love the first, simple quotation that you use, because it sums up so well where Pereira is early in this story: if it’s out of sight, it must not be happening. He’s sort of an everyman who wants nothing more than to go about his business, but the events of the real world – that have dire consequences for others – keep impinging on his tranquility until he has to be involved.

    The repeated use of “maintains” is such a troubling element in the novel (for translators, too, obviously, since Patrick Creagh’s translation has also appeared under the title Pereira Declares). I think it’s such a complex device – indicating some unreliability, as you note, but also echoing the kind of language one hears in police testimony (i.e. “Defendant maintains that he was at his office until 22 hours….”), adding this whole layer to the narrative where one isn’t sure who’s narrating, who’s telling the story. I find it a bit menacing – was he arrested? Or is it more sympathetic, more of a commitment on Pereira’s part to serve as a witness to fascism – to “maintain” a defense against it? It any case, whatever this document is that we’re reading, it’s a far cry from a banal commentary on a newspaper’s culture page.

    1. Hi Scott

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I really liked how Pereira started out that way, living as so many of us do, not wanting to get involved until he has to. Then his gradual involvement in political affairs is very believable – and I’m not sure how Tabucchi managed that in such a short novel!

      Great point about “maintains” – it does remind me of a police testimony. Really casts a shadow over the ending. I didn’t want to discuss the ending in the main post, but since we’re down in the comments I think it’s OK.

      *** If you don’t want to know the ending, don’t read this next part! ***

      For me it was really clever because that phrase made me think he would be arrested in the end, but then he seems to foil the censors and make his heroic declaration and probably be on his way to live in France… and yet the use of that narrative device raises a much more menacing possibility, as you say. It stops it from being a purely happy, heroic ending and makes it something more sinister and uncertain. I hadn’t thought of that other possibility, of him testifying against fascism – that’s also a possibility.

      Thanks for a thought-provoking comment!

  8. Oo, yes, that’s an odd (in an intriguing way) third-person, a bit like a reporter. When I first saw the name of the book I thought it was strange, though it makes sense given what you’ve said. It sounds a good book.

    Pen and paper, how peculiar! I sometimes use them, though I find my reviews are more extreme positive or negative than when typing, for some reason.

    1. Yes, it’s a strange name, but makes sense after you read the first sentence and see how it’s used. Then it has more of an effect as you get through the book. I’d recommend it!

      That’s interesting about the pen and paper making it more extreme. I can sort of see how it would happen, though – my thoughts are always much clearer when I write on paper, and so it helps me to clarify exactly what I liked or didn’t like about the book and so feel stronger and more confident in my opinion. When I just start typing, it’s easier to cop out and just give a general sort of summary of the book without much real analysis.

      Do you think that might be it for you too? Just a hypothesis!

  9. Hi Andrew, that’s a great review. I also really enjoyed your interpretation of the “maintains” tool. As has been said by, I also enjoyed how Tabucchi used this to create a sense of uncertainty not just over the story, but also over his outcome, as the reader is left to wonder what happened to Pereira after his courageous act.

    1. Hi Bettina

      Thanks a lot! I enjoyed yours too, particularly the way it focused on Pereira’s character and asked questions about doing the right thing and living honestly. Each of the participants in Tabucchi Week seemed to draw something different from the book, and I liked that. Thanks for visiting!

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