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.
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!