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Fiction

Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

In the sweltering summer of 1938 in Portugal, a country under the fascist shadow of Spain, a mysterious young man arrives at the doorstep of Spain. His name is Monteiro Rossi. Pereira sees Rossi as the son Pereira never had, but also, in the way of late 19th-century literature, his other self, his political conscience personified. Pereira decided to let him write for the cultural page of the newspaper Lisbon, mainly obituaries and death of famous writers. One thing led to another, and Pereira was suck into Monteiro’s cause, at the time when civil war is igniting at neighbouring Spain, the Portugis are compelled to choose sides. So begins an unlikely alliance that will result in a devastating act of rebellion.

It is a slender political novel and in that tradition Mohsin Hamid who wrote The Reluctant Fundamnetalist offers to write an introduction to this book. What intrigue me so much that I picked this book up are the following rave reviews by some of these great writers:

  • ‘The most impressive novel I’ve read for years’ – Philip Pullman
  • ‘A masterpiece’ Mohsin Hamid
  • ‘Close to being a perfect novel’ – John Carey.

So how could I give this book a miss, right?

The Italian original of Antonio Tabucchi’s novel, Sostiene Pereira (1994), has been widely translated and adapted to film, garnering major European awards. Its Portuguese protagonist – an overweight widower who edits the culture pages of a second-rate evening paper in 1938 Lisbon, under the dictatorship of Salazar – is therefore already beloved on the continent. Pereira begins by believing that self-censorship to avoid state censorship is common sense, that he need be “nobody’s comrade” and that he can convey coded messages of dissent by publishing 19th-century French stories about repentance and resistance.

At the core of the argument in this novel is whether art should be kept separate from politics. What I gather from reading the book is that it shouldn’t and going by contemporary standards art is a free expression of opinions and therefore should not be stifled.

Several other characters are similar stand-ins for Pereira’s conscience: a savvy old priest, a Jewish lady on a train and his doctor, who talks about multiple selves. This is to me the most interesting conversations that Pereira ever had in the book, a lot of which I have marked and took note of them.

Rossi brings Pereira unprintable leftwing articles, slating the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti or eulogising the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Pereira began to support Rossi and his revolutionary friends. Gradually, he understands that the times demand he be “for” one side and the novel ends with his commitment to commit a final act of rebellion.

Besides the literary references to the European great writers, what draw me the most was the discussion of the matter of the soul:

Theodore Rilbot and Pierre Janet hold a theory of the confederation of souls.[…] well it means, said Dr Cardoso, to believe in a ‘self’ as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other ‘selves’ that we have within us, is a fallacy, .. […] because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego. …[…] what we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has imposed its will on the confederation of our souls, so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes it place and acquire the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego, either by frontal attach or by slow nibbling away. – page 113 

The writing style is most unusual – it uses a third-person testimonial, withPereira”maintaining” (in another translation “declaring”) its narrative throughout. The phrase is used for both the significant and the mundane. The first chapter opens with “Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day.” In contrast, the second chapter begins, “In the afternoon the weather changed,Pereira maintains.” This suggests a statement made under pressure from opponents, yet what Pereira maintains can be the wiping of his brow, or simply, “In the afternoon the weather changed, Pereira maintains”. This absurdity both endears and unsettles.

Confusingly, I was looking through the 1000 must-read books before you die list and I remembered a book title that says Pereira Declares. I was supposing that Tabucchi has written a sequel to Pereira Maintains, so it pays to google up and found out that: Confusingly, when the book was first published in the U.S. in 1996 it carried the title Pereira Declares: A Testimony and it used “declares” instead of “maintains.” Both versions however use a translation by Patrick Creagh.

Pereira Maintains is less than 195 pages. It is very readable and if you are one that likes to read deep into every line and spot the significance political nuances in its undertone, you will love the book. I like it just enough on the mention of the multiple selves and another tick off from 1000 must-read books before you die list.

Rating: 

Paperback. Publisher: Canongate 2011, originally published in Italian in 1994 Sostiene PereiraLength: 195 pages; Setting: Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading on the 18th May 2012.

Other views: The asylum

About the writer:

Antonio Tabucchi (September 24, 1943 – March 25, 2012) is one of Italy’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. He was an Italian writer and academic who taught Portuguese language and literature at the University of Siena, Italy. Born in Pisain 1943, Tabucchi is the author of 20 novels and short story collection, 9 of which have been translated into English, together with numerous essays and plays. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, he has been awarded many prestigious prizes, including the Prix Medicies etranger for Indian Nocturne and the Premio Campiello, the Premio Viareggio and the Aristeion Prize for Pereira Maintains.

Since it was first published in Italyin 1994, Pereira Maintains has been seen as a commentary on Italy under Silvio Berlusconi, first named prime minister that year. In fact, Tabucchi himself has recognized that the book, which won three prestigious Italian literary awards, is seen by Berlusconi opponents as “a symbol of resistance from within.” This is another area in which the book succeeds. Here is a book set in 1930s Portugal when fascism was predominant in Europe and the Spanish Civil War was raging yet is viewed as speaking to issues decades later. In fact, as allegory, Pereira Maintains will undoubtedly remain relevant, which perhaps suggests why it is reappearing in hardcover.

Tabucchi died in a hospital in Lisbon on March 25, 2012, after a long battle with cancer. He was 68.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

  1. I tried this book earlier in the year and abandoned it. I actually can’t remember why I gave up on it, but it didn’t work for me.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | June 12, 2012, 5:12 pm
  2. I’ve been wanting to read Pereira maintains for quite some time, and your review convinced me to go ahead and buy it :) Thank you.

    Do visit

    Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal | June 13, 2012, 11:26 am
  3. I ve been keen on this one for a while ,but not got it yet want read it more after reading the obit of him and how involved he was in Portugal lit even thou he was Italian ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | June 13, 2012, 8:02 pm
    • Stu,
      It’s interesting isn’t it? to know Tabucchi is an Italian but lives and writes about Portugal. It was a surprise to know that he passed away last March 2012, it was news to me. I hope you have a chance to read it soon.

      Posted by JoV | June 13, 2012, 8:37 pm
  4. Nice review, Jo! I was also surprised by the reviews that you have mentioned, especially John Carey’s because he is not one to give a compliment easily. I feel that because this book came out just after the cold war, the themes of the book still resonated strongly with readers and so it got raving reviews. No disrespect to the book though – it is wonderful. I loved the conversation that Pereira had with his priest. That is one of my favourite parts of the book. I liked what you said about how the book uses the word ‘maintains’. I hate it when publishers across the Atlantic change the title of a book. Most of the time, the poor title ends up on the UK side – I remember a book called ‘Shopclass as Soulcraft : An inquiry into the value of work’ being renamed in the UK edition as ‘The Case for working with your hands : or Why office work is bad for us and fixing things feel good’. It was quite sad. It is sad that ‘Pereira Maintains’ came out with a different title in the US. There is so much difference between ‘maintains’ and ‘declares’. I don’t know what is this conflict between American and British publishers and why they think their respective readers are different and need different titles.

    Posted by Vishy | September 21, 2012, 5:41 am
    • Vishy,
      The conversation of Pereira with the Priest was the best part. I have no clue why the publishers / translators need to change a book title, it dilutes the branding and impression which do the author injustice really. I will soon see for myself how Lisbon looks like this end October!
      Thanks for dropping by.

      Posted by JoV | September 21, 2012, 8:37 pm
      • Hope you have fun during your trip to Lisbon, Jo :) Looking forward to seeing your pictures and reading your travel posts. I keep looking at the cool guy on the cover of ‘Crime and Punishment’ which you posted on the right pane here. He looks really cool :) Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book, whenever you get to read it.

        Posted by Vishy | September 22, 2012, 7:19 am
  5. Nice review! I just read this as part of Caroline’s Tabucchi Week, and had a similar response to you, although I’d give it a higher overall rating. You’re right that a lot of the conversations are as if with his own conscience – I liked that way of describing it. I thought the book was an interesting take on the struggle to live honestly in difficult times, and I loved the effect that dropping in “Pereira maintains” all the time had on the narrative voice.

    Posted by Andrew Blackman | September 22, 2012, 9:59 pm
    • Andrew,
      I think what you said rings true. There are not many contemporary novels that questions conscience and self reflect as the ones we seems to find in the old days. I like to read about books that talks about maintaining integrity and honour in difficult times, or take actions that are against the wishes of the masses but being true to self.

      I’m a little old fashion in this sense, so I do love like a good bit of gentle wisdom like those that I read in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

      Thanks for dropping by.

      Posted by JoV | September 22, 2012, 10:05 pm

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  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap! June 2012 « JoV's Book Pyramid - July 5, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

2013 Reading Challenge

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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