December 2, 2010

Antonio Tabucchi: Pereira Maintains (Declares Pereira)

Posted in Tabucchi Antonio at 8:00 am by John Self

I was saying earlier this year that publishers rarely reissue books in hardback; so, to prove me wrong, here’s another one. This book was previously published in English in 1995 by the redoubtable and much-missed Harvill Press (yes, they’ve been incorporated into Harvill Secker; but it’s not the same, is it?). Back then, it was titled Declares Pereira, a title which has been altered for this new Canongate edition. In the US, the title is Pereira Declares: a Testimony, so we have three titles all from the same translation. (Declares gives the title a pleasing internal rhyme which even the original – Sostiene Pereira – lacked.) The only book I’d previously read by Tabucchi was the novella Requiem, so I was glad of the chance to rediscover him.

Pereira Maintains (1994; tr. 1995 by Patrick Creagh) is a slim, subtle book, quiet but trembling with suppressed energy. The US subtitle (“a Testimony”), though unnecessary, helpfully reminds the reader that this is an account being rendered by the central character, being recorded by – whom? “Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day,” it begins, and it is a meeting which will change Pereira’s life, and will lead to the present telling of his story.

We are in Portugal in 1938; Pereira is a middle-aged widower who talks to a photograph of his wife, and is in the market for new, stimulating company. He is a journalist on the Lisboa, a Lisbon newspaper, who has recently been put in charge of the new culture page. Still mourning his wife (“perhaps his life was merely a remnant and a pretence”), he reads in a magazine an extract from a university thesis on death, and decides that its author, a young man named Monteiro Rossi, will be perfect for the role of writing obituaries for the culture page. “Imagine if Mauriac were to die tomorrow, how would I manage?” However, he finds that Rossi is a politically committed young man, who produces pieces which cannot be used in the Lisboa.

Two years ago, in obscure circumstances, we lost the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. He was assassinated, and suspicion rests on his political opponents. The whole world is still wondering how such an act of barbarism could have been perpetrated.

The Lisboa prefers to remain studiously silent on the actions of Portugal’s Salazarist regime, to whom “Lorca was a traitor”. Rossi’s girlfriend Marta, equally opposed to the government and its support of Franco in Spain, observes to Pereira: “You know, I bought the Lisboa today, it’s a pity it doesn’t mention the carter the police have murdered in Alentejo.” Pereira’s embarrassed half-apology – “the editor-in-chief is on holiday … I am only responsible for the culture page” – is the first birthing pain of his own political awareness.

Pereira tries to carry on as normal – “the problem is that the whole world is a problem and it won’t be solved by you or me”, he tells Rossi – but finds himself unable to break off contact with the young couple. Perhaps it’s because Rossi is “about the age of our son if we’d had a son,” Pereira tells his wife’s photograph. He doesn’t see “how [Rossi and Marta] can influence me … they’re just two benighted romantics without a future, if anything I ought to influence them.” He longs to speak to his priest, “because to him he’d have been able to confide that he wanted to repent but didn’t know what he had to repent of.” He tries to relax by translating stories for the culture page (stories about repentance), by going to a health spa or visiting an old friend, but the subject he is trying not to think about comes up again. “Public opinion counts for nothing,” his friend Silva tells him. It’s “a gimmick thought up by the English and Americans … we don’t have their traditions … we’re a southern people, Pereira, and we obey whoever shouts the loudest and gives the orders.”

The thin thread of Pereira’s story unwinds beautifully, the recurring people and events – exchanges with his caretaker, omelettes aux fines herbes at the Café Orquídea – lulling the reader into believing that nothing will really change. Just as the regime censors dissent, Pereira’s testimony limits our knowledge of his interior torments. We are, of course, reminded that this is a partial account by the refrain – he maintains (or he declares for readers of other editions. A find-and-replace fail in the Canongate edition has left one ‘declares’ in place).

Pereira fell asleep almost at once. And he dreamt a lovely dream, a dream of his youth. He was at the beach at Granja, swimming in an ocean for all the world like a swimming-pool, and on the edge of the pool was a pale-skinned girl, waiting for him and clasping a towel in her arms. Then he swam back, but the dream went on, it was really a beautiful dream. But Pereira prefers not to say how it went on because his dream has nothing to do with these events, he maintains.

‘These events’ are revealed by the end of the book, but to whom is Pereira giving his account? The repeated riff of ‘he maintains’ conveys an attempt to persuade us that his version is true, and as such creates uncertainty. Is the uncertainty suggestive of deception, or merely the uncertainty of memory? Pereira’s story is told in the present describing the past – but what is yet to come? The reader, shamelessly engaged with our hero, can only hope when we learn that “he felt this deep yearning, for what exactly he cannot presume to say, but it was a profound yearning for a life that was past and for one in the future, Pereira maintains.”

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12 Comments »

  1. leroyhunter said,

    I loved this one John, I’d like to read more Tabucchi. Slightly unusual in that he’s Italian but writes mostly (exclusively?) about Portugal.

    It’s an interesting question about who he is “maintaining” (“declaring” in my version) to. It gives the book (to me anyway) a kind of audit quality, checking Pereira’s statements against facts or versions that are of course not available to us as readers. But who’s doing the checking?

  2. Lee Monks said,

    This does look interesting, and I’d not heard of the writer.

    I couldn’t agree more about Harvill. Pretty much perfection. I do miss those alluring, beautifully conceived editions.

  3. Imad said,

    Wonderful book…an intelligent and moving study of the subtle psychology of fascism and resistance! The film was also great…

  4. obooki said,

    I feel – one is meant to feel, I’m sure – he is giving his account under interrogation by the Fascist authorities: – i.e. how come he’s involved himself with all these foreign terrorists (the most suspicious of all crimes in a totalitarian regime); – so questioning the veracity of this whole notion of his gradual enlightenment of the world around him. – But then, I can’t really remember now how it ends?

  5. John Self said,

    Yes, I agree obooki, though I didn’t want to give too much away in the review. The book ends with Pereira carrying out the act which has led to his presumed interrogation – so the book is being narrated from the future and the past simultaneously, as it were.

    Imad, I didn’t know there was a film (or didn’t until someone also mentioned it on Twitter earlier today!). I do wonder how it would convey the form of Pereira’s testimony – perhaps by intercutting, though that would rather give the game away early on.

    leroyhunter, yes, Tabucchi is a Portugal-phile, and lives there half the year, apparently. I think Requiem, the other book of his I’ve read, was even written in Portuguese.

  6. obooki said,

    I see; – well, I suppose if that’s what I’d been assuming all the way through, it would be one explanation of why I’d forgotten how it ended. :)

  7. Biblibio said,

    Even if the new title is an improvement, I can’t shake the feeling that this just confuses readers. Perhaps the publishers believe their readers (and fans of the author) to be intelligent enough to distinguish and identify that the two books are actually the same, but I could easily see myself getting the two books mixed up and thinking that they’re sequels…

  8. Caroline said,

    The new title is closer to the original, I would say.
    Tabucchi is one of my favourite writers. I still have to read this one but I love Notturno Indiano. Judging from your review I would like this one equally. He should be wider known.
    I just finished Niccolò Ammaniti and might review it over the weekend.
    Do you know him? He is compared to Tabucchi. An amazing book. (Io non ho paura aka I am not scared)

  9. My wife is a big Tabucchi fan. Unfortunately, while we both speak Italian she is much better at reading it and so reads him in the original language. That means I have a copy of this at home (or used to, we may not still have it) but can’t read it. Oh the cruelty.

    Maintains seems better than declares for sostiene. In English maintains to me suggests something quite different to declares. If Pereira declares something it may or may not be true, there’s no real judgement in the word. Maintains though implies that he may not be believed. If I declare that I didn’t steal the apple, well perhaps I didn’t. Were you to hear though that I maintain I didn’t steal the apple it sounds to me like there may be evidence to the contrary.

    All that said, if it’s being changed from declares to maintains they should do a fresh translation, not just do a find and replace.

  10. seraillon said,

    Thanks for this. I’ve been bowled over by the few Tabucchi works I’ve read; he’s almost always successful in forcing me to recalibrate my perspective on other fine writers. I look forward to reading this one as soon as I can, and am delighted to know that some publishers are putting out previously published works in new hardcover editions.

  11. Sanjay said,

    Fascinating review, thanks. Am beginning to wonder whether I should only read novellas this year. My take on Pereira Maintains appeared in today’s The Indian Express; do take a look http://goo.gl/TcKjf

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