Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

Fun fact: this novel is listed as Pereira Declares: A Testimony in 1001 Books. The story is set in Lisbon, Portugal, in the summer of 1938. You can feel the heat shimmering off the pages as inward-looking, overweight Dr Pereira hauls himself around between his office and the Cafe Orquidea, drinking a ridiculous amount of lemonade. Dr Pereira is a veteran journalist and the editor of the culture section of a newspaper. He keeps himself to himself, ignoring the political situation in Portugal and instead immersing himself in memories, his main conversation partner a photo of his dead wife. All this changes when he takes on a young, political, student, Monteiro Rossi, as an assistant. Rossi is supposed to be writing advance obituaries of leading Portuguese literary figures but instead sends Pereira only unpublishable, left wing, political articles. Yet for some reason Pereira can’t help himself from getting more involved with him and he is slowly dragged into the real world.

As I mentioned, the novel has been recently re-translated to Pereira Maintains which I think works well, testimonial-ly speaking (that is not a word, but I think you know what I mean). The narrative is presented as a cold, report style account and frequently broken up by the phrase ‘Pereira maintains’ (eg: ‘Pereira maintains that on that occasion he forgot to pay his bill’ or Seeing him now in everyday clothes he looked younger, Pereira maintains.’) This generates a feeling of foreboding, especially as Pereira becomes more politically involved and events begin to close in on him: the style implies a police report or political statement. Pereira frequently conceals certain rememberings, thoughts and dreams because he maintains they have no bearing on his current situation so the reader is constantly jarred out of the story and reminded of the narrowness of the narrative form and how much can easily be censored.

The novel is suffused with heat and death, with the stifling heat shaping the feeling of oppression and acting as a physical restriction for Pereira, complementing the less tangible government encroachments on his freedom. The events are at times banal and repetitive but this creates a realistic account of how an ordinary person, trying to avoid trouble but not without moral convictions, can be dragged into something bigger than themselves. But seriously, I can’t tell you how many times Pereira eats ‘omelettes aux fines herbes’ at the aforementioned cafe. At one point when I lost my bookmark I was flipping to find my place and ended up picking up the story 40 pages ahead of where I meant to start reading (which is a fair chunk in a 200 page book) without noticing I’d missed a bit for ages. That’s how repetitive it is. I wouldn’t say Pereira Maintains is boring, but I couldn’t call it compelling either.

I really wanted to love Pereira Maintains. Some people I really respect had recommended it to me. But I just didn’t. I liked it fine, but as a political novel of the everyday it didn’t work nearly as well as others (like Kundera or Coetzee or Solzhenitsyn).

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