Pereira Maintains, Antonio Tabucchi, Canongate Books, 195pp, £14.99 (hardback)
‘It isn’t easy to do one’s best in a country like this for a person like me, you know, I’m not Thomas Mann, I’m only the obscure editor of the culture page of a second-rate evening paper.’ The defence of culture is one that Tabucchi’s protagonist repeats, in variations, throughout the novel. Dr. Pereira’s remark on Mann is a response to the challenge of a lone Jewish woman he meets during a train journey who is reading a novel by the German writer: ‘you’re an intellectual, tell people what’s going on in Europe, tell them your honest opinion, just get on and do something’, she says. Senhora Delgado introduces herself as of German and Portuguese ancestry; she is awaiting her visa to emigrate to America from a Europe that ‘in these times is not a suitable place for people of my race’. In 1938, the year the novel is set, Portuguese and Italian brigades are fighting on the side of General Franco against the republicans in Spain, and Hitler’s Germany is an unofficial political ally of the Salazar government. The German novelist and essayist, Thomas Mann, would later write of Fascism in Last Essays as ‘a mousetrap for the masses, as the most shameless rabble-rousing and the lowest form of cultural vulgarism history has ever known’.
In 1926, a military coup overthrew the Republican regime in Portugal, and António de Oliveira Salazar became Prime Minister in 1932, setting up his New State, the authoritarian regime that he would lead until 1968. Besides censorship, the key to the Salazar government’s success was fascist propaganda, for which a department was set up in 1933; the objective wasto co-opt the cultural elite: writers and artists received prizes, commissions and jobs. In Fascism and Resistance in Portugal, David L. Raby writes that from 1933 onwards, ‘The suppression of political parties and free trade unions, the systematic use of censorship and of the political police, the development of typically fascist institutions … all of this created a thoroughly repressive atmosphere and a comprehensive system of control over the population’.
It is the summer of 1938, a few months before a settlement was reached by Nazi Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy that permitted German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, and Dr. Pereira maintains that politics do not interest him, yet he is troubled by the smell of death and the heat: ‘the whole of Europe reeks of death,’ he reflects. Ever since his wife’s death several years earlier, Pereira ‘had been living as if he were dead’ and wonders if his life ‘was merely a remnant and a pretence’. Through a preoccupation with death and the soul, and anxiety about his physical decline and the ‘flesh weighing him down’, Pereira inadvertently becomes involved with three young dissidents. One of them is a philosophy graduate and son of a Portuguese mother and Italian father, Monteiro Rossi, who agrees to write obituaries for Pereira’s culture page although he has had enough of death, and confesses, ‘what I love is life’. The other is Rossi’s mysterious companion, a copper-haired young woman, Marta, with whom on the first encounter Pereira dances a waltz ‘almost in rapture, as if his paunch and all his fat had vanished by magic’. Finally, the French-trained dietician of a clinic, Dr. Cardoso who treats Pereira, making explicit the interplay between the body and the psyche, encourages him to consider that he has not one soul, but a confederation of souls/selves, and that the young people who think of ‘nothing but politics’ are right. ‘But if they were right my life wouldn’t make any sense, it wouldn’t make any sense to have read literature at Coimbra and always thought that literature was the most important thing in the world’, Pereira counters. Thus, the central theme of the novel is laid bare – the practical and psychological need to challenge the notion of rigid oppositions: old age and youth; culture and politics; the mind and the flesh; racial purity and mixed ancestry; words and actions; and the life of memories, and the present – the need to act now.
Pereira Maintains is a slender novel by one of Italy’s most prolific contemporary authors. Events move quickly, echoing the urgency of the situation and Pereira’s mounting political consciousness. As suggested by the novel’s title, the narrative is a testimony of what the protagonist ‘maintains’ he was thinking, saying and doing in the lead-up to his final act of rebellion. His acts come to belie his verbal protestations: ‘I am a journalist and my job is culture … I think only about myself and culture, and that is my world.’ In the 1930s, founder of the Portuguese literary group and magazine Seara Nova, Raul Proença, wrote that ‘all intellectuals worthy of their name should intervene in political life under specific historical circumstances’. The novel alludes to and even uses contemporaneous Portuguese novelists as minor characters: Aquilino Ribeiro is overheard in a café confirming his imminent exile, although by the 1930s he had already fled to France having fought against the fascist dictatorship of Salazar in the late 1920s which had tried to censor or ban several of his books. In one of the novel’s most telling exchanges, Pereira’s confessor and confidant, Father Antonio, says, ‘I am a churchman and have to obey my religious superiors, but you are free to make personal decisions, even though you are a Catholic’. Just as the Basque clergy sided with the Republicans after the bombing of Guernica in 1937, in Portugal there would later be conflict between conservative clergy and Catholics who joined socialists in democratic opposition to the regime.
The novel has an introduction by Pakistani-British writer, Mohsin Hamid, who, in answer to his own question as to how Pereira Maintains managed to achieve so much with so few words, concludes that the brevity ‘gave the novel a lightness that counter-balanced the weight of its subject matter’. The intimations of profoundly-felt emotions of love and pity in Dr. Pereira, a character so reserved, make this a moving intellectual thriller.