Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Pereira Maintains

Pereira Maintains

Tabucchi is acutely aware of the implicit pact between author and reader, a pact he takes pleasure in exposing and undermining. – Charles D Klopp, ‘Antonio Tabucchi: Postmodern Catholic Writer’, World Literature Today, Vol. 71, 1997

The Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi wrote Sostiene Pereira in 1993. It was translated into English two years later by Patrick Creagh and published by W. W. Norton & Co under the title Pereira Declares. Inside it adds ‘A Testimony’ and that is how Amazon lists the paperback, as Pereira Declares: A Testimony.

Sostiene – third-person singular present tense of sostenere – suggests a defence, a supporting testimony. Judges declare people innocent or guilty whereas those charged maintain their innocence. It’s a minor point – we get the idea – but tone of this book is an important one. In it Dr Pereira states his case or to be more precise Dr Pereira has stated his case for the record and that record is now being read back to us; by whom we do not know. A court official? Perhaps. Perhaps this is a police report. Whatever it is it is a record of what Dr Pereira maintains happened to him. I imagine this is why now that Canongate have decided to reprint the book they have taken the opportunity to make this subtle change in the book’s English title.

The book opens:

Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day. A fine fresh sunny summer’s day and Lisbon was sparkling. It would seem that Pereira was in his office biting his pen, the editor-in-chief was away on holiday while he himself was saddled with getting together the culture page, because the Lisboa was now to have a culture page and he had been given the job. But he, Pereira, was meditating on death. On that beauteous summer day, with the sun beaming away and the sea breeze off the Atlantic kissing the treetops, and a city glittering, literally glittering beneath his window, and a sky of such blue as never was seen, Pereira maintains, and of a clarity almost painful to the eyes, he started to think about death. Why so? Pereira cannot presume to say.

It is an odd tone and it takes a while to get used to it but every now and then the words, “Pereira maintains,” drag you back to the reality of the moment: you are not reading a book; you are having a book read to you. Important distinction. The temptation to skip to the end and find out who was doing the reading and under what circumstances was quite strong and the more I discovered about the good doctor the less likely it seemed that he was the kind of person who would end up having to record such a statement. And why doesn’t the statement say who it was he met? Is it the accused? Or the plaintiff? Perhaps it’s the deceased. Maybe all Pereira is simply providing is a witness testimony.

Pereira Maintains was written in 1993 but it describes events that took place in and around Lisbon in 1938 beginning on 25th July. For the geographically-challenged out there can I just let you know that Lisbon is the capital and largest city of Portugal which is surrounded by Spain and for the historically-challenged can I remind you that the start of World War II is generally held to be 1 September 1939.

SalazarIn 1932 António de Oliveira Salazar became the country’s Prime Minister and continued in that role until 1968. Under his leadership in 1933 a new Constitution was approved in a false referendum, defining Portugal as a Corporative, Single Party state (that party being National Union). A fascist-leaning right-wing Dictatorial regime entitled Estado Novo was then installed. In much the same way as Germany had its Third Reich this was Portugal’s Second Republic. Salazar's program of social reform was opposed to communism, socialism, and liberalism. It was, however, pro-Catholic, conservative, and nationalistic. This dictatorship lasted until 1974 when the country entered its Third Republic.

This is the world in which Dr Pereira lives. He lives in that world but he is not of that world. He is not entirely ignorant of the fact that his country has undergone significant changes and is continuing to change and not necessarily for the better but he is more concerned with deciding what his next article will be to worry about it, let alone do something about it.

When the book was first published in Italy, however, it was not read simply as a historical novel:

The very fact that Italian history contains a fascist tradition ensured that Tabucchi's readers would understand the Salazarist regime in distinctively Italian terms, not merely as an allusion to Mussolini's dictatorship, but as an allegory of current events. Sostiene Pereira was written in 1993 and published the following year, when fascists returned to power in Italy with the election victory of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement. As Tabucchi himself said of his novel, "those who didn't love the [current EAG] Italian political situation took it as a symbol of resistance from within" (Cotroneo 1995: 105, my translation). – Lawrence Venuti, ‘Translation, community and utopia’, in L.Venuti ed. The Translation Studies Reader, p.487

Because of this the book sold 300,000 copies within its first year of publication. The English translation was nowhere near as successful. Within two years of publication of the American edition (published by New Directions) it had only sold some 5,000 copies. It simply didn’t resonate with its readers. In the article I quoted from above Venuti, a translation theorist, lays some of the blame for that at the feet of the translator, Patrick Creagh:

Creagh’s translation at once inscribed an English-language cultural history in Tabucchi’s novel and displaced the historical dimension of the Italian text.


Creagh maintained a lexicographical equivalence, but the remainder in his translation was insufficient to restore the cultural and political history that made the novel so resonant for Italian readers, as well as other European countries with similar histories, such as Spain.

Nevertheless, in a review in The New York Times, he complimented the translator on the conversational quality of his translation:

His English consists mostly of the standard dialect, but he strews it with slangy colloquialisms that make the writing eminently readable. He renders "quattro uomini dall'aria sinistra" (literally, "four men with a sinister air") as "four shady-looking characters," "un personaggio del regime" ("a figure in the regime") as "bigwig" and "senza pigiama" ("without pyjamas") as "in his birthday suit." Yet, since he also mixes in some colourful British expressions ("Bolshie," "I'm in a pickle," "natter")…

I don’t read Italian and so can’t comment other than to accept that an inevitability of translation is a trade-off. It’s like when they filmed Lord of the Flies in 1990 and, instead of English schoolboys, we have young American military cadets. It’s not a big change, especially since they shed their uniforms quickly enough, but it’s still not quite right; the 1963 film is much better. I personally had no problem with the language. There are enough foreign expressions to remind you constantly that this book is set in a strange country and the formality of address alone informs you that this all happened during a different time.

Goodbye to BerlinWhereas, in his Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood presents us with, as Orwell described them, "Brilliant sketches of a society in decay," what Tabucchi offers us is far more delicate. It is a character study essentially. Yes, you could describe the book a ‘political thriller’ but that’s not what it feels like when you’re reading it.

In his younger days Dr Pereira had been a crime reporter. Now he is old and content to work for a second-rate paper as its one and only literary editor. He has been given carte blanche by the paper’s editor-in-chief to write what he pleases but he finds himself gravitating towards translations rather than simply reprinting old Portuguese short stories. His choices seem popular enough with the public and so he’s left very much alone to get on with his job. In fact he doesn’t even work from the head office. He has acquired a little room in Rue Rodrigo da Fonseca, a dismal place with an “asthmatic fan and the eternal smell of frying spread abroad by the caretaker, a harridan who cast everyone suspicious looks and did nothing but fry fry fry.” He’s convinced she’s a police informer.

He is old, as I’ve said, though we do not know how old, a widower, his wife having died of consumption some years before (although he still talks to her photograph on a more-than-daily basis), fat and as a consequence of his obesity suffers from heart trouble and high blood pressure. His doctor has warned him directly that he is living on borrowed time. Perhaps this is why when we first encounter him he maintains he had been dwelling on death. His sedentary lifestyle coupled with his diet, which seems to consist of little more than omelettes aux fine herbes and glasses of extremely sweet lemonade, does suggest that if he were to join his wife sooner rather than later this would not be a big problem for him.

While he is mulling over death– specifically his difficulty accepting the Catholic doctrine of the resurrection of the body (why on earth would he want his current body back?) – he begins to leaf through a magazine in which he reads a reflection on death by one Francesco Monteiro Rossi, a young man who had apparently just graduated from the University of Lisbon with a First in Philosophy. What he reads impresses him and he wonders if the man might be a suitable candidate for his assistant, to perhaps prepare obituaries in advance. He locates his number in the telephone directory, calls him, arranges a meeting at an open-air dance in Praça de Alegria where the young man had been invited to sing a Neapolitan song (apparently Rossi is half Italian) and there and then hires him; he even pays him an advance for an obituary of Lorca even though he really would have preferred one on Bernanos; this is to prove the first of many concessions. When the article appears it proves quite unsuitable. He tells him:

I cannot publish it, no newspaper in Portugal could publish it, and no Italian paper either, seeing as how Italy is the land of your ancestors, so there are two possibilities: you are either irresponsible or a troublemaker, and journalism in Portugal has no place for either irresponsibility or troublemaking, and that’s that.

Rossi promises to rewrite it but Pereira isn’t having it:

I don’t know whether you are aware of it, my dear Monteiro Rossi, but at this moment there's a civil war raging in Spain, and the Portuguese authorities think along the same lines as General Francisco Franco and for them Lorca was a traitor, yes, traitor is the very word.

He’s being facetious: the festival during which he first met Rossi was a Salazarist festival; indeed he had wondered when he arrived there and saw that “a lot of people were wearing the green shirt and the scarf knotted round their necks” – an image that causes him to hang back in terror – if Rossi is perhaps “one of them.” So he thinks he knows full well what Rossi is and is not aware of. What Pereira doesn’t realise is that he’s got Rossi all wrong . . . in so many ways. That he has still to learn. In the meantime he acquiesces and gives his new assistant another chance to shine. Some days later “an article typed on flimsy paper [entitled] The Death of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti,” an Italian Futurist, arrives at his office which reads in part:

ZangTumbTumb-1914With Marinetti dies a man of violence, for violence was his muse. … An enemy of democracy, bellicose and militaristic, he went on to sing the praises of war in a long eccentric poem entitled Zang Tumb Tumb, an onomatopoeic description of the Italian colonialist wars in Africa … Among his writings is another nauseating manifesto: War: the World’s Only Hygiene. … The Italian Fascists conferred a great many [medals] on him because Marinetti was among their most ardent supporters. With him dies a truly ugly customer, a warmonger . . .

Pereira gives up reading at this point. Strangely, rather than simply bin the piece he saves the obituary in a file on which he writes ‘Obituaries’. Even stranger still, he sends Rossi payment for the piece even though it is unusable. On top of that when Rossi telephones that Saturday rather than take the opportunity to end their business relationship over the phone and at a safe distance he agrees to meet with him for a tête-à-tête – his word. He may seem like a bit of a naïve fool, allowing himself to be duped like this, but he’s perceptive enough to ask Rossi if he’s in trouble. Of course he is but refuses to discuss it over the telephone and simply says that he’ll contact him to arrange a meeting.

It is at this meeting that he learns of Rossi’s political proclivities when Rossi asks his help in finding a safe hideaway for his cousin who is in “an international brigade … fighting on the republican side [who’s] here in Portugal to recruit.” If paying a man for producing clearly inappropriate work was surprising what Pereira does next is downright amazing: he agrees to help.

Why did Pereira [do] this? … Pereira has no idea, he maintains. He only knows that clearly he had got himself into a fix and needed to talk to someone about it. But this someone was not in the offing so he thought that when he got home he would talk it over with the photograph of his wife. And that, he maintains, is what he did.

Needless to say things go from bad to worse. But I’ve said enough. Pereira records his life in almost painful detail at times, what he thought, what he said, what he might have said even; the only thing he doesn’t do is relate his dreams in detail. He is not beyond mentioning that he had a dream but that's about all:

That afternoon, Pereira maintains, he had a dream. It was a beautiful dream about his youth, but he prefers not to relate it, because dreams ought not to be told, he maintains. He will go no farther than to say he was happy, that it was winter and that he was on a beach to the north of Coimbra, perhaps at Granja, and that he had with him a person whose identity he does not wish to disclose.

What we see in Dr Pereira is a man who is waking up to the truth that is around him. As we can see from his first meeting with Rossi he’s not entirely oblivious to what’s going on but none of it concerns him. He is the literary editor of the Lisboa and that's the length and breadth of his world. It is only through a number of interchanges, first with Rossi; then Rossi’s girlfriend, Marta; a one-legged German Jewess on a train and, finally, a doctor at a thalassotherapeutic clinic south of Lisbon that he is forced to open his eyes and, as the German woman encourages him to, “do something”. What he does is open himself up to realities and possibilities.

At one point during his first meeting with Rossi he recalls one of his uncle’s oft-repeated sayings:

Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth.

Alphonse_Daudet_2The true power of the press is what is revealed to him only when he translates a story by Alphonse Daudet about the Franco-Prussian War which ends in the phrase, ‘Vive la France!’ and gets hauled over the coals by his editor-in-chief who points out that Germany is currently an ally of Portugal and his “panegyric on France” had caused offense in high places. Pereira’s defence that a) the censors had passed it and b) Portugal had, in fact, made no alliance with Germany is ignored. The editor-in-chief tells him to “use [his] nous. If there are no alliances there are at least sympathies, strong sympathies, we think along the same lines as Germany does, in home and in foreign policy, and we’re supporting the Spanish nationalists just as the Germans are.” Pereira is instructed to pass all his articles through to him for approval in future and to stick to Portuguese authors.

Truth might simply be a matter of timing. Ultimately what Pereira undergoes throughout this book is a crisis of identity. What is happening to him is explained, a little too easily I have to say, by the doctor he visits, and befriends, at the thalassotherapeutic clinic, Dr Cardoso. “Pereira was a Catholic, or at least at the moment he felt himself a Catholic, a good Roman Catholic;” he believed he had a soul but when the doctor talks about something he calls “a confederation of souls” (which derives from the French médicins philosophes) and suggests that Pereira’s choice of story was “a glimpse of a new ruling ego” he starts to look again at some of his recent decisions. This conversation happens before the Daudet story is published, before people in high places have had a chance to take offence and before he’s been hauled over the coals by his boss. At the time he can’t see the harm in it. But he soon does. And there are other, more serious consequences, he could never have imagined.

Where Pereira ends up is interesting: he has the revolutionary left as represented by Rossi on one side and the conservative right as represented by his editor-in-chief on the other. It might seem from what I’ve written so far that his choice is an obvious one but it’s not. The German woman told him to do something and so he does. He does something. He sends a message in a bottle. Tabucchi uses this precise analogy in his book, the “message in a bottle.” It presumes two things, an author and a mode of transmission; the existence of a reader is purely up to chance. It’s what all books are if you think about it, all literature if it comes to that. 300,000 Italian people found this particular bottle.

One of the hardest things in writing is to find a unique voice and Tabucchi most certainly has here. Like many modern authors he has chosen to do without quotation marks which I don’t understand or particularly appreciate. This means that many of the paragraphs end up being pages long and some care needs to be taken while reading them especially during conversations. This isn’t too bad though because all of the chapters are fairly short: 195 pages, 25 chapters – you can do the maths. Not knowing the political background is less of an issue than you might imagine but not understanding the significance of the authors he references means that some of the import might escape non-Continental readers: Pessoa, Maupassant, Lorca, Mann, Rilke, Balzac, Daudet, Eliot are all mentioned for reasons; through these authors of fiction the good doctor has everything he needs to make sense out of the world he is living in. Most readers will get the point though: Dr Pereira plays a tubby Winston Smith to Rossi’s Julia. That’s why I’m a little surprised that the first English edition sold so badly in the States. Tabucchi himself attributed his novel's Italian success to his invention of "an antihero, a common man in whom people can recognize themselves." I don’t see that as an especially Italian thing and I certainly had no problem imagining myself in Pereira’s shoes.

One of the best comparisons of this novel was made by Fin Keegan in his review of this book for The Second Circle in which he describes the books as:

An uncharacteristically straightforward story from one of Italy's leading novelists, it stands to the rest of Tabucchi's oeuvre much as David Lynch's The Straight Story stands to the rest of his work, a work of mature artistry without flashy effects.

Frequently categorized as a post-modern writer, in his earlier fiction Tabucchi demonstrates the influence of magical realist writers such as Pea and Bontempelli, as well as by authors such as Conrad, Henry James, Borges, Márquez, Pirandello, and, in particular, the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.

His characters, like Pirandello's and Pessoa's, are often endowed with a multitude of personalities and his plots are full of reversals. He is particularly effective both in suggesting a dreamlike atmosphere of mystery and ambiguity and in conveying a message of libertarian commitment. He often presents an intellectual quest, which may take the form of travel to exotic places or purely of a journey in the mind, which allows him to create enigmatic and ephemeral realities. –

That is why the comparison to Lynch’s film is so appropriate here. This is a straightforward story told in a straightforward manner. But like all seemingly simple stories nothing is ever that simple once you look closely at it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and heartily recommend it.

The book has been filmed but I couldn’t find a copy with English subtitles. I’ll still leave you with a clip to give you a feel for the character. Although Marcello Mastroianni is a fine actor I have to say I pictured Pereira a little bulkier, more like Richard Griffiths to be honest.


antonio_tabucchiAntonio Tabucchi was born in Pisa in 1943 but grew up at his maternal grandparents' home in Vecchiano, a nearby village. He is an Italian writer and academic who teaches Portuguese language and literature at the University of Siena, Italy. Deeply in love with Portugal, he is an expert, critic and translator of the works of the writer Fernando Pessoa. Tabucchi was first introduced to Pessoa's works in the 1960s when attending the Sorbonne. He was so charmed that, back in Italy, he attended a course of Portuguese language for a better comprehension of the poet.

Tabucchi's awards include the Inedito Prize in 1975, the Pozzale Luigi Russo Prize in 1981, the French Medicis Etranger in 1987, the Viareggio and Campiello Prizes in 1994, and the Nossack Prize from the Leibniz Academy in 1999. In 1989 Tabucchi was conferred the title of Comendador da Ordem do Infante Dom Enrique, by the President of the Portuguese Republic, Mário Soares. In 1996 he was made Officier des Arts et Lettres in France. Tabucchi is married to María José Lancastre, a native of Lisbon; they have two children. With her Tabucchi has also translated much of Pessoa’s work into Italian.

Tabucchi is one of the founders of the International Parliament of Writers, which protects writers and intellectuals threatened with death, persecution, or imprisonment. "It's the job of intellectuals and writers to cast doubt on perfection," Tabucchi has said. "Perfection spawns doctrines, dictators, and totalitarian ideas."

His books and essays have been translated in 18 countries, including Japan.


Dave King said...

Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth. I think that quote stuck more than any other aspect of your review. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the review, I did. I also think I would enjoy the book. But the quote seems to me to invite a good bit of thought. An unusual book, well served by your review, I thought.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Dave, and it is that quality of literature, to express truths via lies (imaginings, fantasies, call them what you will) that fascinates me so. Also its ability to say more than one thing at the same time. This is an excellent book – one that I can’t pretend for a moment excited me in the slightest but one that drew me into itself quickly and kept my interest. I would be interested to see how well it’s unusual narrative transfers to the screen although I have seen the final scenes of the film and they were not what I might have done had I been directing the piece.

Rebecca Glenn said...

Thank you for submitting this review to the Book Review Blog Carnival. Edition #58 will be posted tomorrow on The Book Frog. Don't forget to check it out!

PS I've added this one to my TBR list. Thanks for the recommend!

Ping services