[I read this 1994 novel in two halves. I wrote about the first half before reading on.]
19 May 2019
The story-arc seems to be going only one way, towards hapless old Pereira’s irretrievable entanglement in political events he tells himself he wants to ignore. He tells everybody else too—or ‘maintains’ it, as he maintains something or other at least once on every page. But, when he meets an old friend during an unsatisfactory visit that he decides to cut short, he is exasperated by the friend’s blank refusal to engage with any aspect at all of current politics. Pereira, as the editor of the culture page of a humble Lisbon daily, might insist that anything political is simply irrelevant to him, but he’s kidding himself. The death of an innocent driver and the vandalism and paint-daubing of a local kosher butcher’s shop lead him to ask waiters what is going on. They can’t believe he doesn’t already know—and tell him these incidents are tiny compared to the real horrors. Isn’t he, they wonder, supposed to be a journalist? Isn’t he aware of the worsening of the grip of fascism in Portugal in this stiflingly hot summer in the late 1930s? At best he’s naïve. At worst he’s in denial.
The way Pereira maintains it, his ever-deeper entanglement is down to nothing but his own good nature and desire to help an aspiring writer. He has his own concerns, notably a near-obsession with death and his own mortality. His wife, whose photograph he speaks to every day, died some time ago and he has a serious heart condition. Quite early on in the novel, wondering about his own lack of engagement with current events, he muses on the possibility that he’s already dead. Amongst several of his favourite European writers is Pirandello, author of The Late Mattia Pascal (1904). This has a main character who, in escaping from a difficult existence, takes on a new identity—and, much more terrifyingly than Pereira now, becomes certain that he has somehow terminated his own existence.
It’s Pereira’s preoccupation with death that first brings him into contact with Monteiro Rossi, the man whose (undefined) political activities slowly appear to be bringing him into danger. He reads part of his supposed doctoral thesis on mortality—which, as soon as he meets Pereira, he admits was largely plagiarised—and makes him an ill-thought-out offer to write literary obituaries for money. It’s a farcical premise—Pereira, 30 years a journalist, is giving work to a man who is not only a self-confessed fraud, but immediately starts to cadge loans and have lunch bought for him. Pereira himself can only ‘maintain’ that from the start there was something appealing about the man, and the way a lock of hair flopped over his forehead as his own used to do. And there’s an attractive woman, the more overtly political Marta—she attempts to enlist Pereira into the ‘cause’ at the same time as she dances with him in a way that brings him a kind of joy he’d almost forgotten. In his own presentation of the facts, he’s almost willingly letting himself be seduced by a sentimental memory of lost youth. Do we believe a grown man behaving exactly like the kind of baby it’s all too easy to steal candy from?
Everything Monteiro Rossi writes for him is unpublishable. The paper that Pereira works for is conservatively Catholic, and contains nothing to ruffle the feathers of the regime’s leaders. it might be deemed expedient for any of its journalists to expound no political views at all, perhaps going as far as to pretend an entirely apolitical mindset—which is what Pereira does, maintaining all along that these are his genuine beliefs. Fine. And he spends his time writing articles about uncontentious authors, translating their work into Portuguese, or commissioning what he hopes will be politically neutral obituaries on living writers so that the ‘culture page’ he edits won’t be caught on the hop if one of them dies suddenly. As I said, farcical—whilst also dealing with an aspect of the mortality that is ever-present in Pereira’s own mindset as he presents it. Monteiro Rossi’s articles are unpublishable because he writes in exactly the opposite way from what Pereira wants, ‘from the heart,’ making contentious comments abut authors that conservative readers are unlikely to want to read about. The first time this happens, Pereira is determined—during the course of another lunch he pays for—to have it out with him. This, he maintains, is what he intended to do… but, of course, he doesn’t do it. He advances the young man more money and… you get the picture. He behaves, from first to last, like a sentimental fool born yesterday.
Do I sound exasperated? Maybe a part of the problem for me is that I’ve never been a fan of farce, always thinking to myself that it’s no wonder these characters get into such fixes if they behave like idiots. Well, maybe—but there’s more to this novel than that. Pereira, if we’ want to be generous, might be seen as a kind of Everyman. He wants to do the right thing, worries about his own mortality, and is self-aware enough to know that he doesn’t always get everything right. This story, so far, can be seen as a string of good intentions—and we all know what road is paved with good intentions. Which takes me to the next thing….
There’s a suggestion from time to time that Pereira is, some time after the events he describes, being held to account for his actions. At least twice he has mentioned how he has kept hold of documents that he can use as evidence—if I remember rightly, Monteiro Rossi’s offending articles…. But why would he need evidence? Is he being tried in a Fascist court for acts of treason, like the time he harboured a left-wing fugitive fleeing from the failed resistance in Spain on a forged passport? Yes, reader, he did this, maintaining it was a generous offer of help to a cousin of Monteiro Rossi who had nowhere else to go. You would see why a court would be interested in the things he recounts in these pages—and why he always explains them away as innocent in that way of his.
But maybe there are other ways in which Pereira might be found wanting. These are on a different plane from the investigations of an authoritarian regime, and the specifics of one man’s alleged activities in the 1930s. He is constantly contemplating the existence of the soul, having decided before the novel that he simply cannot believe in the resurrection of the body. There’s a moment of comic disgust when he looks at some rich tourists visiting on their yacht, and imagines that this could be one vision of a possible heaven, complete with their straw hats and plummy accents, and his own paunchy body. We know he never does the right thing with regard to his physical health—his one concession to his heart condition is abstinence from alcohol, a self-imposed rule that he breaks fairly often—but what about the health of his soul? Is he behaving well enough to pass muster in a more important court than any earthly one?
It was early on that he began to speculate on whether he might already be dead, and I wonder now whether the evidence he’s bringing is in some eternal court…. I don’t think I really expect this is how things will turn out but, after the bloodless coup in Portugal in the 1970s, as with the end of any other totalitarian regime, people must have asked themselves questions about resistance and complicity. Pereira is spending the novel pleading his own innocence of deliberate acts against the regime. But—how does it go?—the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. That was Edmund Burke writing as long ago as 1770, but a lot of people in the 20th Century were having the same thought. Is Pereira an Everyman because, just like most people, he does nothing—or, more precisely, pretends there’s nothing he needs to do?
There are other things, like Marta’s insistence that he is really an ‘anarcho-individualist’ and the suggestion made to him by an attractive Jewish woman on a train that he should not simply let thigs happen around him. With his flawed protagonist who seems determined to make life easy for himself, Tabucchi is raising some questions about what it might be that we should be standing up for.
Chapters 15-25—to the end
To get the predictable story-arc thing out of the way…. Yes, everything happens as you would expect, but with the well-signalled jeopardy pointers cleared aside just in time or rendered irrelevant. It’s as though Tabucchi is only having a little game with the thriller elements while he gets us to think about those big questions he raised earlier. Notably, is it OK to pretend that political barbarism isn’t really happening so you can just get on with cultivating your own garden? The answer is clearly obvious even before the question is even raised—but what to do about it? Some writers, famous ones Pereira admires—he overhears their conversation in a café—are going to leave the country. All he can do, at this point midway through the novel, is mourn their departure… but we know, somehow, that Tabucchi is setting things up so that Pereira will have to make a decision of his own. That jeopardy he’s introduced, notably his contact with known enemies of the state and, specifically, those inflammatory manuscripts of Monteiro Rossi’s that he has unwisely stored in his office filing cabinet, are a loaded gun.
What Tabucchi does is introduce characters who raise Pereira’s consciousness to a point where he can do the right thing. I’ll come back to them, but meanwhile the kindly author throws him a lifebelt so he won’t be sacrificed to a state trial that the thriller plot—and Pereira’s constant protestations of his own innocence—had been hinting at. The lifebelt is a bagful of forged passports. He is able to choose one with a photo that looks enough like him—I’m not making this up, but Tabucchi does when he has them arrive at Pereira’s flat a chapter or two before they’re needed at the end—so he can make his escape into an exile he now realises will be inevitable if he acts according to his newly raised consciousness. Which is what he does…
…but how does this born-yesterday innocent, fixated on memories of happier times, reach such a point? The moral learning curve is almost as straightforward as the thriller arc, despite the heavy philosophical weight Tabucchi brings to bear. At the midway point when I last wrote, Pereira was on his way to a thalassotherapy clinic south of Lisbon. The doctor there turns out to have a special interest in psychological matters. And he’s studied medical philosophy in France… and so on. In other words, he’s the perfect mentor for a man who is starting to realise that Monteiro Rossi and Marta are demanding more from him than he has the resources to give. Dr Cardoso tells Pereira of a recent theory of the mind, that human beings have more than one soul, and that the super-ego determines which one dominates. It sounds like hokum to me, an unnecessary extra layer, but it suits Pereira. And it seems to suit Tabucchi too, allowing him to have this new mentor offering novel way forward. Any changes in Pereira’s behaviour, in other words, are presented as part of his journey of self-discovery.
Tabucchi doesn’t stop there, as other characters come into play. The waiter, Manuel, begins to explain to him in far more detail how the current regime is supporting the Fascists in Spain—and, while not making formal alliances, supporting Hitler and Mussolini too. Meanwhile, Pereira is having his eyes opened about the ‘editor-in-chief’ whose ultra-conservatism he’s been blithely ignoring. At Dr Cardoso’s behest, Pereira has translated and published an anti-German story from the 19th Century which has got past the censors despite its final line of ‘Vive la France!’ When he hears about it, the editor calls him in, and makes it clear there are only to be Portuguese writers on the culture page from now on. It’s a body-blow to Pereira, who doesn’t rate any of the writers the philistine editor says he wants…. And the thriller plot is closing in as well, as Pereira’s calls to and from the office have to go through a switchboard. We remember those incriminating manuscripts sitting in the filing cabinet—it’s only a matter of time, surely?
But I was talking about the consciousness-raising. Dr Cardoso, Manuel the waiter, Marta—he’s had lunch with her, now with a new ‘French’ identity and worryingly skinny gamine appearance—and, finally, there’s his old friend the priest. He clinches it by explaining how the Basque clergy proved that Catholics don’t have to be yes-men and toe the conservative line. He makes it absolutely clear that as far as he’s concerned, the current government in Portugal is supporting the worst regimes in Europe. He tells Pereira to do what’s right. So now, with Pereira’s head pretty much sorted out Tabucchi can get on with the final set-piece event that will bring on the final crisis.
Monteiro Rossi arrives at the flat, exhausted and filthy. Pereira gets him cleaned up and rested, but when he tries to phone Marta’s secret number he is greeted only with suspicion…. And from now on what we get are the basic elements of a conventional thriller. Rossi is in the flat and Pereira is already under suspicion, so the heavy banging on the door comes as no surprise. Will they find the passports, which Pereira had hidden behind his wife’s photograph, confident that nobody would look there? Well… no, because it isn’t really a thriller. But the secret police do beat Rossi to death in Pereira’s bedroom, while the nasty little inspector puts the frighteners on Pereira himself. He, Pereira, still doesn’t get what kind of a word this is—he might have a guardian angel in the shape of Antonio Tabucchi, but he doesn’t know that—and he speaks to the inspector as though he has a citizen’s rights. He gets a couple of nasty blows to the face for his efforts—two more steps on his stumbling path to enlightenment.
Are we nearly there yet? Yes we are, in fact, and I’ve already mentioned the get-out that Pereira has in the shape of those passports. He needs one of them because, having finally been brought face-to-face with the horrors of living in a police state, he writes a detailed report about the atrocity that’s just taken place in his flat, and submits it for publication. Luckily, he’s learnt enough to come up with a cunning plan to get it past the censors. He phones ahead to get Dr Cardoso to agree to pose as the chief censor so Pereira can put him on the line to speak to the printer when he takes the manuscript in. As I’ve said before, you couldn’t make it up.
And that’s it. Pereira has made his stand, however small, and will no doubt make his way to St Malo, where Dr Cardoso has already told him he is moving to in the next couple of weeks. Bless. (If we’re expected to muse on the irony of them moving to a place that will become overrun by Nazis pretty soon, Tabucchi doesn’t actually make the point.)
So is it the great novel it’s presented as in the blurb, and in the praise it receives in the Introduction? I wouldn’t say so. The overlapping story arcs—the political thriller plot and the raising of Pereira’s consciousness to a point where he makes a stand—are both much too straightforward for a novel, however short. For a novel of 40,000-plus words, the convenient way things drop into place just seem too easy. Maybe the world-building is unconvincing. The regime Tabucchi presents isn’t really Portugal in 1938, more of an archetypal repressive state—which would be fine if the people in it were a little less schematically drawn. But if a serious author wants to explore far-reaching ideas of the duties of citizenship, he shouldn’t be tying them to a plot assembled from a dummies’ guide, and secondary characters spouting the right opinions on cue from a consciousness-raising kit designed specifically for the lead player.
It is an important point that’s Tabucchi is making. Writing in Italy under the corrupt Berlusconi regime, he wants to send a clear message to his readers that a laissez-faire attitude to politics is not an option, and that what we should be doing is speaking truth to power. But I don’t think that’s the point that comes across. The only viable option presented is, in fact, self-imposed exile. Those two writers Pereira met, Dr Cardoso, Pereira himself… all gone. Which isn’t the the right message at all.