There are probably as many standards for what makes a good novel as there are readers. For me, a threshold test is whether the work excels at more than one thing. Even if a book may say something important about the meaning of life, the universe and everything, it can’t satisfy if it fails to draw the reader in with its characters or story. Italian author Antonia Tabucchi certainly exceeds that standard — and undoubtedly many others — with Pereira Maintains, set in Portugal in the summer of 1938,
Tabucchi addresses some serious issues, including the age-old question of whether we should be governed by reason or emotion and where our obligations lie in an authoritarian society. Yet Tabucchi’s title character, Dr. Pereira, is like most people, an ordinary person living an ordinary life. A respected crime reporter for 30 years who now edits the cultural page of a second-rate Lisbon newspaper, Pereira still mourns the death of his wife and struggles to follow the recommendations of his physician regarding his obesity and diet. These normal signposts in an individual’s life combine with life under the Estada Novo (“New State”), a conservative, nationalistic, pro-Catholic authoritarian regime, to cause the humble Pereira to face these issues.
What really drives Pereira Maintains. though, is a narrative device that gives rise to the title. An unknown third person narrates the story and, from the opening sentence, consistently uses the phrase “Pereira maintains” to relay what Pereira said. The phrase is used for both the significant and the mundane. Thus, the first chapter opens with “Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day.” In contrast, the second chapter begins, “In the afternoon the weather changed, Pereira maintains.” The repeated usage of a phrase one would expect to see in a report on an interrogation or a formal inquiry combines with the fact we do not know who is reporting this contributes to and helps build an underlying sense of dread and disquiet. (Interestingly, when the book was first published in the U.S. in 1996 it carried the title Pereira Declares: A Testimony and used “declares” instead of “maintains,” although it and this new hardcover release by a different publisher, Edinburgh-based Canongate Books, both use a translation by Patrick Creagh.)
The story is built around Pereira’s relationship with Monteiro Rossi, recently a philosophy student, and Rossi’s girlfriend, Marta. Pereira, who talks to his wife’s picture every day, reads an excerpt from a dissertation Rossi wrote on death. He locates Rossi and invites him to write advance obituaries of living writers for the newspaper so they are available when the writer dies. Despite the fact that none is worthy of publishing, Pereira seems drawn to Rossi and Marta, almost as if they were the children he and his wife never had. He continues to pay Rossi and invite him to write more. His growing relationship with Rossi and Marta and exposure to their left-wing ideas lead Pereira to examine if and how his life is changing and to become more cognizant of what he sees daily in the society in which he lives.
Since it was first published in Italy in 1994, Pereira Maintains has been seen as a commentary on Italy under Silvio Berlusconi, first named prime minister that year. In fact, Tabucchi himself has recognized that the book, which won three prestigious Italian literary awards, is seen by Berlusconi opponents as “a symbol of resistance from within.” This is another area in which the book succeeds. Here is a book set in 1930s Portugal when fascism was predominant in Europe and the Spanish Civil War was raging yet is viewed as speaking to issues decades later. In fact, as allegory, Pereira Maintains will undoubtedly remain relevant, which perhaps suggests why it is reappearing in hardcover.
Equally impressive is Tabucchi’s crisp and concise writing. Even though Pereira also ponders the Catholic ideas of the soul and resurrection and the role of literature in society, Pereira Maintains is less than 200 pages. Few books can remain quite so readable while exploring — and allowing the reader to explore — such a variety of issues as they confront a near everyman. To say that Pereira Maintains excels at more than one thing is a serious understatement. In fact, it surpasses almost any test of first-class literature.