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sostiene pereira

20 may 2018

Sostiene Pereira, the title of Antonio Tabucchi's 1994 novel, became Pereira Maintains in English translation. An alternate title is "Pereira Declares"; or you could say "Pereira Claims"; the film version appeared in English as According to Pereira; or if you wanted to keep the odd verb-first construction, maybe "So Says Pereira." (The French title is Pereira prétend.) Tabucchi's title repeats a verbal device used over and over again in his narration. The entire story is bracketed as what the character Pereira claims. The reader wonders, with increasing urgency, why Pereira has to claim things about his activities, rather than presenting them directly.

Pereira is a senior journalist in pre-Second-World-War Lisbon. It's 1938; the Spanish Civil War is raging, one country over. The strongman Salazar sympathizes with Franco and international fascism, creating an uneasy climate for expression in the Portuguese press. For his part, though, Pereira feels insulated from the political situation; he doesn't even follow the news. A publisher has given Pereira editorial responsibility for the cultural section of a modest afternoon newspaper – and "editorial responsibility" means that Pereira writes the cultural section by himself. He does so by translating 19th-century short stories from French, and commemorating the anniversaries of the deaths of canonical writers.

Death is thus quite a bit on Pereira's mind (so he says). When he finds an essay on death written by a college graduate, he contacts the young man, Monteiro Rossi, and offers him work preparing obituaries of literary figures (in advance, of course, because you never know when, say, François Mauriac is fixing to die). Monteiro Rossi's obituaries are unpublishable, though. He uses a piece on the Italian futurist/fascist Marinetti, for instance, to go off on a left-wing rant about its subject's evil ideas. Pereira may be apolitical, even a bit naïve, but he knows what won't fly in Salazar's Portugal.

Naturally, Monteiro Rossi nudges the obliging Pereira further and further into political activism, even though the lonely, widowed, dyspeptic editor would like nothing better than to end his days in irrelevance. "Bisogna sempre seguire le ragioni del cuore" (45), Pereira advises Monteiro Rossi about writing, and it seems that Pereira listens to his own advice: "You always need to follow your heart's reasons." A politically and emotionally sympathetic physician tells Pereira that his inner selves are realigning under the guidance of a new leader.

In a conversation central to the action and logic of Tabucchi's novel, Pereira tells Monteiro Rossi's girlfriend Marta that he wants to write about culture, not report the news. "Noi non facciamo la cronaca, dottor Pereira," she answers; "… noi viviamo la Storia" (97). We don't make news; we are living history. Culture is my world, claims Pereira. Then you are an anarchic individualist, replies Marta, just like so many heroes of the Spanish Civil War. This sounds absurd. But she's not joking – and she's not wrong about Pereira.

I won't spoil how things work out (and/or don't). But I can note that Sostiene Pereira is superbly plotted, generating quiet suspense and building toward a conclusion that is anything but trite. Tabucchi even eventually explains (in an afterword) why Pereira keeps claiming things, and where he got his name. Like all great fictional characters, Pereira is both true to events, and a tissue of intertextuality.

I guess another question a reader might ask is "why Portugal?" Lisbon was Tabucchi's second home, and his family as Portuguese as it was Italian. The result is a book that represents Portugal in Italian, with occasional phrases in Spanish and French, necessitated by context. It seems odd to have a culture brought to life so richly in a foreign language, but it's just one of the many things to admire about Sostiene Pereira.

Tabucchi, Antonio. Sostiene Pereira. 1994. Milano: Feltrinelli, 2017.