Pereira Declares is a taut, intellectual thriller with a strong moral compass, published in 1995 in English by New Directions. It’s only 136 finely wrought pages, carefully paced out and reasoned with the quality of a parable, like something a second cousin of Kafka would write.
Its narrative voice is oddly formal and original. The phrase “Pereira declares” keeps repeating. The phrase both opens and closes the first of the novel’s 25 chapters. And every chapter of the novel includes the phrase somewhere. It’s as if the central character, Dr. Pereira, were giving testimony in a trial or under police interrogation. The character is bearing witness.
The setting is Portugal in 1938. Next door, the Spanish Civil War is raging and the elected Republican side is losing ground to the Fascist reactionaries led by Franco. Within Portugal, the noose is tightening around any semblance of representative democracy. Jews are being harassed. The press is being censored. And thugs representing political forces sympathetic to Nazi Germany are murdering their political opponents while the official constabulary looks the other way.
It’s ugly. And Dr. Pereira is just a lonely, older guy who wants to mind his own business. He’s a minor journalist who seems to be in a quiescent middle-aged semi-retirement. He used to be a crime journalist on major Lisbon newspapers. But now he has a job that barely seems like a job.
He’s editing the “culture page” of a minor evening newspaper, the Lisboa. Working minimal hours, he commemorates the lives of noted writers by writing puff pieces about them that appear as anniversary items on the culture page. And he translates the occasional short story, mostly from French writers. Early in the afternoons, in the oppressively hot weather of a Portuguese August, he leaves his cubbyhole office and goes home where he is likely to have a conversation with a framed photo of his wife that is displayed in the front hallway. He’s a widower.
He has an adequate amount of money. His wallet hardly ever seems to be empty. He’s overweight with a heart condition and drinks about a dozen lemonades a day loaded with sugar. He’s self indulgent and self-centered in a modest way and he loves literature. Aside from talking to his wife’s picture, he is good friends with his local priest and with the waiter at his favorite restaurant, the Café Orquidea (orchid), where he most often orders omelets aux fine herbes. His diet consists almost entirely of omelets and lemonades.
At the midpoint in the novel, he becomes friends with Dr. Cardoso, a physician who offers thalassotherapy at a seaside spa. I wanted to include the word “thalassotherapy” in this review. It refers to therapy involving seawater and in this case, seaweed. Dr. Cardoso, who has studied in France, has a theory of personality that I believe I have also encountered in Hesse’s Steppenwolf or maybe in Nietzsche.
The idea is that we don’t have one unitary identity but a collection of selves in competition with each other until a “ruling ego” imposes order on our identities. But the ruling ego can be usurped, sort of like a coup d’état, by a new ruling ego and then we become a changed person. Dr. Cardoso thinks his new friend and patient, Pereira, is due for a personal insurrection and a new ruling ego. And at the end of the novel, he has one.
Pereira is pleased that his distant but officious editor-in-chief has given him “a free hand” with the culture page. But we also know that the editor-in-chief is fond of giving the Nazi salute. So we figure Pereira has a free hand with the culture page because his chief expects the page will be insipid, which it mostly is.
Pereira’s settled life is deconstructed in steady stages when he decides to hire a young kid, Monteiro Rossi, to create a file of obits for the culture page. Pereira figures he needs to assemble a file on famous writers so when they die, his culture page can produce an impressive obituary on the spot.
But the problem is that his young writer refuses to be anodyne. Pereira agrees to an article on Lorca, assuming that his assistant will write about the great Spanish writer’s poetry and dramas. But Rossi writes that Lorca was assassinated by the police, which is unprintable.
When his assistant writes about D’Annunzio, the noted Italian writer prominent during the First World War, Pereira assumes he’ll get what he is used to, a puff piece. But instead Rossi does a wonderfully dry and ironic article, which starts off sounding like a Wikipedia entry but finishes up with a flourish, denouncing D’Annunzio for warmongering and egomania. Again, the article is unprintable.
Pereira isn’t a bad guy. In fact, I identified with him. He’s settled into a quiet end game. He loves literature. But everything in his life is designed to keep him comfortable. So his idea about books and writers is that they are an enhancement of his life but there is no reason at all that literature should ever make him uncomfortable.
Come on; be honest. Don’t most of us, or most people that you know, want to have it good and not be disturbed by anything unpleasant…especially if they are growing older and are bookishly inclined? A comfy chair, a good book, a cup of tea or a glass of wine…and if you’re lucky, civilized friends to discuss literature with? Isn’t that what many of us who frequent bookstores, read literary magazines and have more books at home than we know what to do with, want?
Antonio Tabucchi takes this inoffensive character, and step-by-step, he cracks Pereira’s shell until it busts wide open. Pereira is shaken out of his complacency again and again as he tries to accommodate his life to the lives of Monteiro Rossi and his girlfriend, Marta, who are, in contrast, living at the edge of history and fighting for their lives.
I need to praise the mordant terseness of Tabucchi’s prose. For once and for all, a thousand-page or a three-volume novel is not necessarily better than a slender work. In this novel, every line counts and you are not distracted by a writer who thinks that hundreds of pages of fine prose can spew out of their brains like Athena out of the head of Zeus. Leave epic length to the gods and to the hollow idols of our literary scene. But if you’re a human being, I recommend that you read Pereira Declares by Antonio Tabucchi.