Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why Pereira Maintains

You know the cultured, portly, lonely, sweaty, gentle, rather sad character in thrillers who is mostly indifferent to the heroes and villains alike (except to become mildly irritable when his work is interrupted by the machinations of the plot), and who ultimately bravely overcomes innate political apathy to help the heroes in some small but vital way, often resulting in fatal retribution by the villains? Yes, that man.

I've been listening to Derek Jacobi reading "Pereira Maintains" by Antonio Tabucchi, a novel that puts centre stage just such an archetypal character.

For those who've not read the book...

I'm not sure whether to recommend it. It's about the ruminations of the widowed culture editor of a small 1930s Lisbon newspaper. The story is slight: as an essentially incidental character, Pereira is inevitably mostly unaware of the romantic, political and thriller elements that swirl nearby, and we see everything from Pereira's perspective. So you might find it obscure.

But the novel provides an evocative portrait of 1938 Lisbon; it provides some insight into choices in relation to censorship and cultural resistance that can be faced by those whose country is falling into dictatorship; and it's a fascinating exercise to have this thriller archetype made central. I particularly like the way we're as much in the dark about events and characters as the cerebral but studiously unaware Pereira.

For those who've read the book...

*** SPOILER ALERT!!! ***

In the end, not only are we left in the dark about much of what has occurred and why it has happened, but we also don't know what happens to Pereira after his act of rebellion. There's no God's-eye view, no denouement in the library, no epilogue.

In one sense there is nothing to know: Pereira has fulfilled his role in the thriller by publishing Monteiro Rossi's obituary; that story is finished.

But it is natural to want to know what happens to the lead character in a story we have been reading, even if this story is a small part of a bigger story. Indeed, as mentioned above, very often there are unfortunate repercussions for this archetype, although perhaps usually only when the hero is still around to avenge the death.

Did Pereira escape Lisbon? Or is he lying dead at the bottom of a stairwell? Did the thugs make good their threat to deal with him as they dealt with Monteiro Rossi? Is he sprawled, bloodied, broken but alive, on the hard floor of a Lisbon prison, waiting in pain for yet one more in a seeming endless series of brutal interrogations. Is he sitting with Dr Cardoso at some French seaside café, eating seafood salad and sipping mineral water, while secretly yearning for the lemonades and omelettes aux fines herbes of the Café Orquidea? Or was he shot in the back of the head without warning, on his way to the train?

The work is a translation from the Italian, so I cannot be sure, but the recurring yet unexplained phrase "Pereira maintains" gives a clue. He's alive. But it's not clear whether we are hearing Pereira maintaining key aspects of his testimony in the face of an apparatchik's relentlessly sceptical interrogation, or in response to Dr Cardoso's gentle curiosity about Pereira's case as an insight into the psyche as a confederation of souls.

This ambiguity is delicious. The archetype returns to obscurity, and we are left with the feeling that we may never be sure what is happening, even at key moments in the history of a nation or in the life of a person.

Personally, I like to think we are being told Pereira's story by Dr Cardoso at a café in St Malo. Partly because Pereira's testimony is more elegiac than factual. Partly because the things Pereira maintains are more often about his awakening of conscience than about his knowledge of plots against the regime. But mostly because I'm an unreconstructed romantic. Or so I maintain.

Details of the music used in the Radio 4 reading.

Update 10 April 2012
Antonio Tabucchi has died, in Lisbon, at the age of 68. In addition to his obituary, The Guardian has printed Tabucchi's memories of how he came to write his novel about Pereira.