PEREIRA DECLARES by Antonio Tabucchi

reviewed by Fin Keegan

LIKE THE WORK of Herta Muller and Victor Pelevin, two other authors reviewed in these pages, Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Declares(Sostiene Pereira, 1994) observes the life of the individual under the strictures of State oppression: unlike them, in fact unlike most writers treating this theme these days, Tabucchi himself grew up in a democracy, in his case post-war Italy (albeit an Italy recovering from Fascism and war: the day after he was born his father cycled mother and child home through a Pisa all but destroyed by Nazi and Allied fighting). He has however steeped himself in Portuguese culture and is now a lusophile to the Beckettian degree of being able to compose high literary art–the novella, Requiem–in his adopted language.  

Antonio Tabucchi


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Dr Pereira, the eponymous protagonist–hero would be to overstate the case– is a journalist and bookworm living in the Salazarist Portugal of 1938. A widower, given to conversing with a photograph of his late wife, Pereira’s life traverses the dull poles of flat, office and café, the military regime figuring only as a sinister nuisance. Looked at unkindly, he is a quiescant journalist in the face of a regime whose latest brutalities include the murder of a carter and the sponsoring of anti-semitic violence
We meet Pereira in a typical state of passive rumination: thinking on death, for reasons he cannot divine, he finds himself calling up a student who has published an article on the subject. The student begins sending in literary pieces which are manifestly unusable in the pages of Lisboa, the paper whose Arts pages Pereira edits, but they do jog the journalist’s conscience and he begins to awaken to recognition, albeit incomplete, of the Salazarist nightmare.
Following internal revolt his next step in opposing the regime is to stand up to his caretaker (how different history might have been if we had all succeeded in standing our to our caretakers: remember the Berlin landlady in Isherwood’s Berlin Stories?) a sharp-tongued witch in the pay of the secret police. But beyond domestic rebellion he is practically powerless and like Sartre’s Rocquentin this guilt assumes external forms: “Pereira broke out in sweat, he was thinking of death again. And he thought: this City reeks of death, the whole of Europe reeks of death.”
Once he looks the journalist quickly finds the extent of his coma, when a visit to a friend who dismisses the tidal wave of fascism sweeping the continent with a shrug, saying “We’re not in Europe here, we’re in Portugal”. (Later in the novel he meets a one-legged Jewess, Thomas Mann in hand, who is fleeing the Nazis and who is under no illusions, brief though her visit has been, of the anti-semitic nature of the regime whose territory she is briefly visiting). A greater test awaits him when the young student he has befriended falls foul of the law and its thuggish enforcers and this test forms the moral substance, and denoument, of Tabucchi’s novel.
While thinking about this review I happened to see again Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation, a similar study of a quiet, morally sensitive though compacent middle-aged man whose profession brings him into direct conflict with evil, an evil moreover which expects him to participate unprotestingly–the terms in each narrative are depicted in clear self-interest. Though The Conversation is more overlaid with irony (the snooper has it backwards, remember?) and is more morally complex, it is instructively similar.
Though Antonio Tabucchi  may be familiar to English-speaking readers as a meta-fictionist, Pereira Declares falls more in the Lampedusan than Calvinoesque tradition of Italian literature. An uncharacteristically straightforward story from one of Italy’s leading novelists, it stands to the rest of Tabucchi’s oeuvre much as David Lynch’s The Straight Story stands to the rest of his work, a work of mature artistry without flashy effects. “In order to be an artist, a writer,” remarked Tabbucchi in a 1994 interview, “you must risk losing yourself.” We are lucky indeed that, like his own creations, Antonio Tabucchi is a man of his word. 

Fin Keegan

A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Fiction