‘Pereira Maintains’ is a slim book with comfortable fonts and nice spacing between lines. It is also a breezy read even though the subject matter is complex. The story is set in Portugal of the 1930s. The editor of the literary section of a newspaper meets a young man one day who wants to contribute articles for that section. Then the young man brings his attractive woman friend one day for one of the meetings. Then mysterious things start happening – the young man talks over phone and through letters and he seems to be on the run. Once he brings a supposed cousin who comes from Spain and is recruiting Portuguese fighters to fight on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil war. Strange things start happening to our hero, the editor. Suddenly his telephone is monitored and his editor-in-chief wants to look at his article choices more carefully. There is a suggestion of censorship. One day our hero the editor, who is middle-aged and fat, decides to rebel against the system.
I found ‘Pereira Maintains’ quite gripping and a breezy read. I finished it in one day. In his beautiful introduction, Mohsin Hamid asks this about the book – “How, with such serious and pressing concerns, did Pereira manage to be so difficult to put down? Put differently, how could this most literary of novels also be such a thrilling page-turner?” I couldn’t have put it better.
I found the structure of the book quite interesting. It is in the form of a confession or testament given by the main character, Pereira. The dialogues are not within quotes and there are not many paragraph breaks and one sentence continues after another. The tone of the novel is light though the themes it addresses – freedom, love, sacrifice, taking on an autocratic system – are deep. In some ways, ‘Pereira Maintains’ reminded me of the great novels of the past which also cover the theme of one small man deciding to take on an autocratic system – the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Hans Fallada.
I have one small complaint about the book though. As it is structured in the form of a testament, the phrase ‘Pereira maintains’ comes up in nearly every paragraph. Initially, I felt it was okay, but after sometime it became irritating and later it even became annoying. But I think probably Tabucchi didn’t want the reader to forget that it was a testament. So, I ignored the annoying feeling after a while and decided to experience the beauty of the book.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth.
…he doubted if the Portuguese papers reported the event the waiter was referring to. Rumours simply spread, news travelled by word of mouth, all you could do was ask around in the cafes, listen to gossip, it was the only way of keeping in touch with things, other than buying some foreign paper from the newsagent in Rua do Ouro, but the foreign papers, if they arrived at all, were three or four days old, so it was useless to go hunting for a foreign paper, the best thing was to ask.
Goodbye Father Antonio, said he, I’m sorry to have taken so much of your time, my next visit I’ll make a proper confession. You don’t need to, replied Father Antonio, first make sure you commit some sin and then come to me, don’t make me waste my time for nothing.
Have you read ‘Pereira Maintains’? What do you think about it?