Not far into the novel, Pereira, pitched as a real man telling his story to the narrator, quotes an ‘oft-repeated saying of an uncle of his, an unsuccessful writer’: ‘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.’
This gentle, subtle novel, tells the story of a middle-aged Portuguese widower waking up to the world of Europe in the 1930s and a right-wing Portuguese dictatorship. I say gentle, though the events are anything but. I say subtle, though the novel makes clear both the reader’s and writer’s responsibility to speak out against brutally enforced censorship (indeed there is an on-going assessment of authors whose literature is measured by their ability to concern themselves with fantasies that speak the truth). My reason for using those words, that suggest writing of quiet elegance, is how well Tabucchi evokes the normal, daily activities and worries at the heart of Pereira’s story. A life beset by worries over his health and his weight, a life weighed down by grief and loneliness – his closest confidant is the photograph of his dead wife – but lifted by such simple things as an omelette for lunch, sitting by a fan in the heat, or a chance to have a real discussion about ideas and opinions. His progression to revolutionary feeling and action is a slow movement of the mind that begins with a feeling of repentance.
Pereira is a journalist in charge of a new section of a middleweight evening paper, the culture pages. He reads an article that quotes from a thesis of a young man and Pereira is so touched by this article that he contacts the young man and arranges to meet him. They meet at a nationalist rally where Pereira offers him a job writing provisional obituaries for living authors. Pereira sees his own youth in the man, and wishes, not for the first time, that he and his wife had been able to have children. When this young man’s girlfriend appears his paternal feelings are heightened; he worries this young lady is no good and will prove nothing but trouble for the young man.
This tiny step out of his world of grief and into the world of the young, a world they face bravely, leads Pereira down a path of self-discovery. Via a French trained Doctor at a health spa, who encourages him to listen to the part of himself that longs to slough off his torpor, this interaction with these two young people forces him to wake from his apathy of self-absorption.
Declares Pereira is a beautiful novel of lasting relevance. What begins as a man questioning the relevance of his life becomes a novel that asks us to pose the same question of ourselves.
Next week I’ll be reading, How To Be A Public Author by Francis Plug, followed by Mockstars by Christopher Russell. It is a relief to have moved beyond the confines of reading ahead of the Man Booker 2014 announcement – despite the excellent quality of the list this year, part of my pleasure in reading is dipping into books across genres, countries, and ages – and I am very happy that Richard Flanagan received the prize. Please do keep your suggestions and comments coming. It may seem that there aren’t many on the site, but I’m glad to say I’ve had lots of interesting conversations off the back of the blog. Feel free to start the conversations here.