Cambridge Book Review


"Pereira Declares"
By Antonio Tabucchi
Translated by Patrick Creagh
New Directions, 1996

Reviewed by Mary Sarko

Antonio Tabucchi is an Italian novelist and literary scholar who confesses a great love for Portugal and for Portuguese literature. "Requiem" (1991), the first of his two novels about Portugal, is the hallucinatory tale of a man of the 1990s who speaks with his dead wife, a dead friend, and the ghost of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. "Pereira Declares," in contrast, focuses very concretely on the events in Lisbon during 1938 when the authoritarian regime of Dr. Salazar responded to the Spanish Civil War by moving closer to Fascism.

In "Pereira Declares," which has been a major best-seller throughout Europe, the narrator is the interrogator of Dr. Pereira, an aging, overweight, cultural critic for a second-rate Lisbon newspaper. Pereira is in ill-health and converses regularly with the photo of his wife, who had died from consumption several years before. Pereira considers himself to be a good Catholic, and he does not express interest in the rise of Fascism in Europe and Portugal.

Dr. Pereira, though, is interested in death. He believes this is due in part to the fact that his father was an undertaker. He is especially concerned about the religious debate on the resurrection of the body, since he does not want to continue moving his heavy body around throughout eternity.

One day Dr. Pereira reads an essay about death that catches his eye. It is, he finds, an excerpt from a thesis written at the University of Lisbon by a recent graduate named Monteiro Rossi. Pereira decides that this young man might be just the person to help him with the newspaper's cultural section by writing obituaries for writers or anniversary articles recalling past literary events.

When Monteiro Rossi begins writing for the newspaper, however, Pereira considers the resulting articles to be unpublishable. Indeed everything that Monteiro Rossi writes addresses only the political stance of the writers he profiles, and he is especially critical of those who have supported Fascism, tacitly or otherwise.

Dr. Pereira explains to his interrogator that he does not know exactly why he continued to let Monteiro Rossi write unpublishable articles, nor is he exactly sure why he helped Rossi's cousin, a member of the International Brigade in Spain, which at the time was fighting against Fascism in that country's civil war.

But Pereira has been influenced by many people. He describes meeting a Jewish woman who is fleeing Europe, and she tells him that intellectuals must take a stand and tell the world what is happening in Europe. When he goes to discuss the political situation with his priest, the priest forcefully states he is opposed to the Fascist insurrection in Spain. Gradually Pereira finds himself being angry with those intellectuals who just want to ignore what is happening or those who want to leave Portugal. The culminating moment comes when Monteiro Rossi, who had been clandestinely trying to recruit for the International Brigade in Spain, is killed in Pereira's apartment by security agents calling themselves the Political Police.

Once Pereira finds a way to circumvent the rigid governmental censorship, an article he writes about Monteiro Rossi's murder is published in a pro-Salazar paper. He ends his article with a call for an examination of the cases in which violence has been used indiscriminately, perhaps even with the complicity of those in high places. In the climate of Salazar's Portugal, Pereira has put his own life in danger. Although he had planned to escape to France, the indications are that he has been arrested by the Portuguese authorities. Pereira's fate is not completely revealed in the novel, but the fate of Monteiro Rossi is not easily forgotten.

"Pereira Declares" is a literary suspense novel which subtly provides a panoramic view of the early moments of European Fascism. At the same time, the literary history that spans from Balzac to Marinetti, gives the reader ample opportunity to consider Dr. Pereira's question as to whether literature serves any moral or ethical purpose. As an intellectual who does not come easily to his act of courage, Pereira is a special type of hero. Tabucchi has written a sophisticated narrative in which the political commitment of writers and intellectuals is taken seriously, as are acts which are simple rather than grandiose.

A film version of "Pereira Declares" appeared in 1996, starring the late Marcello Mastroianni, in his last role, as Dr. Pereira. The film has further contributed to the popularity of the award-winning novel. In Spain there have been ten editions of "Pereira Declares" since the first Spanish translation in 1995, five of the editions coming after the film's release.

For many critics, the novel is popular because it is not only a successful suspense novel but also a sophisticated literary and historical narrative acted out by characters who are richly and convincingly drawn.

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From "Pereira Declares"

Pereira declares that the city seemed entirely in the hands of the police that evening. He ran into them everywhere. He took a taxi as far as Terreiro do Paço and there under the colonnade were truckloads of police armed with carbines. Perhaps they were controlling the strategic points of the city in fear of demonstrations or unruly crowds. He would have liked to walk the rest of the way, the cardiologist had told him he ought to take exercise, but he quailed at the thought of passing right under the noses of those sinister militiamen. . . [p. 9]

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Mary Sarko is a translator by trade, living in Madison, Wisconsin. She has spent the last few years translating poetry from the Spanish Civil War.

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