Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Sterling Testimonial

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


It’s been said that a book’s style and its content are two sides of the same coin. It’s a pleasure, then, to come across a work that so completely exemplifies this. Pereira Maintains, written by Antonio Tabucchi in 1994, translated by Patrick Creagh in 1995 and now re-issued by Canongate, is a novella that owes much of its haunting power to its form: that of a testimony. But who is narrating this testimony, and to whom? This ambiguity, never fully resolved, pervades the book, especially its ending.  Indeed, the word “maintains” – earlier translated as “declares” – tolls throughout the work like a bell.

Pereira Maintains is set in Lisbon in the summer of 1938, when the spectre of fascism is stalking the continent. The city is tense because of the death of a labourer, a member of the Socialist Party, at the hands of the police. As we’re told, “the country was gagged, it had no choice, and meanwhile people were dying and the police had things all their own way”.  The eponymous Pereira, a portly, middle-aged widower, editor of the culture page of Lisboa, a faint-hearted evening paper, muses: “This City reeks of death, the whole of Europe reeks of death”.

Pereira, feasting on omelettes washed down by sweet lemonade, seems content to fill pages with translations of 19th century French authors until he meets Monteiro Rossi, a radical youth, and his girlfriend Marta. Almost against his will, he begins to support them by commissioning articles as well as with small sums of money. Monteiro and Marta, engaged in anti-authoritarian activity, continue to cast their spell on Pereira, making him wonder whether his life until now has had any meaning. Bit by bit, his conscience stirs until he is compelled to act; the dramatic ending unspools like the finale of a Costa Gavras film.

The book is rife with ironies and dualities. At one point, to justify Lisboa’s turning a blind eye to the country’s condition, Pereira says, “We are a free and independent paper and do not wish to meddle in politics”. Tabucchi also takes care to work in oppositions: between the resigned Pereira and the radical Monteiro; between Pereira’s priest and his doctor; between those who write romances and those more socially engaged. Most importantly, Tabucchi asks us to dwell on the many intersections between art and politics, on whether the former should exist separate from the latter.

At one point, Pereira recalls his uncle saying, “Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself with only fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth”. Pereira Maintains expresses the truth, as Mohsin Hamid writes in his introduction, by conjuring “out of its small hat a vast and touching sense of the humane”. Remarkably, it does all this in less than 200 pages.

No comments: