Battlefield in the heart of a reluctant hero
The great Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi has created a character with a life beyond the page. By Harriet Paterson; Declares Pereira by Antonio Tabucchi Translated by Patrick Creagh Harvill, pounds 9.99
Saturday 06 January 1996
Like Requiem, Tabucchi's last book, Declares Pereira is set in Lisbon. But the year is 1938, during a sultry summer overshadowed by the activities of the Salazar regime and its Fascist police. A very reluctant hero is about to be created. "I'm old, I'm fat and I've got heart trouble," says Pereira, cultural editor of a second-rate evening paper, who has a fondness for omelettes and 19th-century French literature. He is virtually a Maupassant character, with his mediocre life, his dismal little office continually pervaded by the smell of frying, his small routines.
Although Pereira is uneasily aware of the "reek of death" in Portugal as in the rest of Europe, he shuns political involvement: "The whole world is a problem and it certainly won't be solved by you or me," he says defensively. The book describes the enormous upheaval in his hitherto undisturbed universe as he is taken to task for this negligence. "Are you living in another world?" a friend upbraids him, "for goodness' sake go and find out what's happening around you."
He doesn't have to go far. A political conscience walks into his life in the form of a young activist couple who flush him out of his ideological burrow. Both provoke obscure feelings of tenderness in him - the young man reminds him of himself as a boy, the girl is young and beautiful. Pereira helps them despite himself, for this is more than just an encounter between abstract principles. As Tabucchi once said: "I prefer a philosophy in which one perceives that the intellectual thought is linked to an emotional aspect, to the viscera, to the soul." He maintains the balance between these elements to perfection. This is a political book concerned with the dangers of fascism, highly relevant today despite the historical setting, but Tabucci has chosen to place the whole battlefield in Pereira's not very robust heart.
Dealing tactfully with a shy man, the author appears to skirt around Pereira's feelings: "On this subject he has no wish to make further statements." Yet this is deceptive, for a later phrase will suddenly reveal a glimpse of the sea-changes taking place within the bewildered journalist, whose life now seems meaningless in comparison with the belief and vitality of the young couple: "... he had been living as if he were dead ... perhaps his life was merely a remnant and a pretence." Now his chance has come to get involved, and to discover his own capacity for heroism.
Tabucchi engages with his protagonist as never before, making Pereira's awkward evolution an intensely human odyssey. Where the narrator of Requiem talks to ghosts, for example, Pereira confides his worries aloud to the photograph of his dead wife - so much more pathetic, and truer.
Tabucchi's writing has taken on a new departure. It is less abstract and cerebral, more directly concerned with character than in the past. Surrealism and dreamlike ambiguity have given way to firmer ground - to a thoroughly unified examination of the transformation of a man's heart. Tabucchi has created that rare thing, a literary character so real that he possesses a life independent of the book that temporarily framed him.
TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies
Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Autism 'caused by genetics', study suggests
- 2 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 3 Why you should never make assumptions about people with autism
- 4 Tourist films plane's descent just metres above packed Caribbean beach
- 5 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
Fifty Shades of Grey banned by Indian censors despite sex scenes being edited out
The 9 rules every Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon had to follow are wonderfully pedantic
India's Daughter: BBC Four documentary provokes outrage on Twitter
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The world's most beautiful libraries: Introducing Franck Bohbot's House of Books project
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ex-head of MI6: 'We shouldn't kid ourselves that Russia is on a path to democracy'
Most people think legal tax avoidance is just as wrong as illegal tax evasion, poll suggests
Nigel Farage promises Ukip will not 'stigmatise' would-be migrants – and says he wants 'everyone to speak the same language'