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

A string of good books stretches out behind Antonio Tabucchi, the leading Italian fiction author, but this time he appears to have outstripped all his previous work, Declares Pereira rode the best-seller list in Italy for month after month and has been made into a forthcoming film with European heavyweights Daniel Auteuil and Marcello Mastroianni. Tabucchi's work translates well in all senses - there is no need for any special knowledge of Italy, nor of Portugal, his adopted second country, to appreciate this fine and sensitive novel.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices