Pereira affirms

Ivan Aguéli, Egyptian domed house, circa 1914.
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By ROBERTA BARNI*

Commentary on the book by Antonio Tabucchi

March 2022 marks ten years since the death of “Italy's greatest Portuguese writer”, as he was sometimes called in a tone between the mocking and the serious. I am referring to Antonio Tabucchi, undoubtedly one of the exponents of contemporary Italian literature. Tabucchi was a professor of Portuguese and Brazilian literature in Italy, a translator of several authors – including Carlos Drummond de Andrade – and a successful and internationally famous writer, at least from his best-known novel around the world, Sostiene Pereira, in 1994, which won him the two most important Italian literary prizes of that year, the Viareggio and the Campiello.

Tabucchi was a restless man, he lived between Vecchiano, in Tuscany, and Lisbon, where he had a house, with long periods in Paris. He even wrote an entire book in Portuguese (Requiem) and had it translated into Italian by a translator friend (but that choice would be an article in itself), fearing that, if he did it himself, he would end up writing another book. He was certainly an international writer, translated into many languages ​​and loved in many parts of the world. Towards the end of his career, his books were released simultaneously in Italy and Portugal.

On this tenth anniversary of his death, the publisher Estação Liberdade launches a new and painstaking edition of Pereira affirms. Those who still don't know the work now have a great chance to get closer to this novel, which was also the object of a cinematographic adaptation (1995) by filmmaker Roberto Faenza, and with none other than Marcello Mastroianni, in one of his last appearances on the big screen, in the Pereira, the main character. It is interesting to remember that Mastroianni, as soon as he finished reading the book, called Tabucchi and said bluntly, almost screaming: “Pereira is me!”.

Little-known information about the genesis of the novel: the name Pereira, despite Tabucchi's love for Portugal and its writers, was actually inspired by an interlude by TS Eliot entitled “What about Pereira?”[1] Once, in a newspaper article, Tabucchi confessed that Pereira regularly visited him at night. That boutade pirandelliana is no accident: Tabucchi is perhaps the most pirandellian of modern Italian writers, and although everyone commented on his love for Fernando Pessoa (whom he actually loved and translated, thus introducing him to Italy), his range of favorite authors was quite wider. Pirandello is one of the first on the list.

Tabucchi was a very prolific writer, especially of short stories, but he left us with some very interesting novels as well, and Pereira affirms perhaps the most intriguing of all. When it was released, it didn't just receive rave reviews. Perhaps due to the resounding success of the public (the book topped the bestseller list for forty weeks), there were those who accused it of a “timing opportunist”, since, in that same period, Europe was experiencing, after years, its first right-wing “reflux”. (Shortly afterwards, by the way, Berlusconi would win the Italian elections). Pereira affirms it is set precisely in Lisbon in 1938, the time of the Salazar dictatorship that emerged in parallel with the birth of other fascisms in a process that, as we know, ended up flowing into the Second World War.

Tabucchi's response to his detractors was not long in coming and came, in a pirandelli fashion, with a “note” published from, I believe, the twelfth edition of the novel (printed a few months after its release, such was the book's public success). . In it, the author narrated the visit he had received from Doctor Pereira. And the note says that a “Pereira” did exist: he was a Portuguese journalist who had taken refuge in Paris to escape the reprisals of the regime, after having written a ferocious article against the dictatorship. After the fall of Salazar, this Pereira would have returned to Portugal, but, the author tells us, no one remembered him anymore. Tabucchi, who was then in Portugal, read the obituary in the newspaper and decided to go see him to say goodbye. The writer sees his old acquaintance in a coffin, observes his figure, aged and obese, notes his physical transformations. Later, Pereira returned the visit to Tabucchi, who understood that that soul was visiting him because he wanted to have his story told.

We are in a brilliant Lisbon in the middle of summer, and Dr. Pereira, an old journalist, a widower, fat and heavy, a Catholic dissatisfied with the resurrection of the flesh, methodically edits the cultural page of the Lisbon, a small evening newspaper aimed more at jet set than the real news of that troubled moment. So much so that Pereira finds out about the news not through his newspaper, but through the waiter at his favorite café, Café Orquídea, where Pereira only eats omelets and drinks lemonade full of sugar. Pereira is a solitary man, he talks all the time with the portrait of his late wife, he seems to live in the past and to be more connected to death than to life.

Paradoxically, it was precisely his interest in death that led him to meet Monteiro Rossi, a young man of Italian origin who, along with his girlfriend, actively participated in resistance to the regime. The contact with the young man, whom he initially hires as a helper to write obituaries in advance, with the writings and ideas of Monteiro Rossi ends up making Pereira gradually abandon his indolence; his pace of life changes, and he begins to really realize what is happening around him. But Pereira, who has a heart attack, has to lose weight and, on the advice of his doctor, is going to spend a few days at a thalassotherapy clinic.

In it, you will meet another key character: Doctor Cardoso, a scholar of the theories of Ribot and Janet. Cardoso conveys to Pereira in particular the idea that we are formed by a “confederation of souls”, of which, depending on the moment, one becomes stronger – the “hegemonic self” – and thus begins to dominate all other souls. that inhabit us. At crucial moments in life, however, this hegemonic self can change, and this greatly intrigues our journalist.

Other chance encounters will also make Pereira reflect more and more, until he begins to cultivate the seed of rebellion within himself and starts to think that intellectuals like him cannot remain silent, refraining from any reaction. A tragic event will give Pereira the additional strength needed to carry out a plan whose objective, naturally, is to expose the regime and its violence. Cunningly dodging censorship, he manages to publish a revealing article on his cultural page; the denunciation contained therein spreads, and Pereira leaves for a new life.

Throughout the novel, whose subtitle is “a testimony”, we get to know the protagonist through the story of an unspecified narrator, whose catchphrase “says Pereira” permeates the entire narrative. What testimony will that be? Who is it transmitted to? Is it a simple report to a friend, a testimony before the police, a judge? We do not know. We won't even know. We do know, however, that Tabucchi, upon hearing that same question for the thousandth time, responded, heeding the words of a review: “Before the court of literature, better the court of the literary text”.[2] That is, Pereira states his version of the facts in front of the readers, and the author-narrator, who expresses himself in the third person, is the intermediary who transmits the character's testimony.

Pereira rightfully integrates the gallery of the great characters of the XNUMXth century, all of them crossed by enormous doubts, identity crises and constant uncertainties. Incidentally, as is the Tabucchian custom, we will find in the novel numerous references to other great characters of the last century. Pereira is an anti-hero who, at a certain point, realizes that he needs to change. As in an upside-down education novel (since, as we said, he is old, fat, indolent and uninterested), he takes on that courage to resist that is so positive, a change that leads him from death to life, from laziness to vitality, from silence and total strangeness to an active role in life and society.

What makes him so likable to the reader are, precisely, his weaknesses and his turn, built step by step as the different characters he casually bumps into (the only exception: his father confessor, Father António, more politicized than him, obviously) are effectively opening his eyes and inciting him to plot his action. In short, the plot tells us about a political awareness, discussing the role of the intellectual in a totalitarian society (or in any society) and, therefore, his performance in the face of a violent and prevaricating power. The vital impulse recovered by Pereira infects the reader. Perhaps that is the main reason for his success.

Tabucchi has the additional merit of having brought up a topic that, at that moment – ​​and, indeed, at any moment –, it was more than necessary to debate. It is no mere coincidence that we are talking about this book at this very moment. Since man does not change, the theme remains ever pressing and current. The writer's wisdom lies in portraying the 'political climate' through the interiority of this weak and tired character, who until then had only two interests in life: his late wife and French literature. But, of course, nobody is that simple and linear, and the protagonist's existential dimension is concrete and captivating. Pereira dives into an apparently distant reality, but, in fact, very close to any man or woman of our time.

Pereira affirms will set a new tone in Tabucchi's writings and life. The novel of the intellectual who abandons his marginality to oppose a dictatorial regime surpassed the dimension of fiction and became a symbol of civil conduct. More and more, from this book onwards, Tabucchi began to make his voice heard as an active intellectual who participated in the facts of his time and his country: whether I am an interpreter or a witness; in any case, I participate in it”.

Certainly Tabucchi managed to express here all the malaise of our time: “Perhaps I can be proud of only one thing: not being a writer who appeases consciences, because I believe that whoever reads me receives at least a small dose of restlessness, and who knows, maybe one day this restlessness will sprout and bear its own fruit”.[3]

*Robert Barni is a translator and professor of Italian language and literature at USP.

 

Reference


Antonio Tabucchi. Pereira affirms. Translation: Roberta Barni. São Paulo, 2021, 156 pages. Freedom Station Publisher.

 

Notes


[1] In “Fragments of a Prologue”, which begins the Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama (1932)

[2] Review by Giorgio Bertone.

[3] GUMPERT, C. La letteratura come enigma ed inquietudine. Interview with Antonio Tabucchi in Dedicated to Antonio Tabucchi. Cattaruzza, C. (org). Pordenone: Associazione Provinciale per la Prosa, 2001, p. 104.

 

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