It was while taking advantage of an idle stretch of time in between a couple of business meetings, that I stumbled upon – happily, in hindsight – Antonio Tabucchi and Pereira Maintains. Browsing literary websites at random to kill the interval separating two intimidating calls of duty, I settled on an interview with the best-selling author Philip Pullman, that was featured on the popular book recommendations website fivebooks.com. Pullman spoke highly about Pereira Maintains, and what he had to say piqued my curiosity to no end. I purchased a copy on a sheer whim and suffice it to say it has been one of my most fulfilling investments ever made on books till date.
Pereira Maintains is set in the sultry and simmering heat of Lisbon in the year 1938. Even though the cataclysmic upheaval that is to ravage Europe is a year away, its augury is already visible in pockets of brutality. Spain is in bedlam. The nationalists of Franco are clobbering the Second Spanish Republic, with assistance from Mussolini’s Italy. Portugal has a dictator of her own in the form of the tyrannical Salazar whose regime is mercilessly cracking down on ‘rebels’ and ‘dissenters.’ However these unfortunate events are many degrees removed from the prosaic, mundane and uneventful life of Dr. Pereira, a corpulent widower who is also the editor of the cultural page of the newspaper Lisboa. Whilst not talking to the photograph of his departed wife or guzzling jars of iced lemonade with masses of sugar to the accompaniment of omelets aux fines herbes, Dr. Pereira is busy translating the works of past greats for his newspaper and also collating ‘advance obituaries’ of living legends. “When T.E. Lawrence died not a single Portuguese paper got anything out on time, they all came out with their obituaries a week late, and if we want to be an up-to-date paper we must keep abreast of things.” Dr. Pereira also has a proclivity to avoid controversies and conversations like the plague, deciding to completely stay clear of one, while keeping the other to the barest minimum.
To further the endeavour of stacking up a pre-emptive obituary listing of a phalanx of living writers, Dr. Pereira recruits as his assistant, a young but impoverished youth, Francesco Monteiro Rossi. This move up-ends Pereira’s personal life and political philosophy as seeds of absolutist awakenings begin to germinate in Dr. Pereira as a result of the mysterious workings of Rossi and his bewitchingly beautiful but equally mystical girlfriend, Marta.
The title of the book and repeated references to the phrase “Pereira maintains” makes it clear to the reader that the narrative is a testimonial. In all likelihood a police report, the slim volume is an encapsulation of Dr. Pereira’s transformation as viewed and experienced by an unrelated, unbiased and perhaps even an unaffected individual. If indeed the testimonial is that of a policeman, unamused, as well in all likelihood.
Carefully created characters typifying atonal perspectives and atypical attributes waft in and out to hasten the conversion of Dr. Pereira. He is jolted out of his political naivete in drips and trickles. But drips and trickles that are powerful enough to shake his docile ideologies to the core. A Jewish woman with a wooden leg immersed in her copy of Thomas Mann agitates Pereira’s conscience while lunching together in the dining car of a train. Ingeborg Delgado, a German of Portuguese ancestry is on a journey to Portugal to reconnect with her roots. But Senhora Delgado realises that Europe is not a place for people of her kind (she happens to be a Jew) and is in the process of emigrating to the United States. When Dr. Pereira also expresses his unqualified resentment tinged with a shade of wistfulness at the facile workings of the political regimes (including the one in his own country), Delgado chides him for his meek view. Arguing that as an intellectual he has the tools at his disposal to institute ‘change’, Delgado opines, “but surely there’s nothing one can’t do if one cares enough.”
Then there is the assertive and assuring young Dr. Cardoso. The physician in charge of Dr. Pereira’s ‘thalassotherapy’ (a treatment that comprises of seaweed baths and leisurely constitutionals)c, Dr. Cardoso influences the editor by introducing him to some radical theories and influences. Dr. Cardoso regales Pereira on the groundbreaking philosophy of ‘the confederation of souls’. First propounded by French psychologists Theodore-Armand Ribot and Pierre Janet, this theory is a conflation of medicine and philosophy. Arguing that human beings are a confederation of souls, the psychologists contended that a ruling ego would rule the roost until such time it is displaced by another rising ego, stronger and more powerful than the former. Dr. Cardoso urges Dr. Pereira to pay heed to the stirrings of his new ruling ego that is begging to be unshackled from its deep confines.
The transformation of Dr. Pereira from a political abolitionist to a fervent ideologue within the span of 194 pages is the result of some absolute magic wrought by the pen of Tabucchi. The culmination of Dr, Pereira’s metamorphosis is complete when going against the wishes of his editor-in-chief and a spineless stooge of the Salazar regime, Pereira refrains from publishing a paean to Eca da Queiros, a writer of Portuguese realism and instead busies himself with translating a novel of Louis Émile Clément Georges Bernanos was a French author, and a soldier in World War I. Even though Dr. Pereira knows that his translation will never see the light of the day, he still ploughs about it in a methodical manner.
A bone jarring encounter with the Fascist police brings the stupendous work of Tabucchi to a climactic crescendo. Pereira Maintains is as stupefying and stunning as it is slim. It is a homage to subterfuge, eulogy to conscience and a tribute to an unwavering sense of courage under pressure. More than all of these, it is also an acknowledgement of an absolute genius at his bewitching work.