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Antonio Tabucchi: Sostiene Pereira (UK: Declares Pereira; US: Pereira Declares)

The twentieth century is not the first time that the theme of the responsibility of the artist – to his art or to the political realities he faces – has come up. Indeed, it is a perennial theme, found in both the writings and actions of many great writers. Surprisingly, it is one that still is very much to the forefront today. At the end of the twentieth century, a case in point is Ian McEwan‘s Amsterdam. And so is this book.

The time is 1938 – both the approach of World War II and the ending of the Spanish Civil War. Pereira works for the Portuguese Catholic evening newspaper, Lisboa, as the editor of the cultural page. He is a widower (though continues to talk to his late wife’s portrait). He has virtually carte blanche on the cultural page as the editor is not really interested, so he fills it up with translations of short stories by nineteenth century French writers, such as Alphonse Daudet, Maupassant and Balzac and discussions of”safe” writers like Fernando Pessoa. He avoids anything controversial or political, e.g. the attack on the Jewish butcher that happens nearby.

Enter Monteiro Rossi, a young man whom Pereira considers suitable as an assistant to write obituaries of famous writers. Monteiro Rossi is half Italian and still has contacts in Italy. However, instead of writing obituaries of good Catholic writers, such as François Mauriac or Georges Bernanos, he produces obituaries of warmongers like Marinetti and D’Annunzio or communists like Mayakovsky. Worse still, he writes political rather than literary biographies. Rather than throw them away, however, Pereira files them away and pays the young man, who is clearly in need of money, out of his own pocket.

But Pereira, against his will, is dragged further in. Monteiro Rossi asks him to help a young man who is in Portugal recruiting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, despite the fact that, officially, at least, Portugal is pro-Franco, under the dictatorship of Salazar. Of course, it all goes wrong and Pereira is unwittingly dragged further in. Finally, he has to decide. Is he in or is he out?

Tabucchi does a superb job of portraying the Portugal of the period – a little country that knows it is little and at the edge of the key events happening in Europe but where the people are, like people everywhere, struggling to get by, despite what is happening around them. But it is his portrait of Pereira that is so good – Pereira, the detached intellectual, Pereira, the man worried about his heart condition, Pereira, the man aware but frightened of events around him, who is slowly and unwillingly dragged in, Pereira, the European.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Feltrinelli
First published in English 1995 by Harvill Press/New Directions