Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

 It can be surprisingly difficult to find good defences of free expression in literature, especially in modern literature. Possibly because free speech is taken for granted and is not considered to be under threat. This is of course a false belief. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of history will know that liberty is always under threat. And, with the growth of the European and American ultranationalist far right and of militant Islam in the past two decades, we may come to a point when freedom needs to be defended as it did in the 1930s. For those who feel like joining the struggle, I would recommend reading Antonio Tabucchi's masterpiece Pereira Maintains, the story of a journalist struggling against fascist oppression.

 Pereira Maintains is set in Lisbon in 1938. This was the period of Antonio Salazar's fascist Estado Novo. The story is also set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, in which Portugal was involved on General Franco's side. It tells the story of the widower Pereira, the editor of the culture page of a Catholic evening paper, the Lisboa. Pereira's life, which is spent mostly worrying about death, is changed when he hires a young philosophy graduate called Monteiro Rossi as his assistant, with the responsibility of writing obituaries for famous writers in advance. Instead of writing bland obituaries for approved writers, however, he writes passionate denunciations of controversial fascist writers. Articles of this type are unpublishable in Salazar's Portugal but, instead of firing him, Pereira continues to pay Monteiro Rossi and keeps his articles. The father-son relationship between the childless Pereira and the orphan Monteiro Rossi takes both of them on an interesting philosophical and political journey, ending in Pereira, who previously had quietly tolerated Salazar, realising that there is something wrong in Portugal and that he must do something about it.

 One of the most notable aspects of the book is the quick alternation in narrative between a third-person view and a stream of consciousness, which takes the form of Pereira's thoughts. These more often than not contrast with what Pereira is actually saying. The words “Pereira maintains” appear frequently throughout the book, often as a kind of qualification of what the author has just written, giving the impression as if the book were a journalists account of an interview with Pereira.

 The lack of any kinds of quotation marks to distinguish dialogue from the rest of the writing allows the story to flow without interruptions, as well as giving emphasis to the one time it is used near the end of the book.

 As well as giving a pretty good account of what life must have been like in fascist Portugal, Pereira Maintains shows us some of the tell-tale signs that the government is becoming too oppressive, such as the mistreatment of minorities (in this case Jews), intellectuals and writers fleeing due to a stifling political climate that discourages them from expressing themselves and a press that is unable to report crimes committed by the government (such as the killing of a socialist carter at the start of the book, which none of the Portuguese press reports). In light of the revelations about the extent of the NSA's spying on private individuals, as well the introduction of regulation of the press in the UK, a book like Pereira Maintains shows us just how important not just freedom of speech but freedom of the press is to be able to hold the government accountable and what a country a censored and toothless press, as well as an out of control government, actually looks like.

No comments:

Post a Comment