Happy Readings #21: Pereira Maintains

1.

This issue is mostly about Pereira Maintains, the short, gripping novel by Antonio Tabucchi, originally published in Italian, as Sostiene Pereira, in 1994.

 

2.

The year in the book, however, is 1939. The setting is Lisbon. Pereira, first name unknown, is the culture editor for a second-rate evening newspaper. The Portugal of the time is an authoritarian dictatorship under the so-called New State (as it will be, somehow, until 1973). Perhaps oddly, given his job, Pereira is largely blind to all this, or, rather, is uninterested in ‘becoming political’, seeing the situation instead through the lens of how best to self-censor so as to avoid trouble. Pereira reads an article in a literary magazine and contacts its author about writing obituaries for his section of the newspaper, an impetuous act that sets off a chain of tiny dilemmas, each nudging him further towards one side, politically speaking, or the other.

 

3.

Which is to say: if you’re doing something as innocuous as editing content about classic literature for a general audience… and just happen to be doing so during a slide into authoritarianism… do you really need to pick sides? Pereira starts off thinking: no, of course not. All I’m doing is republishing nineteenth-century French literature, so that’s got nothing to do with anything! But a tide is rising. He will need to choose. When Pereira Maintains was first published, the Silvio Berlusconi government was rising to power: ‘Those who didn’t love the Italian political situation took it as a symbol of resistance from within’, said Tabucchi, later.

 

4.

Pereira is constantly, and I mean constantly, drinking lemonade and eating omelettes aux fine herbes. I count six omelettes and twenty-seven lemonades (also three seafood salads, two grilled bream and quite a few other carefully-described things besides). What’s with all the gourmet lingerings? They have a certain decadence set against the politics of Europe in 1939. I mean, the food sounds delicious, which makes it suspect. The potential obituary writer has no money and is always hungry. Pereira himself doesn’t have much spare cash, so might well find himself in dire straits, starvation-wise, were his situation to change. This is in comparison to the fascist-adjacent editor-in-chief, who seems to spend his entire life stuffing himself at the restaurant of a spa hotel. Not to mention how waiters at cafés in Pereira’s Lisbon seem a better source of breaking news than any newspaper, certainly including the one Pereira works for. Nobody knows anything. But we all eat.

 

5.

You could read this short novel in a day or you could make it into a longer project where you pause to look up and read every single one of the literary references it contains: writings by Lorca, Pessoa, Balzac, D’Annunzio, Bernanos, Mann, Marx, Pessoa, Mauriac, and so on. Speaking of D’Annunzio, readers near a copy of the thirteenth Happy Reader are reminded that it contains Tara Isabella Burton’s article about the ‘infuriatingly talented womanizing dandy’ who conquered a Croatian city and turned it into a bizarre art-based dictatorship that was the prototype for Italian-style fascism.

 

6.

Why not take a Pereira Maintains walk? Tabbuchi specifies the Lisbon addresses very exactly. Pereira’s office is at 66 Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca. His apartment is at 22 Rua da Saudade. Both streets do exist, though the exact addresses, it seems, do not. The office building appears to be grey and imposing, except the actual door numbers, as far I can see, leap from 62 to 70a, and there’s a similar situation with the apartment, on a tiny cobbled lane, where a man in a polo shirt and Birkenstocks was lately surprised to be confronted by a Google surveillance team. Pereira’s local restaurant is called the Café Orquídea and does seem to actually exist, at 47A Rua Alexandre Herculano, just next to the hypothetical office. Do you live in Lisbon? Know anything about these streets, these addresses? Ever been to Café Orquídea? What’s it like? Contact Happy Readings on [email protected]

 

7.

For sale: the Connecticut mansion where Mark Twain died. Full details for the 2,300-square-foot replica Tuscan villa (list price: $4.2 million) are here.

 

8.

‘for god’s sake can you think of any telepathic way by which i can get myself into your arms and stay there?’ The Paris Review publishes Shirley Jackson’s earliest love letters, ramblingly electrifying correspondences written by the author of Hangsaman, with no use of the shift key whatsoever, when she was twenty-one years old.

 

9.

Oscar Rickett, a London-based subscriber, shares the following verdict on Pereira Maintains: ‘I maintain that this is a book that is both timeless and timely. Faced with the crises that now beset us, the temptation to retreat away from the world can be overwhelming. Like Pereira, we might prefer to drink lemonade in a cafe or escape to take the waters in some seaside town. As Tabucchi shows us, there can be no real escape. The world will find us in the end. One of the ways in which power operates is precisely to say that things are too complicated and too difficult, that we should shut up and not look to agitate for anything better, that things are as they are and cannot be changed. If we raise our heads above the parapet, they can be chopped off. Life can be hard enough as it is. The march of fascism in 1930s Portugal might seem like a specific set of circumstances, but we can see the rise of nativism and anti-left sentiment is not specific to any time and place. The personal is the political, the political will become personal. Of this we can be sure. In Pereira Maintains, we have the most eloquent, affecting expression of these vital dilemmas.’

 

10.

The next issue of this newsletter will be published on a Thursday in August, and will take as its inspiration Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, a collection of the writings of the French Oulipian author, Georges Perec. If this issue has been forwarded to you by someone else and you’d like to receive it directly, you can find the subscription page here.

 

Thanks for reading,

 

Seb Emina

Editor-in-chief, The Happy Reader

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