Pereira Maintains was re-published by Canongate in English in 2010. An earlier version, from Harvill in 1995, was titled Pereira Declares. It’s an important difference, and I’ll try to explain why without too much in the way of spoilers.
The novel was written by Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian who spent half his life in Portugal. It comes with plaudits from the likes of Philip Pullman, Roddy Doyle, and Diana Athill, and a new introduction by Mohsin Hamid, the now celebrated author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
It is set in 1938, with Salazar’s dictatorship well-established and the Spanish Civil War raging on the other side of the border. It tells the story of the friendship between Pereira, the culture editor on a second rate Lisbon evening paper, the Lisboa, and Rossi, a Portugal-based Italian whom Pereira hires to write obituaries. As the story progresses, Pereira’s view of the world changes as he struggles with trying to do the right thing.
The style is deliberately flat, and the phrase “Pereira maintains” occurs repeatedly through the narrative. There is no first person, and no direct speech. You realise as a reader, slowly, that the sort of person who uses the phrase “Pereira maintains” may not be completely believing of Pereira’s account of events; indeed, that in 1938, all may not have turned out for the best for him.
As Andrew Blackman observed on his blog:
The two words from the title, “Pereira maintains”, occur regularly throughout the book to qualify what we’ve just been told. For example:
In Praça de Alegria there was no sense of being in a besieged city, Pereira maintains, because he saw no police at all…
The effect of these two words is incredibly interesting. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, these two oft-repeated words make it clear that this is Pereira’s own testimony – in that way it becomes similar to a first-person account, with all the issues of limited perspective and potential unreliability that go along with that. It also raises the question of who the narrator is – who did Pereira tell his story to, and who is now telling it to us, and why?
Mohsin Hamid says in his introduction that he read the book twice, once as “a reader” and once, after he had published his first novel, “as an apprentice”, trying to understand the technical structure of the novel. His reflections are worth sharing at a bit of length:
I began by trying to understand how it managed to achieve so much with so few words. But I was soon asking myself another question. How, with such serious and pressing concerns, did Pereira manage to be so difficult to put down? …
I found my answers in Pereira‘s form. Its brevity gave the novel a lightness that counterbalanced the weight of its subject matter. Moreover, because it was short it was able to move quickly, or at least was able to give the impression of moving quickly. But what seemed to me most striking about the form of Pereira was its use of the testimonial. …
The result is mysterious, menacing, enthralling and mind-bending – all at once. Through the testimonial form, Pereira makes detectives of its readers. We are unsettled and given more to do.