Pereira Maintains, by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Patrick Creagh, Canongate RRP£14.99, 195 pages

Dr Pereira, a conspicuously overweight newspaper editor resident in prewar Lisbon, is unaware of political developments whirling darkly outside his office. The year is 1938; razor and cosh gangs loyal to the Portuguese dictator António Salazar have begun to attack Jews. Pereira, unmindful, bides his time translating Balzac and eating platefuls of consoling omelette. Recently widowed, he is depressed and in need of succour. Gradually, however, a political conscience stirs within him, and he makes a stand against the Salazarist regime.

Antonio Tabucchi’s celebrated short novel, Pereira Maintains, was first published in Italy in 1994, when neo-Blackshirts had entered the Berlusconi government as ministers. This new edition in English is almost identical to the one issued in 1995 under the title Pereira Declares, and it grips from start to finish. In pages of lucid prose, Tabucchi conjures a shadowy atmosphere in late 1930s Lisbon, when cultural life lay under the dull hand of authoritarian surveillance.

Into this vacuum comes a young philosophy student named Monteiro Rossi. Impressed by his wide reading, Pereira asks Rossi to contribute newspaper articles, and a friendship develops. Under the younger man’s influence, Pereira becomes less politically naive and wonders if journalism can serve as a weapon against oppression. His sense of decorum is offended one day by the sight of anti-Semitic graffiti on a kosher butcher’s shop. The threat of increased oppression now makes neutrality impossible. When Pereira learns that Rossi is on a mission to recruit volunteers for the anti-Franco cause in neighbouring Spain, he realises he must act.

Strikingly, Pereira Maintains is narrated in the third person by a government inquisitor. The constant refrain, “Pereira maintains”, suggests that Pereira is before a courtroom scribe. As well as a riveting political allegory, Tabucchi’s novel explores the sadness of widowhood. Even as the police break down his door, Pereira is seen to kiss a photograph of his wife, and raise a toast to happier times.

Ian Thomson is the author of ‘The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica’ (Faber)

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