Sometimes, it’s those random unexpected finds, picked up on a whim in the charity shop, which can turn out to be the most powerful of reads; and that was certainly the case with the first book I finished reading in December. “Pereira Maintains” by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Patrick Creagh, caught my eye quite a while back in the Oxfam bookshop for a number of reasons; it’s published by Canongate, a Scottish indie outfit; it’s translated, which is always a bonus; the quirky title attracted me; and the blurb was enticing. So it came home with me and lurked on the TBR for far too long, nearly getting picked off it on a number of occasions; but for some reason its time seemed to be the end of November 2022, and when I did start reading it I just couldn’t put it down and devoured it in a couple of days.

“Pereira…” is set in Portugal in the summer of 1938, not always an easy place to be. The Spanish Civil War is taking place in the country next door; Portugal itself is under the rule of the dictator Salazar; Fascism is creeping into other European countries; and there are constant rumblings in the street. Dr. Pereira is an ageing widower; a former reporter, he is now in charge of the culture column of a small independent newspaper, the Lisboa. A lonely man, his wife was a fragile woman who died of consumption and the pair never had any children. Therefore, when he makes contact with a young man who seems to be able to write well on the subject of death, he oddly enough strikes up an instant rapport. The man is Monteiro Rossi, and he reminds Pereira of himself when young, striking him in some way as the son he never had. Rossi, and his girlfriend (who calls herself Marta), are an odd and elusive pair. Pereira thinks little of this at first, although the reader is probably a little more aware of what they might be involved in.

The problem is that you oughtn’t to get involved with problems bigger than you are, Pereira wanted to say. The problem is that the whole world is a problem and it certainly won’t be solved by you or me, Pereira wanted to say. The problem is that you’re young, too young, you could easily be my son, Pereira wanted to say, but I don’t approve of your making me a father to you, I’m not here to sort out your conflicts.

It has to be said that Pereira is a man who definitely has his head in the sand; he’s detached from the political turmoil around him, vaguely aware of trouble in his country, and reliant on the odd bit of gossip about the state of the world. So his association with Rossi is something of an awakening; as their friendship develops, Pereira comes to recognise the kind of regime under which he is living, and conversations with his friend Father Antonio, the head of a nearby Sanitorium, Dr Cardoso, and Manuel, the waiter in Pereira’s favourite local cafe, all lift the veil from his eyes. Inevitably, he is drawn into the activities of Rossi and Marta; events come to a heartbreaking climax; but what route will Pereira take?

“Pereira..” is in many ways a beautiful book to read; the language is almost poetic, with repeated refrain of ‘Pereira maintains’ giving it a musical quality; and with the long sentences and no quotations, I couldn’t help feel that Tabucchi was riffing on the style of Jose Saramago. Initially that repeated phrase comes across as a stylistic tic, but as the narrative develops, you realise that in fact the book is a kind of testimony, Pereira’s version of events – and inevitably you start to wonder to whom this record is being given, and what will be his eventual fate.

I mentioned Saramago, but in fact the narrative is peppered with references to literary greats, from Portuguese authors like Pessoa and Eça de Queiroz, Spanish writers like Lorca, all manner of French greats (who Pereira reveres) and even figures like Mayakovsky. This adds another layer to what is already a fascinating book, and although Pereira is initially circumspect about his politics, it becomes clear where his heart lies from his thoughts about these various writers.

“Pereira Maintains” is not a book I had planned to read right now, but I’m so glad I did. It’s a powerful, memorable and moving novel about one man’s life and actions whilst living under the grip of a harsh regime. The title character is human and flawed, yet capable of stepping out of the narrow confines of his life and doing something which can make a difference. Apparently some of the book’s popularity in its native Italy had to do with it being read as a symbol of resistance while Berlusconi was in power; whether that’s true or not, this novel is a small but mighty work, an unforgettable story of the ordinary man standing up to tyranny in his own way and it’s absolutely marvellous.