Recently-deceased Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, author of that subtle novel of political intrigue under totalitarianism, Pereira Maintains, writes about the visitation he received which inspired the novel, here. How sad that the name of the brave Portuguese journalist whose death inspired the novel should be unmentioned by Tabucchi.
Dr Pereira visited me for the first time one September evening in 1992. In those days his name wasn’t yet Pereira. He still didn’t have distinct traits, he was rather vague, elusive, hazy, but he already nurtured the wish to be a protagonist in a book. He was only a character in search of an author. I don’t know why he chose me to tell his story. One possible hypothesis is that the month before, on a torrid August day in Lisbon, I too had made a visit.
I vividly remember that day. In the morning I bought the city’s daily newspaper and read an article about an old journalist who had died at the Santa Maria Hospital and whose remains lay in state at the hospital chapel. I shall discreetly avoid any mention of the deceased’s name. I shall say only that he was someone with whom I had a passing acquaintance in Paris, in the late 1960s, when he, a Portuguese exile, was writing for a Parisian newspaper. He was a man who had plied his journalistic trade in Portugal during the 1940s and 50s under Salazar’s dictatorship. And he had managed to ridicule the regime by publishing a savage article in a Portuguese newspaper. He naturally encountered serious problems with the police and was subsequently forced to choose exile.
I knew that after 1974, when Portugal returned to democracy, he went back to his country, but I didn’t meet him again. He wasn’t writing any more, he had retired, and I didn’t know what he was doing for a living. Sad to say, he had been forgotten. In that period Portugal lived the restless, convulsive life of a country that had rediscovered democracy after 50 years of dictatorship. It was a young country, led by young people. No one remembered an old journalist who had resolutely opposed Salazar’s dictatorship in the late 40s.
I went to view the remains at two in the afternoon. The chapel was deserted. The coffin was uncovered. The gentleman was Catholic, and they had placed a wooden crucifix on his chest. I stood beside him for nearly 10 minutes. He was robust or, rather, fat. When I knew him in Paris, he was about 50, svelte and agile. Old age, perhaps a hard life, had turned him into a fat, flabby old man.
At the foot of the coffin, on a small lectern, lay a register open to receive the signatures of visitors. A few names had been written there, but none I recognised. Perhaps they were old colleagues, people who lived through the same battles, retired journalists.
A month later Pereira paid his visit to me. I didn’t know what to say to him then and there. And yet I dimly understood that his vague self-presentation as a literary character was symbolic, metaphoric: somehow he was the ghostly transposition of the old journalist to whom I bid my last farewell. I felt embarrassed, but I warmly welcomed him.
That September evening I divined that a spirit drifting in the ether needed me to tell his story, to describe a choice, a torment, a life. In that privileged space which precedes the moment of falling asleep – and which I find most suitable for receiving visits from my characters – I told him to come back, to confide in me, to tell me his story.
He came back, and I immediately found a name for him: Pereira. In Portuguese “Pereira” means “pear tree”, and like all the names for fruit trees, it is a surname of Hebrew origin, just as in Italy the surnames of Hebrew origin are the names of cities. With this name I wanted to pay homage to a people who had left a great imprint on Portuguese culture and suffered the injustices of history. But there was another reason, literary in origin, which led me to this name: a brief interlude by TS Eliot entitled “What About Pereira?” in which a fragmentary conversation between two friends evokes a mysterious Portuguese man named Pereira, about whom nothing can ever be known.
About my Pereira, however, I began to know many things. In his nocturnal visits he told me that he was a widower who suffered from heart disease and unhappiness. He loved French literature, especially Catholic writers between the wars, such as François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos. He was obsessed with the idea of death. His closest confidant was a Franciscan named Father Antonio, to whom he shuddered to confess his heresy: he didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body.
Later Pereira’s confessions, joined to my writerly imagination, produced the rest. Through Pereira I located a crucial month in his life, a torrid month, August of 1938. I recalled Europe on the brink of disaster, the second world war, the Spanish civil war, the tragedies of our recent past. And in the summer of 1993, when Pereira – who had now become my old friend – told me his story, I was able to write it. I wrote it at Vecchiano, in two equally torrid months of furiously intense work.
By a lucky coincidence, I finished writing the last page on the 25 August. I wanted to record that date on the page because it is an important day for me: my daughter’s birthday. I felt it was a sign, an omen. The happy day of my child’s birth also gave birth – thanks to the effort of writing – to the story of a man’s life. Perhaps, in the inscrutable weave of events that the gods bestow on us, everything has its meaning.”
• Antonio Tabucchi died on 25 March 2012. This article about the writing of Pereira Maintains (Canongate) was translated by Lawrence Venuti.