The late Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Sostiene Pereira is set in Lisbon in the summer of 1938. The protagonist, Pereira, is a journalist, a veteran reporter on a national daily who now edits the culture page of Lisboa. The paper describes itself as ‘apolitical’ (which means it doesn’t cover the Spanish Civil War) and ‘independent’ (it prints what the Salazar regime would like it to without having to be asked). Pereira is a widower; his closest confidant is the portrait of his wife that hangs in his hallway. He’s overweight, and has a heart condition, not helped by his fondness for omelettes and sugary lemonade.
His semi-retired routine is disturbed when he hires a young man, Monteiro Rossi, to prepare obituaries of famous writers. Rossi’s pieces – either attacking Fascist writers or praising left-wing ones – are all unpublishable. But Pereira pays Rossi for them anyway and puts them away in a folder. Eventually he gets drawn into helping hide Rossi’s cousin, who’s in Portugal recruiting for the Republican cause in Spain, and as one thing leads to another Pereira soon finds himself in serious trouble with the authorities.
The story of a jaded journalist placing his commitment to the truth above his personal safety or self-interest is plainly a fantasy of sorts, though it has plenty of real-life precedents, including (possibly) the unnamed Portuguese journalist who Tabucchi claimed was an inspiration for Pereira, who ‘managed to get one over on the Salazar dictatorship by publishing in a Portuguese newspaper a ferocious article against the regime’. And the potential corniness of the heroic story arc is tempered not only by its contemporary resonance – published in Italy in 1994, Sostiene Pereira was widely perceived as a rebuke to Berlusconi’s corrupt nexus of political and media power – but by the deadpan, unheroic tone of the storytelling, with its matter-of-fact details about the weather and what Pereira has for lunch and his shortness of breath.
Patrick Creagh’s English translation of the novel first appeared in English in 1995, as Pereira Declares: A Testimony, and then again in 2010 as Pereira Maintains, but neither quite gets it, at once too stiff and lacking in nuance: sostenere means both those things but also ‘to hold up’, ‘to support’, ‘to sustain’, ‘to suffer’, ‘to defend’, ‘to act’ (in a play). The words ‘sostiene Pereira’ open the novel and recur as a refrain throughout. It’s a constant reminder both that this is Pereira’s version of events, and that we don’t know who he’s telling the story to, who’s passing it on to us – or, as one Italian critic put it, ‘before which court Pereira is “testifying”’. Not the Leveson Inquiry, anyway.