It is a literary truism that "slim new novel" often means "precious, self-indulgent garbage." Not so with "Pereira Declares," a brief, absorbing and ultimately cathartic story of personal heroism in the face of political tyranny. The Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi sets his tale in the Salazarist Lisbon of 1938, and he spins his narrative out in clean, elegantly rhythmic prose that owes much of its power to its simplicity. His unassuming hero is one Dr. Pereira, a paunchy, vaguely melancholy widower who edits the cultural page of a third-rate newspaper. He coasts through life, fretting about his heart, translating the stories of notable French writers of the previous century and writing witty appreciations of deceased literary lights. His only regular conversations are with a photo of his late wife.
Pereira is content to ignore the growing political turmoil that threatens to consume Europe, content to believe that literature is the only thing that matters. Content, that is, until he takes under his wing a young firebrand named Francesco Monteiro Rossi, who joins the paper as a freelance writer of advance obituaries for famous authors, but who spends his days and his income recruiting sympathetic Portugese for the Spanish Republican cause.
Perhaps it's Monteiro Rossi's age, or the fact that Pereira and his wife had no children, or that the older man senses the chance to escape the lonely parade of identical days his life has become. Whatever the reason, Pereira finds himself becoming more and more invigorated by his protege's risky political activities. "The problem is that between us there must be a correct professional relationship, Pereira wanted to say, and you must learn to write properly, because otherwise, if you're going to base your writing on reasons of the heart, you'll run up against some thumping great obstacles I can assure you. But he said nothing of all this." When, inevitably, Monteiro Rossi incurs the wrath of the Salazar regime, Pereira's political awakening is completed, and he redeems his humanity with a defiant and singularly personal act of rebellion.
The ultimate futility -- and hence the nobility -- of Pereira's highly individual insurrection is hinted at by Tabucchi's chief literary device. "Pereira Declares" takes its title from a phrase that is appended to every third paragraph; gradually, it becomes clear that this narrative is some Salazarist bureaucrat's report on the Pereira-Monteiro Rossi affair, the distillation of an interview (interrogation?) that must perforce have occurred after the events it describes. The knowledge of Pereira's fate is disheartening -- just as the knowledge of his personal redemption is, in a quiet, remarkable way, exhilarating.