Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2012  



Words Have Meanings: Antonio Tabucchi, 1943-2012


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Tabucchi, Antonio: Pereira Maintains 2010, Canongate, translated by Patrick Creagh, introduction by Mohaid Hamid, ISBN: 9781847675712, 195 pages. (The US edition, 1997, New Directions, is entitled Pereira Declares, ISBN: 9780811213585.)
"I speak because I'm alive. I will only stop speaking when my throat is crammed with earth... A writer that doesn't speak is no writer. He's nothing."
—Antonio Tabucchi


(Swans - October 8, 2012)   2012 staggers on from one disappointment to another, and we have yet to get past the worst disgrace of all, a presidential election that will be won like an auction by the bidder who can throw the most money at it. Of literary disappointments, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa takes the booby prize while still flaunting his Nobel of 2010. His speech at Stockholm on that occasion extolled the political power of literature. His first novel as a laureate, however, shed no more political light than a neon campaign slogan.

The Dream of the Celt (El sueño del celta) is about the Irishman Roger Casement who was hanged as a traitor by the British in 1916. (2012, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, translator Edith Grossman, ISBN: 9780374143466, 368 pages.) The author's and everyone else's description of the book as a "novelization" of Casement's life should have alerted us. We would get neither a good critical biography nor a risky entry into the subjectivity of a person like Casement. Instead we would be given fragments of an encyclopedia entry punctuated by timidly contrived scenes of paper cutout figures talking wooden. If the alternating was meant to relieve the monotony of the facts by the banality of the drama, the strategy failed. Incapable of doing anything for Roger Casement in a literary way, Vargas Llosa should have left him alone. Unlike Joseph Conrad, Casement was an anti-imperialist who didn't stop short. He paid for it with his neck while Conrad was offered a British knighthood by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

Post-Nobel media talk has otherwise taken its usual frivolous path. How many times will we hear the story of Vargas Llosa's fistfight with Gabriel García Márquez over a woman? For heaven sake, one geezer is 84 and the other 76 (though the nameless woman is ageless). Are their (probably apocryphal) black eyes of half a century ago still news? More relevant are Vargas Llosa's continual attempts to explain away his run for the Peruvian presidency in 1990 from the far and, in local terms, imperial right. Understandably he regrets that escapade at present because 1) he lost the election and 2) it behooves Nobel laureates to be humanitarians and not oppressors of the local indigenes. More interesting than his opinion on the "political power of literature" would be his coming clean on his failed attempt to use literature to acquire political power.

Good writing brought little power to Antonio Tabucchi who died in Lisbon, March 25, 2012. There were no trumpet calls, but rare for a public intellectual, his honor went intact to the grave with his corpse. Born in Pisa in the year 1943, the beginning of the end of military Fascism in Italy, Tabucchi seemed marked by that fundamental split in Italian minds and history. He couldn't forget Fascism and when it returned in civilian dress and soft shoes under the Republic he lashed out at it.

For sixty years no one dared attempt to rehabilitate the dead-enders of Salò. They had been the final do-or-die remnants of Italian state Fascism who had shocked their Nazi comrades-in-arms by their barbarity. Then, in 2001, president of the Republic Carlo Ciampi announced that "the boys of Salò," though mistaken in their choice, were at heart patriots who put the unity of Italy first and believed they were doing their duty.

Antonio Tabucchi would not let this coat of whitewash dry. He attacked Ciampi in vitriolic articles in Italy's Unità and France's Le Monde. How could the Salò rabble have sought the unity of Italy when they swore loyalty to German Nazism? Ciampi might as well say that the Vichy government in France deserved respect because it sought national unity under that same Third Reich. Moreover, the territory controlled by the Salò Nazi-Fascists corresponded to the part of the country that was now clamoring for separation and the end of Italian unity.

Tabucchi's uncompromising tone created a furor. It was 2001 and Silvio Berlusconi had begun his reign as prime minister. Journalists and intellectuals correctly read the future as belonging to the sleazy TV magnate and adjusted their morals accordingly. Accommodation is the original Italian political sin that had let Fascism thrive in the first place. Now the clerks would go along and get along. Typical was Bruno Vespa who used the incident to launch his career as Berlusconi's most rewarded apologist and sycophant. Vespa's defense of Ciampi and attack on Tabucchi rehearsed a paunchy, petty-bourgeois authoritarianism by consent that was ready to take over. It would have recalled to Tabucchi, familiar with that country, Portugal under Salazar. Vespa insisted that national honor was threatened when there was anything but high praise for the head of state.

The honor of Tabucchi, however, would always be in his fidelity to words and their ineluctable meanings. Marco Travaglio wrote of him at his death:

Tabucchi's stomach could not keep down what Italians regularly swallow and digest out of resignation and habit. He insisted on calling things by their name. Berlusconi's operation was a "regime," those who didn't fight it were "accomplices," and adherents were its "servants." Evaders of the Constitution were its "destroyers" and to break a law made one a "criminal." Anyone whose business activity would be furthered by public office was in "conflict of interests" and "unfit" to hold that office. This truth of words frightened Italian intellectuals and they isolated and refused to support Tabucchi. A free man, he showed them by example what they should be and were not. They were cowards and conformists, sly raptors of the main chance, all loose ends and the easy way out, devotees of a quiet life.

Early drawn to Portugal, Tabucchi studied Portuguese and became a teacher of its literature in Italian universities. He would become a vital link between the two cultures. His wife was a native of Lisbon and he spent a good part of every year there, eventually directing the Italian Cultural Institute in the city.

Though a prolific author of novels, stories, and essays, Tabucchi never claimed writing as his profession. It was "something that involves desires, dreams and imagination," and he was happier to define himself as a "university professor." This careful attention to identity, which also occurs repeatedly in his fictional characters, may well owe something to the poet Fernando Pessoa. Of all the authors Tabucchi loved and translated, Pessoa most held him in thrall. The Portuguese poet made so much of identity that he is known to have written under eighty different names corresponding to diverse facets of his personality.

Though fascinated by Pessoa's proliferating self and literary magic, Tabucchi's civil stance had nothing in common with the poet's. Pessoa was an elitist who toyed with theosophy and looked on military dictators with a friendly eye. Initially, at least, he had welcomed the Salazar regime. Tabucchi, a cradle anti-Fascist, was a sworn enemy of censorship and state violence. His best known novel, Pereira Maintains, finely portrays just how a sleepwalking nation can give way to an authoritarian regime. There's irony in the fact that Pereira, Tabucchi's unheroic but decent middle-class everyman, will be at grips with the very evil that Tabucchi's admired decadent poet had hopes for.

The time is 1938 and the place Lisbon. The Spanish Civil War rages next door. The Republicans are barely holding the center while the Nationalists control the north. Portugal has sent eight thousand Viriatos to fight beside Franco. For all practical purposes, the Salazar regime is aligned with the Catholic Generalissimo, Mussolini, and Hitler in the overture to WWII. German tanks, planes, and munitions are secretly passing through Portugal.

For the most part the rest of Europe indulges in summer pleasures. In Portugal this amounts to something like sleep. War news is played down in the newspapers. The crucial battle of Teruel could have been on the moon and the public at large seems happy to be left out of events. Salazar has persuaded them to leave war and peace to the men at the top. As a regime man says in Pereira Maintains, public opinion is an invention of the English and Americans. Anyone who visited the Iberian Peninsula right into the 1970s will recognize the mindset with horror. There were many still insisting then that what Spain and Portugal needed was a strong man over them to do their thinking and make their decisions. They weren't ashamed to claim that a racial flaw made them serfs.

Pereira, to begin with, doesn't mind at all being left out of events. A fussy, ineffectual widower, after thirty years as a reporter he now puts together a weekly cultural page for a second-rate daily. Since his lamented wife's death, he has sealed himself off not only from the doings of the nation but from life itself. Obesity, a heart condition, and perpetual mourning are enough to fill his existence. He pants about in the heat -- decent, law abiding, and always out of breath.

Dutiful, Pereira will gradually become aware that his conception of duty is too narrow. Such will be the action of the novel much more than suspenseful happenings or brief scenes of brutality. Pereira's withdrawal from life gnaws at his too-easily-attained peace. He suffers. He's discontent.

At the same time his editor-in-chief who gave him a free hand with the cultural page has started to nag him. The man, a regime hanger-on, is being pressured from higher up. Pereira felt that filling the cultural page with his translations of nineteenth century French stories would be uncontroversial. He got by with a tale of Balzac's about repentance. But when he translated Daudet's story of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 things went wrong. It finished with a "Vive la France," which was absolutely unacceptable to official circles in Portugal in 1938.

Pereira, with middle-class foresight, hires a young man to prepare obituaries of writers ripe for passing into a better world. But none of the youth's writing, full of socialism and resistance, is publishable. Instead of firing him outright, Pereira becomes responsible not only for him but for his girlfriend who is obviously the agent of an outlawed party. It's clear that part of Pereira, the better part, wants to get back into life. Chatting with his dead wife's photograph and regretting his lack of offspring is no longer enough to fill his day.

The murder of the failed obituary writer by Salazar's thuggish auxiliary police will finally drive Pereira into militant opposition. Tabucchi is too wise in the ways of the world to make his frightened near-invalid a hero. He merely unwinds the thread of decency within Pereira till it becomes entangled with the idealism of youth. Nothing could be grimmer than this picture of Europe on the threshold of its self-destruction. Yet, because Tabucchi infuses his novel from beginning to end with the humanity of the humble, hope survives. If Pereira is no hero, no more is he a blustering anti-hero. He's simply one of us, stumbling along, doing the good he can, and telling himself he must finally start to diet.

R.I.P. Antonio Tabucchi. You didn't need a Nobel Prize. Your reward was our gratitude for your example and for a novel that restored literature's good name.


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Published October 8, 2012