I did some reading this past week on character vs plot driven fiction, inspired by the comments section of The Guardian’s very interesting podcast on editing. There’s a fair bit of writing on this topic out there in case you are interested in the details. It also made me wonder where I stand on this issue.
I’ve always been drawn to the quality of the language itself in books. It’s not so much about what you write but about how you write it, and in the majority of the cases this overlaps with the characteristics of character driven fiction. I’ve also jotted down some thoughts on what I think makes for interesting books here. Antonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains (Canongate 2010) is definitely fiction of the character driven kind. This is a book in which nothing much, and a whole lot, happens at the same time—and that is a fantastic combination.
Pereira Maintains takes place in Lisbon, and I can’t not mention I’ve just booked a holiday to go there myself at the end of September, hooray! I bought this book a while back and forgot where it’s set, but surely it was providence that guided my hand to this slim (only 195 pages) copy in my bookshelf… Tabucchi’s protagonist is the editor of the culture section at the Lisboa newspaper, the veteran journalist Dr Pereira. In the impossibly hot summer of 1938, in the midst of translating French short stories for the paper, talking to a photograph of his dead wife, repeatedly eating an omelette aux fins herbes with a lemonade at his regular place, and taking seaweed baths to alleviate his heart trouble, his uncomplicated life becomes entangled with that of a troubled young man, Monteiro Rossi.
Pereira maintains that he read a philosophical essay on death written by Rossi, and for reasons he can’t quite understand, perhaps he reminds him of the son he and his wife never had, asks him to write preemptive obituaries on famous authors for the paper. Soon enough it becomes obvious Rossi is not able to comply with the Lisboa’s editorial (political) requirements, and that he is in fact involved with the Republican faction of the Spanish civil war, making him a very dangerous man to acquaint with. As the summer wears on, despite his rising anxiety over the situation and whilst maintaining his unchanged routine, Pereira becomes more and more involved with Rossi and his “Italian straw-hat” wearing, bird-like girlfriend Marta, who is equally active in the resistance movement. All this action/non-action is framed by the tightening political climate and a shroud of paranoia in Portugal: people are beaten up by ‘the police’ for their opinions, Pereira’s editor-in-chief wants to ensure he only translates appropriately nationalistic literature, and Pereira suspects his office caretaker is a police informant.
It’s near impossible to describe the book in any proper detail, or why it made such an impression on me, without giving a lot of the ending away. Perhaps I will make do by saying that it’s a story of someone unremarkable who, through their actions, becomes someone remarkable, willing to give up everything for what he thinks is right. A man fighting against the machine. Yet this is such a crude statement that gives Tabucchi’s subtle novel little justice. All I can say is, if An Instance of the Fingerpost didn’t, in my opinion, manage to do very much in a lot of words, Pereira Maintains is the polar opposite: it does everything needed in very few, understated words that maintain a constant pull throughout the narrative. This, if anything, is a wonderful show of joint skill from the author and the translator, Patrick Creagh.
While I mentioned an individual’s life-changing decisions, here’s another contradiction in Pereira Maintains: the narrative has a strong feel of, if not fate as such, then inevitability. Pereira is a man whose choices and destiny are sealed from the moment he reads Rossi’s essay. Much of it, I’d argue, is due to Tabucchi writing his book in the form of a testimony, Pereira’s testimony—hence also the name. He makes courageous choices that he at the same time has no option but to make. The small number of characters, the few locations, and the inevitability of the events reminded me of a classical Greek play, even if it requires some imagination to see the plump and balding Pereira as a tragic Greek hero. Perhaps this is just another demonstration of why the novel is character rather than plot driven.
I must thank Tabucchi’s and Creagh’s wonderful, understated, declarative language again. As much as I enjoy reading lush, verbally overflowing writers such as Joseph Conrad, the sparsity of Pereira Maintains was like drinking from a fresh spring when I hadn’t even realised I was thirsty. Here are two samples:
At eight thirty-five, Pereira maintains, he entered the Café Orquidea. The only reason he recognized Marta was in the skinny little shrimp with cropped hair sitting near the fan was that she was wearing the same dress as ever, otherwise he would never have take her for the same girl. […] Pereira sat down opposite her and said: Good evening Marta, what on earth has happened to you? I decided to change my appearance, replied Marta, in certain circumstances it’s necessary and in my case it became essential to make myself a different person.
Pereira came out of his reverie when they were drawing level with Santo Amaro. The beach was a splendid curve dotted with blue-and-white-striped canvas bathing-huts. The train came to a halt and Pereira was seized with the notion of getting out and having a swim, he could always go on by the next train. The impulse was too strong for him. Pereira cannot assume to say why he felt it, perhaps it was because he had been thinking of his Coimbra days and swimming at Granja. So he left the train, carrying his little suitcase, and went down through the tunnel leading to the beach. On reaching the sand he took off his shoes and socks and continued barefoot, his case in one hand and his shoes in the other. He spotted the bathing-attendant at once, a bronzed young man keeping an eye on the bathers while lolling in a deck-chair. Pereira told him he wanted to hire a bathing-suit and a changing-hut. The attendant sneakily looked him up and down and murmured: I don’t know that we have a costume your size, but I’ll give you the key of the deposit and cabin number one, which is the roomiest. He then enquired in a tone which to Pereira sounded like a snub: Would you be wanting a rubber ring as well? I’m a very good swimmer, replied Pereira, perhaps a lot better than you are yourself so don’t worry.
This is a wonderful book that I’m certain I will be reading again and that you should let in your life, too.
Pereira Maintains elsewhere:
“Antonio Tabucchi’s novel about a newspaper editor in 1930s Portugal is a passionate warning against political complacency” The Guardian
“The power of this slim book is inversely proportional to its size and modest, unassuming tone” The Independent
“It is a novel that is a long conversation—with itself and with other novels too” Jeannette Winterson
“Antonio Tabucchi, Elegiac Italian Writer, Dies at 68” The New York Times
Antonio Tabucchi (1943–2012) was an Italian writer and academic. Deeply in love with Portugal, he was an expert, critic and translator of the works of Fernando Pessoa from whom he drew the conceptions of saudade, of fiction and of the heteronyms. His books and essays have been translated in 18 countries, including Japan. Tabucchi was awarded the French prize “Médicis étranger” for Indian Nocturne (Notturno indiano) and the premio Campiello, and the Aristeion Prize for Sostiene Pereira. In later life he was mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a feat he never achieved.
featured image: Lisbon in the 1930s (http://www.bendav.nl/gif/ebay14/2719.jpg)