On the Shelf is three years old. And I’m still here. Figuratively and literarily.
This is the sort of thing that Facebook should algorithmisize, surely? A jolly little pop-up to say: It’s your columniversary! Anita, we believe that columns are something special. Celebrate your continuing to be ‘on the shelf’ with your friends!
Prompted by said so-called ‘friends’, I decided to take the plunge recently, and joined the world of online dating: the algorithm method, I suppose you could call it. I girded my loins, polished up my profile, selected the least ghastly photo I could find, and uploaded myself, casting my line into the waters and hoping I didn’t land a trout.
Ever the optimist, I sat back and waited. I was expecting something like that bit in those jungle explorer films where they toss a hunk of meat into a piranha-infested pool. Alas no. A few measly ‘likes’ from chaps that I struggled – out of sheer politeness – to ‘like’ back, but: no sound of muted trumpets, no thunder of approaching hooves, no pulse-quickening knight in shiny armour. Nada.
I kind of gave up after a while. But then, a nice little flurry of emails later, I found myself on rainy Dartmoor, squelching up a hill in the company of a charming man with a GSOH, I believe it’s called. We laughed a lot anyway, and mostly at the same kind of things. Spoiler alter: it didn’t lead anywhere – well, except up to the tor at the top – but on parting, he gave me a book.
This rather elegant, slim little novel by Italian author Antonio Tabucchi, turned out to be a brilliant find. Pereira Maintains tells the story of another middle-aged loner, a contributor to a cultural section of a newspaper, too, but there the similarity stops (I hope). Set in Lisbon, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the novel centres on Dr Pereira, an overweight widower with a heart condition. Pereira’s life is simple and regular: the high point of every day is ordering an omlette aux fine herbes and a lemonade (against his doctor’s orders) at the Café Orquidea on the corner. He catches up with the news with the waiter, Manuel, and then heads to his pokey office to put together the culture pages for his paper, the Lisboa.
The novel is told entirely in the form of a deposition. The phrase ‘Pereira maintains’ punctuates almost every page. “On the dot of eleven, Pereira maintains, his doorbell rang” is the perfect example. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might have resulted in the book seeming dry and repetitive, but Tabucchi – in a pitch-perfect translation by Patrick Creagh – manages to create and (yes) maintain a world which is entirely engrossing, nuanced and rich, using language which is spare, precise and entirely in keeping with the idea that the whole thing is a legal deposition.
I found the whole thing stylistically fascinating. “The result is mysterious, enthralling and mind-bending – all at once,” writes Mohsin Hamid in his introduction. “Through the testimonial form, Pereira makes detectives of its readers… An unexpected interpretative space opens up before us, nags at us, seduces us. We feel more like characters than we are used to.” Hamid, inspired by Pereira, adopts a similar strategy in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is written entirely in the first person, addressing the reader as ‘you’. If ever there was a book that turned you into a character, just by the act of reading it, it is Hamid’s.
Tabucchi’s book was first published in 1994, and is set in 1938, yet the story of one man’s reluctant implication in politics during the rise of fascism, has chilling relevance today: an allegory about the dangers of political complacency. Struggling to keep his head down and his nose clean, Pereira finds himself caught in the tightening noose of censorship and surveillance. His allegiances, political and personal, are constantly questioned and even his most innocuous article comes under scrutiny. What is the truth? This is what, in his quiet persistent way, he continuously ‘maintains’ – and is what ends up conferring upon this most unheroic figure something like nobility.
Pereira Maintains now has pride of place on my bedside table. Which, in a very roundabout way, goes to show that – on the off-chance that there are any eligible men out there – that the way to a girl’s heart is frequently through her bookshelf.
The Hindu Business Line, 6.5.17