Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi
The small, superb story has become a talisman in the author's Italy. Since its publication there 15 years ago, it's won plaudits and prizes and been made into a Mastroianni film. It's even been adopted as a symbol of free speech by left-wing opponents of Silvio Berlusconi.
It's the story of a man who grows from denying the world to confronting it. In Portugal during the Spanish Civil War, Dr (as in literary PhD) Pereira has shut himself away with his obesity, the photo of his beloved late wife, his stultifying job as culture editor for a mediocre newspaper, and his timid publishing of 19th century French writers as allegories of political resistance.
He tries his hardest to ignore the authoritarian brutality of his own government. Then into his sepia life steps the blazing Monteiro Rossi, writer, rebel, risk-taker. Pereira becomes increasingly stirred by the young man's idealism and dangerous loyalty to the anti-Franco cause.
Encouraged by an astute old priest, a subversive doctor, and a Jewish woman he meets on a train. Pereira moves towards involvement, joy, fear, and a final astonishing act of defiance and daring that will make you exclaim with satisfaction.
The style of the novel is startling; a staccato, sustained third-person witness statement that bores relentlessly ahead. It's also a story heraldic with colour and light: Patrick Creagh's translation evokes a world "glittering in azure purity", yet seamed with horror.
This modest, marvellous little novel is many things. It's a thriller of faked passports, secret surveillance, meetings in cafes and shabby hotels. It's a wry comedy: Dr Pereira's chats with "the faraway smile" of his dead wife's photo are particularly endearing.
It's also a narrative of unglamorous courage, an essay on the tenuous nature of freedom.
A must for 2011, and for any other year when good men and women feel they need to do nothing about evil.
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.