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Libyan Writer Ghoma

Friday, 26 May, 2006

ADDENDUM TO A READING :" Pereira Declares" by Antonio Tabucchi!

By: Ghoma

        First let me say thanks to El-Megreisi's for an unusual and fresh contribution to this site. His reading of the novel:" Pereira Declares" by the Italian novelist A. Tabucchi is a needed respite, as well as a welcome depart, from the tiresome daily mill grinders of superficial intellectualizings and cheap political barbs! It's a different way to comment on comments by showing how others take their comment seriously.

        A. Tabucchi is a leading Italian novelist from Pisa in Tuscany who's also on the faculty of the University of Siena. Mr. Tabucchi was for years the director of the Italian Culture Center in Lisbon and thus writes also in Portuguese. In fact the novel before the present one, "Requiem" was originally written in Portuguese. How lucky these romance languages's speakers, they just slip unnoticed from one to other as if from one shirt to another!

        " Pereira Declares" events took place in Lisbon, in 1938, during Salazar's dictatorship, while the Spanish Civil War was raging, and amid the menacing clouds that were gathering over Europe at the time just one year before the explosion of WWII. Dr Pereira, a retired journalist, is an aging man who's also ailing, fat, and widower. He lives alone in an apartment whose porter, he declares, is a police informer and indulges himself in omelettes and many glasses of heavily sugared-lemonades. A lonely man who avoids the present by immersing himself in the past. His only solace at the end of the day is to return to his apartment to tell his dead- wife's photograph what's on his mind or what has happened to him during the day. After 30 years reporting crime in a respected newspaper he took a job to edit the Culture Page in a small and unknown weekly paper. He fills the page with his translations of mostly French 19th-century stories. One day he meets Monteiro Rossi, a young man of an Italian father and a Portuguese mother, who's just graduated from the same alma mater of Dr Pereira (Coimbra Univ.) with a thesis on death and engages him to write the "obituaries" of prominent writers who may now die any time.

        Though summation and comments are different from straight translation, our friend here did a good job at interweaving his summery and comments with rather prolonged excerpts. This way of dealing comes close to a translation in some parts! Translation has been accused of many sins, among them betrayal-of the original text!. If we start from the fact that no reading, no matter how percipient and attentive the reader is is going to make a complete and absolute justice to a complex work of art then there's always need of more readings. Only multiple readings and interpretations, gazings and oglings from different angles can the fog, if not the mystery, that usually envelops any serious work start to peek out slowly but always partially in an never ending game of tweaking and teasing, if not challenging the mind, to come and get me if you can sort of game!

        Translation of a text or its contents is subject to a little more than what the single words mean and what the syntax would allow. No text is complete in itself. What it doesn't say is as integral to the work as it makes use of. The nexus of which the words constitute only one node in an otherwise intricate web of assumptions, relations, and values. The background to the text and the net of referents the creator has used or took for granted. Thus themes as Christianity's riddled stand on relations between body and soul; the popular idea of multiple personalities, and modern psychology's grapplings with such notions as the Unconscious in its individualistic bourgeois or collectivist renderings, etc. are only few of the many elements that make up the scaffoldings upon which the edifice of the novel was built.

        Cultures and languages tend to fragment the universality of the world into partial segments and views. The closer the two languages, of the original and its translation, the more accessible and readable the rendition. If the world can be compared to that mythical edifice of Babel, languages constitute its windows, each window gives a slight or abundant but nevertheless always partial a view of the universe in its direction. No matter how close the windows to each other the amount and qualities of the light, view, and air are different. The farther the widows from each other the more divergent the views. A translation or reading are never like a faithful photographing or copying of a work but rather its sifting through and filtering out of another human universe. The result will depend on the power of that brain, the acuity of its memory, the facility of its eloquence, and the repertoire of its images. Not only how all these were used but the closeness and correspondence of these elements to the recipient medium would affect the product greatly. Thus, a translation from Italian to Portuguese is quite direct as might the views one gets from two adjacent windows. From Italian to Arabic is like the view one gets from two distant windows opening in different directions!

        Before I get into the main body of the novel, let me start by making some observations on the translation of the title and some others terms here and there. Another take on how different languages and their universes would deal with one text! The title in Italian was: "Pereira Sostiene," which was translated into English as "Pereira Declares," and into French, "Pereira Pretend," and which has been rendered, I gather from Mr. El-Magreisi in Arabic, as "Yaz3em Pereira" (Pereira Claims). [I'm not sure how wise the idea of translating a work from different language than the original]. The Italian verb "sostenere" means (in transitive form): to support, to sustain, to suffer, to maintain;(in intransitive form): "sostenersi" stands for: to support oneself, to lean(on), to support each other. All the meanings the verb stands for, are of the nature of assertive strongly rooted, beyond hesitancy or doubt, actions! Thus "yaz3em" (pretend or claim) though a bit iffy for what a narrator not of his own actions and thoughts but of someone else still may do the job with some qualifications! The term "claims" rather than "pretends" comes closer with room for uncertainty. When a third party is telling the events, the narrator would never be sure of the subject's actions, thoughts, and utterances, however "sostiene" and its English rendering "declares," with its tendency to be neutral, avoids passing any value judgment on the main character's utterances, actions, etc. Unless "doubt" is the theme running behind the scenes to unify the different strands of the story and its protagonists, in that case the use of a less certain verb is more appropriate.

        The other point one can make about the reading at hand is the importance of a small but an important and a significant detail. The novel uses "Pereira Declares" (Pereira Sostiene" as a motif, a theme which stops the flow without interrupting it; a refrain or slogan to give the reader time to inhale and collect his/herself, as in a reprise to a song that keeps the thread going while the needle is needling the listener's innards. Without the motif, the novel would not have lost its meaning(s) or probably beauty but certainly its musicality would have suffered and its strength came a bit laxed. What keeps the narrative together and sustains its suspense is that vague sense of Dr. Pereira's soliloquy, in a monologue with himself sometimes exteriorized in the form of talking to his dead-wife's photograph, and which connotes to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the time where the very walls are not to be trusted.

        To begin with, the story has many ideas. But fascism and the threat of fascism loom large. Portugal is under Salazar's dictatorship, a police state. The Spanish Civil war, the main background to the story and the reason behind the actions of its two other main characters, was the battlefield between republicanism (freedom) and fascism. While Portugal had fallen, a thread of hope was kept alive by what was going on next door: the good and evil forces of the western world were still engaged in life or death battles. As the fascist forces got the upper hand the events of the novel come to their foregone conclusions: The murderous nature of the state, the taking of a stand, and the fleeing of Portugal of the main characters!

        The text portrays life as routine yet claustrophobic and boring. Coping with it takes most of one's energy. It's not a matter of either hunker down or leave if you can but rather of finding one's niche and working through it until it becomes untenable. But this coping creates its own suffocating atmosphere, like in any corrupted reality, and becomes a fertile grounds for the imagination, where daily life takes at least two forms one above ground and the other underground. In a police state ideas about art, truth, journalism, etc. and their practitioners have to walk on razor thin path. "In newspapers we have to write things that correspond to the truth or at least resemble the truth." Not the truth but what corresponds to or resembles it: again pointing to the double world that fascism creates. Professionalism and knowing one's craft may not be the remedy but would help "it's not up to you to say how a writer died, for what reasons and in what circumstances, you must simply state that he is dead and then go on to speak of his work, of his novels and poems, because when you write an obituary you are essentially making a critical assessment, a portrait of the man and his work." [ Presumably the initial parts are covered by what are called reporters, and not the obituary writers!]. Again," if you aim to become a good critic you must refine your tastes, you must cultivate them and learn about wine and food and the world at large...[a]nd literature." Perhaps to skirt direct confrontation or just edging on symbolism of art and asserting its role: "Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth."

        The novel condemns emotionalism and vulgar forms of art such as Futurism(s) and most of early 20th century art -isms, and many of the bourgeois cultural past or present darlings (Pessao, Rilke, D'Annunzio, etc.)! It puts a dent also in what was known as art's realism, and a subtle critique of the idea of social-ist art, etc. That's, the idea of using art as an instrument for ideological propaganda campaigns, as was done in the so-called socialist countries and still in use in many 3rd world countries. It's not the heart or emotions that will solve the complex problems of the world but rather reason -of the heart and mind- presumably the cool reason of the alerted brain.

        One fights tyranny with the tools at hand. Translating, for instance, French 18th-century stories not only because they're " full of lightness and irony" but also because of their secularism and patriotic content! French writers, unlike their counterparts the Portuguese, don't write oppressively dull, gloomy, and nostalgic tales full of problems and fraught with tragedy. And if he - Dr Pereira- can write a book, it'll be "a serious, moral book, one that dealt with fundamental problems, a book that would do a power of good to the consciences of its readers.""[T]he world is full of decent people," thought "they don't go looking for trouble" trouble may come their way uninvitedly." You have to say goodbye to your past life , you need to live in the present, a man cannot live...thinking only of the past." "Stop haunting your past and try to drop in on the future." "Drop in on the future" that's the key word!

        No matter how a work is classified or what category is subsumed under, the reader always remains the last arbiter and the one who draws the conclusions. A work of art, though its context, characters, and events, may belong to a lived experience(s), is not an essay, or a comment nor a faithful reproduction of the world it deals with. While it refers to the actual world it constructs its own world, thus its timelessness and universality. Art's use, as always has been, is to stir the emotions and to goad the consciences which its interpretations are only partial verbalizing of some of those induced pangs. People with various persuasions may get different messages and thus come to opposite conclusions. It's not the job of a work of art to tell people what to do or what not to do, rather its timeless and universal role is to make people question what they do.


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