This novel demonstrates why my previous policy of avoiding novels translated into English is a mistake. In the same way, to assume that such a short, very readable novel must be lightweight is another error.
Impeccably translated from Italian, this subtly humorous story with a growing underlying sense of menace captures Lisbon in the summer heat of 1938, as Portugal slides into fascist dictatorship on the coattails of its aggressive neighbour, Spain, under the influence of Franco.
Punctuated with the refrain, "Pereira maintains", this is the testimony of a journalist employed in a sinecure to produce the new weekly cultural page for a small newspaper, "The Lisboa". Sunk into a dull routine, overweight and unhealthy, Pereira's life revolves around eating "omelettes aux fines herbes", drinking sugary lemonade at the Cafe Orchidea, and communing with a photograph of his dead wife.
Since he is a humane man with principles, he is gradually forced out of his ostrichlike state by the examples of repression which become increasingly hard to ignore. A carter is murdered by the police for being a socialist, but staff on "The Lisboa" are too scared to report the story in the boss's absence: information on the real state of affairs has to be gleaned from listening to the BBC or obtaining a foreign newspaper. An attractive woman whom Pereira meets on a train confides that she is planning emigration to the US, because she is Jewish. The office telephone system is altered without warning so that all calls come through the nosy female caretaker, clearly a police spy. Yet the main trigger for what a sympathetic doctor calls the "rise of a new ruling ego" in Pereira is the youthful political idealism of a young couple he meets by chance and drifts into helping, with fateful consequences.
Tightly plotted, despite its misleadingly gentle rhythm, the book builds up to a dramatic and effective climax. Perhaps the "last straw" that drives Pereira to take a stand is the extension of censorship and bigotry even to his little page, where he finds himself no longer free to publish his translations of foreign authors, after a piece by Alphonse Daudet is seen by the philistines in power as anti the Germans who are propping up the corrupt Portuguese regime.
This is one of the few novels I would like to retain and reread again, to enjoy all the allusions and observations which you may miss on a first reading in the pressing need to know what happens.