Written as a “testimonial” about an aging journalist named Pereira, a widower who spends his days alone and translating French stories for his newspaper’s Culture Pages. It is his way of ignoring the world around him, especially the rapidly changing times in Salazarist Lisbon - the weight of fascism growing increasingly heavy. Pereira is apolitical and only cares about his translations and consuming his many lemonades at the local cafe where he hopes to run into Lisbon’s most renowned writers. Being that he’s overweight, he frequently visits the doctor, one of whom suggests that he spend some time in a health spa and change his diet. His only other social contact is the local priest, Father Antonio, who admonishes him for being so ignorant of what is going on around him and to “go out and see the world”. The era is the late 1930s and just over the mountains the Spanish Civil War is raging. In the background of the story there are many references to Portugal’s support for Spain’s Nationalists and being “allied” with Germany. While he is aware of a changing world, he remains blissfully ignorant, disengaged and only wants to be left alone to read and focus on his culture page.
One day he meets a young man named Montiero Rossi who expresses interest in working for the paper and perhaps contributing some of his writing to the culture pages. Pereira agrees to take him on and instructs Montiero to compose “advanced obituaries” of famous writers who may soon die. Montiero agrees and submits obituaries of mostly leftist and revolutionary authors, something Pereira knows will never pass the censors. He accepts them but places them aside as “unpublishable”. But meeting Montiero is the turning point in Piera’s life, one that will lead him down a path of political engagement and the realization that he will no longer have the luxury of remaining a bystander, cut off from current events. Over time, Pereira’s affection grows for the young anti-fascist and finds himself shaken out of his stupor to help the young man out as he secretly goes about his anti-Salazar activities. Throughout the novel you feel the growing cloud of repression - the opinions of his priest, of his editor, his doctors - and we watch as Pereira slowly becomes more “conscious” of the world around him. Ultimately, things come to a head and there is a surprise twist near the end which leads to one last heroic act.
I found this novel especially poignant because even though it takes place in an era where fascism began getting its foothold across the globe, there are eerie parallels to modern times with all the fodder that passes as “news” and celebrity culture obsession that distracts one from the creeping statism occurring in many places around the world; how the erosion of democracy can take place while the population sleeps, retreats into their own little world and become willfully ignorant of the world around them in favor of creature comforts and leisure. It sends a powerful message and the pacing of the novel - although quite short - raises the tension as we watch Pereira, albeit reluctantly, develop a political conscience.