The Importance of the Flesh

By Jennifer Levasseur

Nothing tormented me more as a child Catholic than the idea—the promise—of eternal life after death. What would I do forever? The thought exhausted me; it made me consider sins that didn’t even appeal so that I might avoid the terror. With no death to look forward to, what urgency would shape the days? It would be something like Mass—but forever. I was sure I’d tire of singing with the angels.

I dared tell no one that I’d rather the certainty of a final blackout, of unending sleep. Eternal life frightened me even more than the bloody palms and gaping side of Jesus on the cross. I did not want my heaven to deny the laws of physics, of nature.

The eponymous protagonist of Antonio Tabucchi’s 1994 Pereira Declares shares a similar discomfort with his religion, one that points toward his earthly and corporeal fears. He cannot reconcile the resurrection of the body.

Of the soul yes, of course, for he was certain he had a soul; but all that flesh of his, the fat enveloping his soul, no, that would not rise again and why should it? … All the blubber he carted around with him day in day out, and the sweat, and the struggle of climbing the stairs, why should all that rise again? … No, Pereira didn’t fancy it at all, in another life, for all eternity… 

Poor Pereria lost his sickly wife years earlier, and her framed photograph is his only confidant. The obese culture editor of a second-rate evening newspaper, he keeps to himself. Even though he’s been a journalist for thirty-five years, his regular waiter knows more about the political upheaval in Lisbon—and in Spain and Italy—than Pereira can imagine. He will not bother himself with the rumors about murders by police. He will not challenge the widespread media censorship. He is a man of culture. Because his editor-in-chief is a government mouthpiece, the Lisboa publishes stories about luxury yachts. The editor sees no danger in the culture pages, so Pereira has a free hand to print stories and anecdotes about long-dead writers.

A man of culture concerned with death, Pereira latches onto an excerpt of a PhD student’s thesis on death. Without knowing exactly why (and without a budget at his disposal), he contacts the young man and commissions him to prepare advance obituaries of important writers for the paper. Without any desire to change his life, or to push himself closer to death with its bodily uncertainty, Pereira slips into anti-Fascist activism.

Pereira is an everyman, mildly concerned about his obesity (he’s shocked to learn that he should avoid his normal ten to twelve sugary lemonades per day), too small and unimportant to affect change or to even know enough to try to. He wants only to eat his omelettes, translate French stories for his pages and meditate on Pessoa, Bernanos, D’Annunzio, Daudet.

But when he’s pushed to help or to retreat into ignorance, his small acts of rebellion ripple. He discovers that even by following his natural tendencies, he can fight against brutality, give comfort, challenge evil. But to do so, he must wager his life—that very hulk of flesh that he’s unwilling to take with him into the next world.

Pereira Declares, a slim and seemingly gentle novel, demands that we take account of our lives, that we—in any way that we can within our own natures—stand against what we know to be wrong. Otherwise, our skin matters little, in this world or any other. 



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