Battlefield in the heart of a reluctant hero

The great Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi has created a character with a life beyond the page. By Harriet Paterson; Declares Pereira by Antonio Tabucchi Translated by Patrick Creagh Harvill, pounds 9.99

A string of good books stretches out behind Antonio Tabucchi, the leading Italian fiction author, but this time he appears to have outstripped all his previous work, Declares Pereira rode the best-seller list in Italy for month after month and has been made into a forthcoming film with European heavyweights Daniel Auteuil and Marcello Mastroianni. Tabucchi's work translates well in all senses - there is no need for any special knowledge of Italy, nor of Portugal, his adopted second country, to appreciate this fine and sensitive novel.

Like Requiem, Tabucchi's last book, Declares Pereira is set in Lisbon. But the year is 1938, during a sultry summer overshadowed by the activities of the Salazar regime and its Fascist police. A very reluctant hero is about to be created. "I'm old, I'm fat and I've got heart trouble," says Pereira, cultural editor of a second-rate evening paper, who has a fondness for omelettes and 19th-century French literature. He is virtually a Maupassant character, with his mediocre life, his dismal little office continually pervaded by the smell of frying, his small routines.

Although Pereira is uneasily aware of the "reek of death" in Portugal as in the rest of Europe, he shuns political involvement: "The whole world is a problem and it certainly won't be solved by you or me," he says defensively. The book describes the enormous upheaval in his hitherto undisturbed universe as he is taken to task for this negligence. "Are you living in another world?" a friend upbraids him, "for goodness' sake go and find out what's happening around you."

He doesn't have to go far. A political conscience walks into his life in the form of a young activist couple who flush him out of his ideological burrow. Both provoke obscure feelings of tenderness in him - the young man reminds him of himself as a boy, the girl is young and beautiful. Pereira helps them despite himself, for this is more than just an encounter between abstract principles. As Tabucchi once said: "I prefer a philosophy in which one perceives that the intellectual thought is linked to an emotional aspect, to the viscera, to the soul." He maintains the balance between these elements to perfection. This is a political book concerned with the dangers of fascism, highly relevant today despite the historical setting, but Tabucci has chosen to place the whole battlefield in Pereira's not very robust heart.

Dealing tactfully with a shy man, the author appears to skirt around Pereira's feelings: "On this subject he has no wish to make further statements." Yet this is deceptive, for a later phrase will suddenly reveal a glimpse of the sea-changes taking place within the bewildered journalist, whose life now seems meaningless in comparison with the belief and vitality of the young couple: "... he had been living as if he were dead ... perhaps his life was merely a remnant and a pretence." Now his chance has come to get involved, and to discover his own capacity for heroism.

Tabucchi engages with his protagonist as never before, making Pereira's awkward evolution an intensely human odyssey. Where the narrator of Requiem talks to ghosts, for example, Pereira confides his worries aloud to the photograph of his dead wife - so much more pathetic, and truer.

Tabucchi's writing has taken on a new departure. It is less abstract and cerebral, more directly concerned with character than in the past. Surrealism and dreamlike ambiguity have given way to firmer ground - to a thoroughly unified examination of the transformation of a man's heart. Tabucchi has created that rare thing, a literary character so real that he possesses a life independent of the book that temporarily framed him.

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