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BOOKS /: Harriet Paterson meets a so-called Sunday writer, the Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi

Antonio Tabucchi collects me from Pisa station in a small white Fiat. Bookish wire-rimmed glasses, a lined, high forehead. It's after midday, the city is sunny but deserted - everyone is at home eating their pasta. We take the scenic route to the restaurant, to admire a Vasari palazzo. He is welcoming, but won't talk about his work. 'We'll deal with that during the interview,' he says: limits are clearly defined.

The Osteria dei Cavalieri is run by friends, for whom Tabucchi has brought his latest book signed with affectionate messages. 'We knew Mr Tabucchi before he was such hot property,' smiles the owner. At 51, with 14 books of fiction behind him, Tabucchi is Italy's leading narrative author, in a profession struggling for breath under the incoming tide of instant journalistic books and imported thrillers.

The osteria is a fitting setting for talking to Mr Tabucchi, whose characters thrive on discussions in restaurants about literature and philosophy. Requiem, published in Britain next week, may be peopled largely by ghosts, but this doesn't stop them from relishing the richest, most visceral of meals: great fragrant dishes of pork and tripe cooked in blood washed down with dark Portuguese red wine. If these are baked meats, there is nothing funereal about them. It is a detailed ritual of pleasure: recipes are included at the back of the book.

Tabucchi's spare frame belies his expertise in food; it is he who chooses what we will eat. 'Dictator]' challenges his wife, a professor at Pisa University, but his choice is faultless - prosciutto served with weightless puffs of fried dough, a swordfish carpaccio, rabbit stuffed with olives and pistachios. As one of Requiem's characters memorably remarks, 'someone should have told Herr Jung that food always comes before the imagination'.

'Although Requiem deals with death,' says the author, 'it is light-hearted: the dead return to life and start feasting. They have the chance to revisit past misunderstandings, seek explanations. It is a luxury, a Freudian analysis of oneself.' Tabucchi writes only after long and intimate dialogue with these phantasms: 'I converse with my characters in the moments between waking and sleeping - when the super-ego relaxes its control and the cautious surveillance of the intellect is dulled. Only then does one become open, without received ideas.'

It's a perilous process. Subtitled A Hallucination, Requiem is constructed on the shifting sands at the extremities of the ego. As a gypsy warns the narrator: 'You can't live in two worlds at once, in the world of reality and the world of dreams'. In Indian Nocturne (1984 / 1991), a prophet refuses to read the narrator's karma: 'It isn't possible, you are someone else . . . you're not there.' Nevertheless, Tabucchi embraces the danger: 'In order to be an artist, a writer, you must risk losing yourself. All writers are slightly schizophrenic.' His mood intensifies. 'When an author is submerged in himself, he only knows what he's found after the book is written - it may be clear running streams, or dead rats.' This doesn't sound like a 'Sunday writer', as he describes himself. 'Writing a book is like having a hysterical pregnancy. I entirely sympathise with Virginia Woolf's need to go into a clinic after each book - unfortunately the rest of us have jobs to do.'

So fully did he submerge himself in his imagination whilst composing Requiem, set in Lisbon, that he wrote in Portuguese, a language learnt in his twenties, and found himself unable to translate back into Italian. This remarkable feat was carried out in Paris in a deserted Cafe de Flore during the Gulf War, with a delighted waiter in attendance exclaiming: 'Finalement, un ecrivain]' It's a romantic scene, but then Tabucchi freely admits to being a romantic writer: eschewing computers, he writes in the black hardback exercise book of a Fifties scholar and feels his soul would lie in his fingertips - if he weren't an agnostic. 'I only write when I feel like it,' he says almost apologetically, 'when my Muse is around.' He adds dryly: 'My Muse is very unionised, she takes a lot of holidays. As Professor of Portuguese at Siena University, he is scarcely idle in the meantime.

Sloughing off his native language has produced a remarkable liberation, if the English translation of Requiem is anything to go by. It is a whimsical, witty journey into the outlandish, anchored by snatches of the prosaic. In Lisbon's Museum of Art a copyist labours endlessly, reproducing enormously enlarged details of Bosch's painting The Temptation of St Anthony for the ranch of his Texan patron. Such a grotesque, glorious image announces a new energy and defiance in Tabucchi's writing. 'I felt completely different after writing this book. It was like being immersed in a river which washed away all my dregs.'

It provided the emotional charge for his latest book Sostiene Pereira, ('Pereira Mountains'), just published in Italy, which is being hailed as his finest work. It charts the existential torment of an ageing journalist in Lisbon in 1938 whose literary existence is made meaningless by the political ferment around him. 'Write about what's happening in Europe . . . in short, do something,' a Jewish woman upbraids him. This may be a message from Tabucchi to himself, preoccupied by the return of xenophobia across Europe. He is deeply pessimistic about Berlusconi's new right, fearing for Italian literature under a leader with such extensive media control. 'Subversives will get bad reviews in all Berlusconi's newspapers,' he says, only half-jokingly.

One is never sure how far he means what he says, as he shifts between irony and darker melancholy. 'Don't believe in what writers say,' he warns in The Flying Creatures or Fra Angelico (1987 / 1991) 'they lie almost all the time.' His writing thrives on ambiguity and unfinished truths. His collection of short stories Little Misunderstandings of No Importance (1985 / 1987) is prefaced: 'Misunderstandings, uncertainties . . . useless remorse, treacherous memories . . . all these irresistibly fascinate me.' Graceful, elusive, deceptively gentle - to read Tabucchi is to tread a precarious path between the clear waters and the dead rats.

(Photograph omitted)