Canongate, £14.99, 195pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Pereira Maintains, By Antonio Tabucchi, trans. Patrick Creagh

Antonio Tabucchi's novel of a quiet Lisbon man's political awakening amid the rise of fascism in Europe was first published in Italy in 1994 and became a bestseller, perhaps because of the humility of its protagonist. Patrick Creagh translated it into English under the title Pereira Declares, and it has now been published in the UK for the first time under its current title.

The power of this slim book is inversely proportional to its size and modest, unassuming tone. The setting is 1938 Lisbon. Portugal is ruled by the dictator Salazar, who sides with the fascism of Franco in Spain. The Portuguese government is clamping down on left-wing dissenters. The novel's unlikely hero is Dr Pereira, elderly cultural editor of a minor Lisbon paper. Initially indifferent to these political fissures, he wishes to lead a quiet life, his wistful existence in large part due to continued mourning for his late wife.

Pereira, a Catholic like most in his country, is grappling with his religion's concept of the resurrection of the body; his own body disgusts him, not only corporeal but corpulent. One day he reads musings on death by a young graduate and on impulse contacts the author, Rossi, and invites him to write obituaries on authors. The two meet and Pereira finds himself acceding to Rossi's requests for money, despite declaring his radical articles unpublishable.

Rossi and his girlfriend's anger with the fascist regime in Portugal and neighbouring Spain permeates Pereira's consciousness. He now finds the laisser-faire compliance of an acquaintance intolerable, and his growing political conscience is catalysed by encounters with a sympathetic doctor, a stranger and the local priest. The novel builds in suspense and culminates in an act, the repercussions of which are never divulged.

Tabucchi's spare prose is elegant. Its economy, and the growing sense of foreboding, seize the reader's attention and leave palpable threats hanging. The weather is an allegory for state oppression: hot, airless and suffocating, as in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The title phrase, "Pereira maintains" or a cropped "he maintains", are echoed refrains throughout the book. While initially this seems a wearing contrivance, as the sense of danger heightens they add a malevolent edge by making the story read like a prosecution counsel's opening statement. The inclusion of minutiae of which Pereira was unaware, such as inadvertently forgetting to pay a bill, intensify this feeling: goose pimples rise as we realise the protagonist may unwittingly have been watched.

Creagh's translation is, for the most part, fluid and unobtrusive though there are rare clumsy touches. Pereira's lonely existence, unattractive physique and lack of self-esteem inspire empathy: he is an ordinary man who makes a difference. There are moving slivers of information which add to his elegiac air: "Pereira thought about the child they hadn't had. He had longed for one but he couldn't ask so much of that pale, suffering woman". This a small book about an act of largesse. The beauty of its pared-down prose and accomplished development of the pervading sense of threat render it a little treasure.

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