With two outstanding novels and a lot of parachuting under his belt, Lawrence Norfolk is fast becoming a British publishing phenomenon.

When Lawrence Norfolk quit his grim South London bedsit and moved to Chicago in 1993, where his wife-to-be Vineeta had just been given an internship in a local hospital, his departure went largely unnoticed. True, he had a modest reputation as a reviewer of poetry for the TLS and had garnered some good notices for his one novel, Lempriere's Dictionary, then just out in paperback. True, Lempriere had found its way into a number of holiday-bound beachbags that summer, but it wasn't exactly setting the world on fire. As Norfolk himself puts it, "It was an unpromising, densely written book with no sex at all in it."

Then vague rumours started percolating back from the States that Norfolk's "unpromising" book had gone ballistic on the bestseller lists all around the world, and that he had become a major celebrity in Germany. These kinds of barmy rumours - like the one about Britpoppers Shed Seven enjoying superstar status in Thailand - are generally taken with a hefty pinch of salt. We British don't much care for our artists and writers going abroad and being successful; it seems like cheating. Sales of l80,000 in hardback just in Germany? The nation that values David Hasselhoff as a singer?

But it's true. Lempriere's Dictionary has made Norfolk a small fortune, selling half-a-million copies world-wide - something unheard-of for a literary first novel since William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Norfolk himself is a modest man but, understandably, there's a triumphalist air to his return to London to promote his next novel, The Pope's Rhinoceros, to look for a much better house than his former dive in Chiswick, and generally to claim his place as the most successful British novelist of his generation. As Martin Amis growled admiringly, on a recent visit to Norfolk's Chicago apartment, "You know what you're doing, don't you?"

Norfolk himself is a wiry 32-year-old, fit and lean from daily noon-time swims, and strangely streamlined after over 50 freefall jumps with his "knackered" blue and brown parachute. I asked him what it felt like to be Britain's best-kept literary secret. Perversely, he admits to feeling "quite affectionate" about his low profile in Britain. "Initially I was a bit pissed off about it," he recalls. "I thought I'd done something wrong." Yet even his London publishers have not quite grasped the extent of Norfolk's globetrotting whizz-kid status. When they shepherded him last week into a magazine interview, they expressed concern that this might be a traumatic "first interview" scenario. Norfolk gently advised them that he had been interviewed "about 200 times" before. He had autograph- hunters camped outside his hotel in Germany, for heaven's sake. But yes, this was his first interview in England.

The extraordinary brilliance of his new book, The Pope's Rhinoceros, seems certain to bring him a slice of that elusive British fame. A "companion piece" to Lempriere, it's a tale of Baltic monks and a plan to capture a rhinoceros for a Renaissance Pope. A moiling, fact-spilling, word-rolling epic, 600 pages long, it's so dense that it at times resembles something akin to Benedictine: distilled from arcane documents, spices from Tartary, and the odd rat. There's a high-stakes poetry of language at work, a true exuberance. Not since Jeanette Winterson has there been a writer who so clearly enjoys being a writer.

Norfolk denies that he is now a millionaire but accepts that his tendency to be a "financial primitive" has inclined him to leave his new fortune in a heap in a bank account "somewhere". "I live modestly," he says. "You can never forget it if you've been very poor." He vividly recalls years of poverty in London. "In the 1980s I was working all the hours that God sent just to pay the rent; I was writing a PhD on John Ashberry, working in a bar in Shepherd's Bush and heaving radiator blocks round a building site. I started to write Lempriere's Dictionary because I wanted to do something just for myself. The first word of Lempriere was the first word of fiction I ever wrote, if you discount the biography of my Uncle Peter I wrote aged eight and sold for 10 shillings."

Norfolk spent his earliest years in Iraq, where his father worked as a civil engineer, building all those bridges TV viewers of the Gulf War saw destroyed by smart bombs. While still quite young, his family were evacuated from the Middle East at the onset of the 1967 Six Day War. He still remembers the "burning white vistas that turned black when it rained", the rolling currents of the massive Tigris river by their house, and the rumbling backdrop of war in the Mesopotamian townships. As a child of Ur, war is a great theme of his. "War seems such an unlikely activity, when you consider the logistics necessary to start one, leaving all moral questions aside. It seems very odd that it happens so frequently. In Bosnia I saw what it was really like."

Bosnia? "I was drunk in Vienna, as all the best stories begin, and was chatting to this journalist and he was talking about all these little places in Bosnia he'd just visited. They were all in Lempriere. I'd described the Austro-Hungarian war and picked out these villages and atrocities from the Times of 1778 - yet he was talking about the same places. It was just too bizarre for words, hamlets of 175 people. He said: 'Why don't you come?' So I said 'yeah' - being drunk."

He witnessed the siege of Sarajevo first hand, writing it up for an Austrian magazine. It was cold and dangerous and he survived on a grisly piece of salami, which tore from his gums all the stitches left by a recent wisdom tooth extraction. Leaving Bosnia almost got him killed. "We got to this place 20 miles from the border and came up to this roadblock. When we went over the brow of the hill in pitch blackness, all hell broke loose. There was machine gun fire from the left and rockets came down the valley. It was so loud, unbelievably loud. The car got hit and the tyre stripped off and suddenly we were only doing 15 miles an hour and it looked like the truck behind us might drive us off the road. I was thinking, 'If we do get hit, I want to be killed right out, I don't want to be bleeding on the road for 10 hours and then die.' I've never been more terrified."

On the darkened road they passed a woman pushing a wheelbarrow of her pitiful possessions through the darkness, a small child trailing behind. "We went past her. I didn't give it a second thought: there was never any question of stopping to pick her up. It takes a matter of a few days and you are reduced to this level."

He enjoys living dangerously, but not enough to settle permanently in the US, with its "intractable social problems". Chicago suited him well enough for three years, and taught him to identify more with being a European than an Englishman. "In Chicago you don't feel British, you feel European," he says decisively. But it's time now to move on. He admits his London sojourn may be short-lived: he fears for the future of Britain should the Eurosceptics get their way and the UK split from the EU. Nationalistic retrenchment would, he says, mask a desperate leap into the unknown. He laughs at the notion that the US would fill the breach of an isolated Britain. "America is not interested in Britain and never has been," he observes. "Our last meaningful relationship with the US was in 1776."

There's always Europe to move to, should things turn bad in England. Besides, his relationship with the Teutonic contingent seems assured: his next book promises to be a kind of Critique of Pure Venison, being a gamey meditation "about boar-hunting and German philosophy". Stuck pig meets Wittgenstein? Great Scott, as they say in Bavaria, as a kind of greeting.

n 'The Pope's Rhinoceros' is published by Sinclair-Stevenson at pounds 16.99

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