Regulars will know that one of my favourite bookshops is the economically named The Bookshop in the Derbyshire town of Wirksworth. Despite its relatively small stock, I rarely leave empty-handed - and so it proved on my most recent visit, last week. I bought two pleasingly slim volumes - Nabokov's Mary (his first published novel), reissued in a Penguin series called Great Loves, and a title new to me: Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi. Looking at the notes on the back, I discovered that Requiem (first published in 1991) is set in Lisbon, on a broiling hot July day - and that was enough for me. My affection for Lisbon is such that (as with Venice) I'll read almost anything set there.
Now I have read Requiem and, though I reached the end unsure whether it amounted to anything much more than a bagatelle, I enjoyed the experience, the evocation of different parts of the city, and the pervasive atmosphere of that untranslatable Portuguese phenomenon, saudade - a kind of melancholy nostalgic yearning for something that is not present and may never have been.
Requiem is subtitled A Hallucination, and it inhabits a world in which past and present, fact and fiction mingle freely, and Lisbon itself seems strangely fluid, a kind of dream city. The narrator finds himself in a largely deserted Lisbon - the heat having driven everyone to the beach - with a day to kill before an appointed meeting with a long-dead poet, 'a great poet, perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth century'.
Although he is never named, this can only be Fernando Pessoa (best known as the author of The Book of Disquiet), a writer more identified with and absorbed into the city of Lisbon than almost any other writer with any city. All Portuguese writers - especially if Lisbon is any part of their subject - live in the huge shadow, or rather radiance, of Pessoa, and Tabucchi (an Italian by birth, Portuguese by adoption) is no exception. References to Pessoa, his various 'heteronyms' (literary personae) and his works abound in Requiem, which consists of a succession of brief meetings between the narrator and a fast-moving cast of characters, some from his past life, some casual presences, some strayed from Pessoa's fictions (and a surprising number from Alentejo, the province beyond the Tagus).
There is a lot of talking and story-telling, and a great deal of eating - indeed the book is so full of food that it has an appendix of notes on the recipes featured. Whether Requiem makes a satisfying meal in itself is another question. It's certainly not as substantial as Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, another novel set in Lisbon and soaked in the abiding presence(s) of Pessoa - nor, indeed, as substantial as the average Portuguese meal. But for anyone interested in Lisbon and its genius loci, it's worth a try - and it's refreshingly short.