Americans like our Romance-language novelists to be whimsical and playful, so it makes sense that Antonio Lobo Antunes has nowhere near the following in this country as, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Italo Calvino. Knowledge of Hell, written in 1980 but only now translated to English, has moments of hallucinatory fantasy but nothing close to magical realism. This is a dark, angry book, the kind that’s obviously accomplished but hard to enjoy. It’s a road novel of sorts, yet the only terrain of any import is the psychological landscape of the narrator, a man who happens to be named Antonio Lobo Antunes and who happens to share numerous biographical similarities to the author.
How much are we meant to assume is factual? How much of the character Antunes’s anger is actually that of the author? The narrative voice continually vacillates between first- and third-person lest we at any point feel we have these questions answered. At first, this trick feels distracting and self-conscious, but eventually I took it to mean that author Antunes wants us to see past character and focus only on his psychology and form. The trick finally feels like a statement of the obvious: Of course this character is both autobiographical and not, just as any fictional character is.
As for that character, his is a tough mind to inhabit for 300 pages. Character Antunes is a psychiatrist, and his trip’s destination is the hospital he works for in Lisbon. He’s also a veteran of the Portuguese war against Angola in the 1970s, and his nightmarish recollections of academic and hospital life provide the greatest insights into his character. His life, after all, is more defined by his participation in psychiatry, a practice that he describes in startlingly powerful terms:
[Psychiatrists] come armed with a complex religion with couches for altars, a rigidly hierarchical religion with its cardinals, its bishops, its canons, its prematurely grave and aged seminarians. . . . Nothing else exists for them in the universe beyond enormous mothers and fathers, colossal, almost cosmic, and a child reduced to an anus, penis, and mouth who maintains with these two unbearable creatures a singular relationship from which are excluded spontaneity and joy.
The religious imagery here is the most telling; for Antunes (presumably the character and the author), the greatest sin of psychiatry is its practitioners’ belief in their godliness. In one of the few happy recollections during his drive, Antunes remembers living with his family in Lagos, saying, “despite my fear of the dark, my savage loneliness, and the lack of money, I was happy: as John Updike’s Pop Kramer would say, we lived under the eye of God.” Antunes’ God is always capital-G, unknown and all-powerful, and any attempt to usurp that power is a form of abuse. The “hell” of the novel’s title represents abuse of authority, and who would have greater knowledge of it than a doctor and ex-soldier?
Since Antunes is still a doctor, however, “hell” may as well stand for his own self-hatred, the excess of which makes Knowledge of Hell a difficult read. The whole novel is a loose mental address to his daughter Joanna, and its implicit message is to not settle for unhappiness. The seeds of Antunes’s self-loathing were sown when he started psychiatry as a young man and didn’t dare quit when he should have:
I was disgusted at finding myself exhausted and pale, eaten up by a profession that was destroying me. . . . I lacked the courage to skip my shift at Bombarda, to go off down the street. . . . I didn’t have the courage to drown in shit to keep from drowning in shit, to tell everything to fuck off, medicine, psychoanalysis, tranquilizers, antidepressants, psychotherapy, psychodrama, whatever the fuck. I got paid punctually and pretended to believe in my work.
Author Antunes’s disgust and rage frequently reaches that exhausted, whatever-the-fuck endpoint, and while it’s always written convincingly and often presented through complex, polyclausal sentences, there’s little to raise the writer’s hate above the level of character study. Finishing the novel, I had a very good feeling of where Antunes (presumably author and character) stand on psychiatry and the general goodness of mankind, but I didn’t find myself bettered as a reader in any other way. His nihilism and long sentences are well-executed but not particularly original, and the book is far too long for its narrative insularity.
Like many Iberian and South American writers, Antunes has been compared favorably with Faulkner in regards to his style. But it takes more than long sentences and an eye towards psychology to stake a claim to the Mississippi bard’s legacy, and in Knowledge of Hell I see none of Faulkner’s gift for dialogue and dark humor, none of his depth of characterization, and very little of his poetic beauty. Antunes does present some striking imagesa man perched behind a shiny desk that reflects him like a king on a playing card; a description of “teabags as bland as a priest’s kiss”but his novel is never as involving as a psychological novel needs to be. This is an early Antunes novel; he continues to publish (and practice psychiatry), and I will probably read more based on his considerable reputation. Knowledge of Hell, however, was not a very welcoming introduction. If Faulkner comes to mind, I can’t help but think of sound and fury.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. He is the managing editor of Splice Today.
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