The Fat Man and Infinity & Other Writings, Antonio Lobo Antunes (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). W.W. Norton. 320pp, 26.95.
Back in 1998, when Jose Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize, there were a number of critics who felt that the wrong Portuguese author was being honored, arguing that Antonio Lobo Antunes was the best contemporary writer in Portugal and far more deserving of the award. Entertaining as they can be, these sorts of Nobel discussions tend to be fruitless and unresolvable. (See, for instance, the many articles written after Horace Engdahl criticized America for being “too isolated” to participate in the greater dialogue of literature.) And it’s not like Antunes hasn’t won his fair share of awards, including the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society (2005), the Camões Prize in 2007, and the Juan Rulfo Prize in 2008. Nevertheless, it is interesting to contrast the English-language reception of these two literary giants, and the way that their careers have evolved.
Antunes’s literary career started began when he returned to Portugal after serving as a psychiatrist during the Angola war for independence, a war that later became a central part of many of his novels. He is the author of nineteen novels, and many of the most respected—Act of the Damned, Fado Alexandrino, The Inquisitors’ Manual, The Natural Order of Things, What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?—have been published in English translation. Grove Press did six of his books beginning in the mid-90s before dropping him, despite consistently positive reviews in venues like The New York Times and The Washington Post. During this same period, Saramago released Blindness, All the Names, The Cave, and The Double and became a bona fide blockbuster international author.
Granted, to the average reader Antunes’s books are much less “friendly” or “approachable” than Saramago’s. In his fiction he weaves together the voices from a number of different characters in a way that rivals Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and amidst this cacophony he draws on events from Portugal’s rich history, frequently discussing Angola’s war of independence, a postcolonial conflagration unfamiliar to many Americans. This is in stark contrast to Saramago’s more fable-like novels that start from interesting philosophical premises and engage the reader more through plot twists than through complex character development. And although Saramago writes in comma-heavy, lengthy paragraphs, that don’t use quotation marks to set off direct speech, his books are “easier” to get into that his fellow countryman’s.
That said, readers who stick with Antunes and give his novels the time to develop as they may oftentimes find them a rich, rewarding experiences. There’s a reason that on the back of every Antunes book he’s compared to Faulkner, Dos Passos, Celine, and Conrad. And as time has gone on his novels have become even more ambitious, containing even more troubled characters and structured in increasingly complex, well-crafted ways. To be completely frank, in today’s market none of these things help sell books . . . unless you win the Nobel Prize. Antunes is not an easy author. He’s a classic European author—important, more concerned with art than commerce, someone who takes literature seriously.
Thanks to Bob Weil at W. W. Norton and the Dalkey Archive Press, Antunes’s career in English is getting a post-grove life. Last year Dalkey and Norton brought out, respectively, Knowledge of Hell and What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?, the latter a very dense novel of a recovering drug addict whose life (and mind) have fallen apart, and whose father was a famous drag queen. The addict’s recollections of his youth are fragmented, repetitive, difficult to pull into a conclusive whole, especially since the novel constantly jumps from narrator to narrator (sometimes in a single paragraph) and from one moment in time to another without forewarning. Gregory Rabassa’s translation is masterful, resulting in a very poetic, almost hallucinatory work that is quite powerful and laden with memorable images.
The Fat Man and Infinity & Other Writings, also available from Norton, is a much different book, one of Lobo Antunes’s that is approachable, that is more fun than literary, and that serves as a great introduction to the author’s work.
In addition to writing a new (long) novel every year or so, and in addition to continuing to practice psychiatry, Antunes writes crónicas, most notably for the Portuguese newspaper O Público. Crónicas don’t really exist in American newspapers of today—at least not crónicas like these—so it’s worth repeating the definition Margaret Jull Costa gives in her introduction to The Fat Man:
Just a word about the term crónica. It is the normal Portuguese word for such newspaper or magazine opinion pieces or columns, but it is also a word that harks back to the chroniclers appointed by the kings of 15th- and 16th-century Portugal to record the important events of their respective reigns. One of the most famous, Fernão Lopes, wrote that he was not concerned with the beauty of his writing but rather in setting down the naked truth. With Lobo Antunes we get both beauty and truth, and these crónicas could be seen as a modern-day chronicle of Portugal’s recent past and present seen through the eyes of a master fiction writer.
The first half of this collection is made up of more personal crónicas, each about 600-1,000 words each, several of which focus on his life as an author. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—I & II” is one such example, and it includes a bit about when he realized he would be a writer:
I will never forget the beginning of my literary career. It was sudden, instantaneous, fulminating. I was traveling on the streetcar to Benfica, after another highly educational afternoon spent at the Liceu Camões, a kind of terrifying, futile concentration camp near Calhariz, when a surprising certainty blinded me: I’m going to be a writer. I was twelve years old, preparing for a brilliant career as an ice-hockey player, and unsure whether to be Spider-Man or Flash Gordon, but inclining slightly more toward Spider-Man because he could climb buildings, and in the midst of this came the call, the vocation, the certainty of a fate entirely unconnected with my plans, my dreams, my fantasies about muscles and fights.
“The Book Fair” is a funny and charming piece about attending the Book Fair with his daughter:
As at the sales in Avenida de Roma, all kinds of things happen: there’s the middle-aged gentleman with the sly eyes of a pimp who opens a copy of my novel South of Nowhere, leafs through it, first with curiosity, then with disappointment and moves off complaining to the man beside him, who has the long thumbnail of a guitarist
—What a gyp, it didn’t even have any photographs
there’s the young man with gelled hair and a crocodile at his breast, as Alexandre used to say, who asks with a knowing wink
—So which one has got the juiciest bits, I mean, sex scenes and all that
There are also more somber pieces, such as “Before Darkness Falls” that ends with a litany of melancholy desires:
I want a plate of lupine seeds, I want to be Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, I want to wear long pants, I want to jump off trams while they’re still moving, I want to be a ticket collector, I want to play all the plastic trumpets in the world, I want a shoebox full of silkworms, I want my soccer cigarette cards, I want there to be no hospitals, no patients, no operations, I want to have time to get up the courage to tell my parents that I love them very much
(I don’t know if I can)
to tell my parents that I love them very much before darkness falls, ladies and gentlemen, before the final darkness falls.
In instances such as these, The Fat Man and Infinity brings to mind the newspaper writings of Flann O’Brien/Myles na Gopaleen. Although Antunes’s pieces aren’t nearly as wild and funny as O’Brien’s they do ignite a desire to see columns like them in American newspapers; certainly this wouldn’t solve all the difficulties newspapers face in today’s digital world, but personal, inventive crónicas like these would give people a reason to buy the paper instead of just finding out the latest news online.
Unfortunately, there is something lost in reading Lobo Antunes’s crónicas one after another. The form is more suited to occasional reading, to enjoying these essays once a week instead of all in a row. Fortunately, The Fat Man and Infinity supplements Lobo Antunes’s crónicas, with his short fictional portraits, which occupy the book’s second half. Many of the characters found within have had something bad happen to them, are down on their luck, or are simply dealing with the fact that life never turns out exactly how you wanted. For instance, “On Widowhood” is written in the voice of an elderly woman who, after he dies, uncovers the fact that her husband was having an affair with her sister:
Discretion was always my husband’s strong point, and he died without bothering anyone. We didn’t have to call the doctor because there was no illness: halfway through supper he calmly put down his knife and fork on his fish fillets, rice, and greens, looked at me as tenderly as he always did, and said
which surprised me a little because my name is Felicidade, he smiled at me, then stopped smiling and headed chin first for the bread basked, he was dead by the time he had reached the rolls, slightly stale ones because what with its being my day for doing the housework I hadn’t had time to go shopping.
In this excerpt one of Lobo Antunes’s striking writerly tics is displayed, the way in which he piles details and observations on a character, giving the reader as full a picture as possible about what’s really going on in a person’s head. It’s a great way of defining a character and pulling in the reader, but beyond that it’s also a way of making his characters seem very human. Their faults, disappointments, and aggravations are that much more vibrant and palpable through observations about the inability to make time for shopping, or the way a husband’s sudden death reflects one of his “strong points.”
Some of these portraits are quite moving, such as in “The Person Who Was Dulce Is No More”:
I don’t exist. Ever since yesterday, when the doctor spoke of cancer, I’ve been trying to get used to the idea that I don’t exist. In the last few years, every now and then, I’ve been told about various people’s deaths. Young people who vanished from the world in a matter of months. I was told that they’d departed, but not how. I’m going to find out how, sooner than I thought.
As if these stories were testing grounds for developing characters, it’s easy to envision these voices popping up in one of Antunes’s novels, and that is precisely why this collection is a great entryway to Antunes’s world. His novels are very character-centric, and after getting a feel for how he creates the minds of his characters his novels should be much easier to approach. Lobo Antunes’s book may not be about mystical occurrences, like everyone suddenly going blind or the Iberian peninsula disconnecting itself from the rest of Europe, buy they are about fully rounded characters trying to deal with life, with situations that are often psychologically horrifying. I highly recommend reading “the other great Portuguese author” of our times—Antunes is a brave writer, and we are fortunate that Norton continues to make his work available to English readers.
Chad W. Post is the cofounder of Reading the World and the director of Open Letter, a new publishing house at the University of Rochester dedicated to international fiction.
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