“No really, his books are awesome. There’s always some guy—totally damaged by the war . . . No, not World War II, the Angolan War of Independence . . . Yeah, Wikipedia it. Anyway, there’s always at least one male character, usually a psychiatrist, totally fucked in the head because of the war, who spends most of the book getting wasted and bitching about everything. War, society, Portugal, women, being alone, his family, his ex’s family. . . . Yeah, well sure, it’s a bit depressing, but that’s sort of life, you know? Especially when you’ve fought in a meaningless war, which resulted in a crazy-ass coup and years of political instability and class issues . . . So, yeah, in addition to the endless drinking, most of Antunes’s books consist of one long stream of vitriolic hatred. All conveyed in this strange stream-of-consciousness style in which time is all mixed up, different speakers come and go inside of the character’s head, it’s a bit confusing to figure out what’s really going on, what with the sudden italics and the sense of Everything Happening All at Once, but some of the lines just sing, so even if you’re not into Portuguese history or culture, or endless tirades, or late-modernist experiments, there’s always the poetry . . .”
For someone who’s spent most of his life working at bookstores, writing jacket copy, making sales calls, and marketing literature in translation, I’m not very good at convincing people to read the works of Antonio Lobo Antunes—one of my stated favorite authors of all time.
I first discovered Antunes over a decade ago, when I was asked to review The Natural Order of Things, the fourth of six novels of his published by Grove Press. Reading it was like discovering that once-in-a-lifetime band whose music just sounds right straight away. As if the patterns were constructed precisely for you to hear them. It was at once familiar and new and exciting. A whole new way of constructing art—one that was smart and jarring, both on the surface and at the level of deeper emotions.
Immediately hooked, I went back and read Act of the Damned and An Explanation of the Birds and begged to be able to review each new title of his as it was released—to date, eleven have made their way into English, a remarkable number for a “difficult” Portuguese author whose books probably don’t sell all that well. (To put this in perspective, Nobel Prize winner and fellow countryman Jose Saramago has thirteen novels available in English translation.)
Publishing is a profession of people and individual taste, and Antunes has been in great hands in the U.S., having been backed by Morgan Entrekin (Grove), Bob Weil (W.W. Norton), and John O’Brien (Dalkey Archive). He’s also received a wealth of critical praise, from a New Yorker profile—“One of the most skillful psychological portraitist writing anywhere”—to numerous New York Times reviews. He’s been compared to Faulkner, Dos Passos, García Márquez, Céline, Cormac McCarthy, Malcolm Lowry, Proust, Woolf, Canetti, Gogol, Camus, Cortazar, and Nabokov. The real challenge for reviewers is coming up with a new Master of World Literature Antunes hasn’t been compared to.
But what does all this praise mean? That’s one hell of a mad amalgam of influences, and it gives a basis for the sense of familiarity and newness that I experienced when I first encountered his work. It also makes you appreciate that, with such a thorough connection to the literary history of the twentieth century, Antunes is greatly underappreciated. Which, to be completely honest, sort of makes sense. His books truly do embody everything Americans are supposedly afraid of: most of his novels focus around a war and a coup unfamiliar to many readers; the books aren’t very uplifting; they can be difficult to piece together. In thinking about this article, I’ve set myself the task of trying to convince an imaginary reader why he/she should invest his/her mental energy and time into this particular quasi-obscure, complicated novelist . . .
War Is Universally Broken
Almost all of Antunes’s books revolve around the Portuguese Colonial War—a crucial bit of Portuguese history that is little-known to Americans. Admittedly, this is one of the challenges of reading an Antunes book—a fate he shares with plenty of international authors—but I’d say that Antunes in particular deals with an obscure point of history. He benefits quite a bit from the omnipresence of smartphones capable of looking up cities, revolutionary groups, events.
To paint broadly for a moment, the basic background to all of Antunes’s novels is this: “Prime Minister” Salazar has been in control of Portugal for some three decades, right up until Portugal’s colonies—namely Angola and Mozambique—rise up and fight for independence. Salazar—like every dictator and Republican president known to man—benefitted the wealthy and sent the lower-middle classes to fight in his war. He benefitted from being not quite as bad as neighboring Franco, but his secret police kept the people in check until he was overthrown in 1974, in the middle of the Colonial War. So you have people like Antunes stationed in Africa, trying to repress the natives on behalf of a dictator that only the wealthiest strata of society believed in, and who is suddenly deposed in the Carnation Revolution, a fairly bloodless uprising. At this point the war-broken soldiers come home to a country that’s moved on, that doesn’t really accept them back into the fold, so to speak.
Maybe the closest American equivalent is Vietnam, although in contrast to most of the Vietnam-related books I’ve read, Antunes explores this historical moment from a number of different viewpoints: the rich Portuguese family who is terrified of the communists coming to wreck their lives, the soldiers who suffered the shitholeness of the war only to return to scorn and divorce and universal brokenness, the family that went off to colonize Africa and returns more busted than ever . . .
The most distilled version of these sentiments can be found in The Land at the End of the World, an early Antunes title newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and absolutely fucking bitter. Across a series of chapters named after the letters of the Portuguese alphabet, a veteran of the Colonial War seduces a woman at a desolate bar by telling her all about the misery of his life.
His daughter born while he was overseas serving as a psychiatrist (yes, this is the prototypical Antunes anti-hero), he returns home damaged, is abandoned by his wife, becomes an insomniac. He describes it all in a self-annihilating way that would make Céline proud:
Perhaps the war has helped to make me the person I am today whom I deep down reject: a melancholic bachelor whom no one phones and from whom no one expects a call, who coughs occasionally just to feel as if he had company, and whom the cleaning lady will find one day sitting in his rocking chair in his undershirt, mouth agape, his purple fingers trailing on the November-colored hair of the carpet.
Just to drive the Céline point home, here’s the opening paragraph of Death on the Installment Plan:
Here we are, alone again. It’s all so slow, so heavy, so sad . . . I’ll be old soon. Then at last it will be over. So many people have come into my room. They’ve talked. They haven’t said much. They’ve gone away. They’ve grown old, wretched, sluggish, each in some corner of the world.
Antunes’s sentences don’t have the same staccato rhythms, but over the course of his narrator’s nightlong seduction he hits on a lot of Céline-esque concerns, wallowing in the pointlessness of war and the dirty sadness of life. He also takes aim at Portugal itself in a way that brings to mind Thomas Bernhard (one of the few classic world authors I’ve yet to see Antunes compared to):
I’m trying, as I said, to fix in my mind the scene I’ve inhabited for so many months, the canvas tents, the stray dogs, the decrepit buildings of the defunct administration that is gradually dying in a slow agony of neglect: the idea of a Portuguese Africa, which the history books at school, the politicians’ speeches, and the chaplain in Mafra all described in such majestic terms, was, after all, a kind of provincial backwater rotting away in the vastness of space, a sort of housing project rapidly devoured by grass and scrub, a great, desolate silence inhabited by the gnarled and starving figures of the lepers. This land at the end of the world was extremely isolated and extremely poor, governed by drunken, greedy district leader, trembling with malaria in their empty houses, reigning over a people resigned to their fate who sat at the doors of their huts with a kind of vegetable indifference.
The Land at the End of the World is a perfect introduction into Antunes’s world. It encompasses the range of his concerns—the war and revolution, existential bleakness, etc.—but, in contrast to his later, polyphonic books, it’s extremely focused, featuring only one speaker and driving its major points home like a fucking laser. The achievement here is that over the course of just over 200 pages Antunes creates a character that is believably broken. It’s heartbreaking, in a way, and he articulates a feeling of fated desperation that one can identify with, or at least understand. This is admittedly some sad shit, but what makes this book really function is the way in which the narrator can’t stop telling his story. As the novel progresses and it becomes clear that he’s said this all before, that he’s trying to get past the trauma by invoking and re-invoking in a way that makes the trauma constantly present like a scab that’s impossible not to pick. The narrator is constructed by a kind of ghosting, our anti-hero scoring the girl by exposing all of his warts—in a compulsive attempt to move past it all.
The Land at the End of the World is probably Antunes’s most universal work, the easiest to get into. It’s also a perfect building block for approaching his more ambitious and layered works, which mine similar material from a range of viewpoints and stylistic techniques.
We Rage All Night
Fado Alexandrino, which first landed on U.S. shores in 1990, is the longest of Antunes’s works to be translated into English. Over the course of a surreally long night, five military men, each a different rank—soldier, lieutenant colonel, communications officer, second lieutenant, and captain—recount the small tragedies of their lives “Before the Revolution,” “During the Revolution,” and “After the Revolution.” They’ve all gotten together on this particular night to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their return from Mozambique, and although their lives have crossed at various points, this is the first chance they’ve had to bare their souls to each other. This they proceed to do over Olympian amounts of booze and in the company of a bunch of strippers.
As noted earlier, endless drinking and long-winded tales of life oftentimes represent the backbone of an Antunes novel. In contrast to The Land at the End of the World, Fado Alexandrino bulds a much larger tapestry—instead of just one broken man we have numbers of them across varying ages and economic backgrounds. It’s also a quantum leap forward in terms of style.
From the outside, Fado Alexandrino looks like a grand socio-political novel depicting the impact of the Carnation Revolution on the various segments of Portuguese society. And in some ways that’s true. We see Abilio (the soldier), struggle through a lower-middle class existence, falling in love with his uncle’s stepdaughter and turning to prostituting himself to earn enough to take her out. She eventually leaves him for his lack of breeding—and to pursue her other life in the communist party—and he ends up taking over the moving company, having an affair with the concierge, and living a pretty crappy life.
By contrast, second lieutenant Jorge returns from the war to his upper class wife and a rather plush life. But it’s not long before Inês’s family freaks out during the Revolution, believing the lower classes will arrive any moment to rape and pillage (a situation repeated throughout Antunes’s work, most notably in Act of the Damned) and flees Lisbon. When Jorge follows he finds out that Inês is involved in a lesbian love affair, leading to the dissolution of their marriage and Jorge’s getting involved with a midget.
The lieutenant colonel remains in the Army and has the most direct contact with the events of the Revolution itself, but, similar to the other characters, his life is marked by women troubles, first with Edite, then with a young girl whose mother torments him.
The basic general political point that’s made over 500-dense pages is that the Revolution really didn’t change anything. Across the socio-economic spectrum, people faced the same troubles as before—mostly involving the opposite sex, although that’s not to discount the other flavors of existential despair the characters are put through. On its own, that political moral is pretty trite and well-worn throughout literary history. Antunes’s big advance is in the meta-construction of his novel and the way he creates voices for his characters and then lets them bleed all over each other.
Which is to say, Fado Alexandrino is a very intricately structured novel. It consists of three parts, each divided into twelve chapters. The four “speaking characters” (they’re all telling their story to the captain) each have three turns at center stage in each part. For example, the soldier is the focus of chapters 1, 5, 9; the lieutenant colonel is the main speaker in chapters 2, 6, and 10. Within each chapter present and past run parallel, so we see the character’s reaction to the current events while he also recounts some horror of his past. From the lieutenant colonel’s first section, in which he returns from Mozambique to find out his wife has just died of cancer:
He tried to retrace his steps, but he felt lost in a labyrinth of walls, corners, steps, doors that didn’t open, elevator buttons he didn’t dare push. . . . Chipped walls, fragments of notices held up with pink adhesive tape, a circular stain, a giant splotch of mucus like the yolk of an egg: at times he imagined attics full of corpses who, like him, had wandered about lost in that maze, windows shutting off the uniform melancholy of the afternoon, smelling of ether, disinfectant, and toilet piss. . . . he pushed a screen aside and found himself suddenly in the middle of a room flooded with beds and night tables painted white, in the center of which a group of fat-bellied doctors was in solemn conference. “My wife died in seventy-two, the day before we got back from Mozambique,” the lieutenant colonel said, meticulously splitting a toothpick into equal-sized little pieces that he then lined up parallel on the tablecloth. He coughed and his temples tightened like those of an exhausted dog.
“I didn’t get there in time for the funeral.”
And I thought, looking around at the bald heads, the gray hair, the worn-out faces that were smiling and chewing and talking: We got old for nothing or is it still possible, can anything still be possible? Because for me that was the worst part of it, the eventuality that we’ve screwed ourselves in vain, that we’ve worn ourselves out for no reason.
By itself, that’s not all that inventive of a technique, though Antunes takes it to the extreme, forcing the reader to remain highly attentive as he/she is exposed to every bit of detritus in a character’s eyesight and mind before suddenly being thrust into a different scene from the past. What’s unique in Fado Alexandrino—which drives home the political point that We Are All Equally Fucked, and amplifies the need for Very Attentive Reading—is the way everyone’s stories start to blend into one another. This takes place in their entangled affairs—Abilio loses Odete to the communications officer, who also has an affair with the lieutenant colonel’s second wife—and in the structure of the narrative itself. One quick, and somewhat extreme example from the opening of the fifth chapter of the third part:
“If you take a good look at things, I never did anything right in my life, Captain,” the soldier said. “Even at work, Jesus: my late uncle put me in charge of the moving business and today if we get one job a week we’re lucky.”
“On the first place I could catch, a week or two later,” the second lieutenant answered. “My wife’s lover was so happy to see me leave that she loaned me the money for the ticket right on the spot.”
“Today, to Lisbon, Jorge?” the lady with purple hair asked. “Of course I can lend you the money, I always carry my checkbook in my purse. Yes, I’ll tell Inês, yes, I’ll give Mariana a kiss, rest assured, I won’t forget.”
“All I’ve got left now are a van that’s rotting away and a sick tricycle rusting in the warehouse,” the soldier said.
It’s as if the narrative suddenly becomes two children, in a sandbox, demonstrating the concept of parallel play, but in two different time periods. Initially jarring, this voice- and time-shifting starts to make sense as the reader holds multiple narrative threads in his/her head simultaneously. This may seem like a modernist experiment of the art for art’s sake variety, but I’d argue that it actually ends up creating a very detailed tapestry that better represents the world as is than most any neo-realistic novel. Instead of the artificialness of conversations remaining focused and events taking place in discrete, easily divided chunks, we get a tangle of everything at once, with stories running over each other, as happens in most groups. It’s almost like Woolf’s The Waves, but on meth.
There Is Humor in Despair
Over the years, Antunes has exploited this “All at Once” style to great effect, especially in the 1996 novel The Inquisitors’ Manual, and the newly translated The Splendor of Portugal (1997), which takes place mostly over Christmas Eve, 1995, and focuses on a family so dysfunctional that it hasn’t spoken in fifteen years.
One of the joys of reading Antunes is puzzling out the immersive mix of a lifetime’s worth of thoughts, experiences, painful memories, and desires—all playing out at once. For example, here’s the opening of The Splendor of Portugal:
When I said that I had invited my siblings to spend Christmas Eve with us
(we were eating lunch in the kitchen and you could see the cranes and the boats back behind the last rooftops of Ajuda)
Lena filled my plate with smoke, disappeared in the smoke, and as she disappeared her voice tarnished the glass of the window before it too vanished
“You haven’t seen your siblings in fifteen years” . . .
so that all of a sudden I was aware of the time that had passed since we arrived here from Africa, of the letters from my mother, first from the plantation and later from Marimba, four little huts on a hillside of mango trees
This isn’t that dissimilar from Fado Alexandrino, except that now, in addition to having his characters talking over each other, Antunes has given up on periods and proper sentences in favor of quick-hitting strung-together phrases and parenthetical settings. Taken as a whole, reading this is less like encountering a novel than exploring the textures and hidden flourishes of a gigantic painting. A painting that can only be illuminated bit by bit, forcing you to figure out how it all weaves together.
To me, this is the aspect of Antunes’s work that’s most similar to Faulkner. Sure, there’s also the gothic claustrophobia and the beautiful run on sentences, but, like in Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom, the pleasure of reading Antunes is untangling the muddledness of the minds of the characters and figuring out what’s going on. Just as there’s a definite thrill to understanding there are two Quentins, Antunes makes it feel like a real discovers to figure out plot points, like that Carlos—the “I” in the above quote—was born from an affair his father had with a poor African woman.
As an overarching technique, this can be rather compelling. Characters seem more three-dimensional by not fitting into the artificial confines of the neo-realistic program, and there is an addictive thrill to figuring things out.
At the same time, one of the big problems with Antunes’s second-tier novels is that they’re only interesting while teasing out all of these points—things get considerably less interesting once there’s nothing left to find out and Antunes simply unveils the final corners of the painting. Unfortunately, The Splendor of Portugal falls into this category. But the first half is absolutely top-notch, littered with amazing characters from a single fractured colonial family. Having moved to Angola to live a life of luxury selling overpriced goods from the company store to the plantation “employees,” the family finds everything upended by the Angolan war for independence. Carlos (the illegitimate child), Clarisse (the pretty daughter who hooks up with a string of wealthy men), and Rui (the epileptic son) are sent back to Portugal while their mother remains to oversee the dying days of their estate with her constantly drunk husband who constantly bats imaginary spiders off his body and can’t properly button his shirt.
And this is the final point I want to make—you can read Antunes to find out about the fucked history of Portugal in the 20th century, or to puzzle out plotlines and character flaws, or to watch a genius construct new ways of expressing himself. Or you can read it for the sick black humor. Because throughout all of the stylistic iterations and increasing complexity, there’s a thread of dark, sick humor that runs through Antunes’s works.
The Land at the End of the World is pretty straight in its single-person rants against the world. It’s funny because it piles on. It’s not just that the situation in Africa is bad, it’s that it’s horrible in a hundred thousand ways, all of which can be exaggerated in a way that’s funny and fits into the ranting tradition of the aforementioned Bernhard and Céline. Emotions are stretched into grotesque shapes and overblown for a dark, reflective laugh.
But Antunes is more than just an imitator, or someone who has internalized the lessons of these fellow masters. Take Fado Alexandrino. It’s funny in the piling on of detritus and details and sex with midgets. This isn’t necessarily a “comic” work though, at least not in the sense that Antunes is going for laughs. If anything, Antunes’s sense of humor is more akin to Faulkner’s for how he constructs situations much too broken to be anything less than absurd; situations that are only funny if you can stand outside of them and watch the characters struggle to make sense of their lives. The humor found in Antunes’s works is more reflective than spiteful. It’s the sort of humor that comes from the fact that Antunes truly loves these characters and humanizes them at every instance. Having so carefully constructed the internal worlds of these characters, he manages to occasionally zoom out (so to speak) and give the readers a chance to see all the failure and pain as part of a general tapestry that’s just one detail too many to the point where it’s comic. Or where it’s “funny” in the sense that these characters you’ve come to care about, who think and react in very understandable, human ways, are in hopelessly absurdly bad situations. And what else can you do but laugh?
And that’s the real reason why one should look past all the obstacles—the obscure history, the strange techniques, the erratic punctuation—and read the works of Antonio Lobo Antunes: to understand the relationship between an author and his characters, and his attempt to tell you all about his respect for them, no matter how messed up they are.
Chad Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books.
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