António Lobo Antunes
António Lobo Antunes, who has been called “one of Portugal’s pre-eminent writers” by The New York Times, was born in Lisbon in 1942, where he still resides. The son of a physician, he too became a doctor and then spent four years in the Portuguese army during the Angolan war. His fictional “memoir” of that war, South of Nowhere, was internationally praised and followed by other widely translated and much-honored novels, including Act of the Damned, Fado Alexandrino, Explanation of the Birds, and The Natural Order of Things.
Article for WORLD AUTHORS 1985-1990 by Richard Zenith
ANTUNES, ANTONIO LOBO (September 1, 1942 – ), Portuguese novelist, was born and raised in Lisbon, though as a young boy he spent summers in the rural province of Beira Alta. Following somewhat in the steps of his father, a well-known neurologist and a professor at the Lisbon School of Medicine, Antunes took a medical degree with a specialty in psychiatry, a profession he still practices on a part-time basis. From 1971 to 1973 he served as an army doctor in Angola, where the Portuguese spent almost fifteen years fighting a demoralizing and ultimately unpopular war – similar in many respects to the Vietnam War – in a doomed attempt to maintain control over the centuries-old colony. The colonial war and his job at a psychiatric hospital, coupled with childhood memories and his experiences in relationships (he has been twice married and twice divorced), have provided most of the author’s fictional raw material, particularly in his earliest books.
Antunes the writer began in verse, having published a poem in a Lisbon newspaper at age 14, and he is an assiduous reader of poetry to this day, but he switched to writing fiction when he was studying at the university, having produced and destroyed various novels until he finally published Memória do Elefante (1979; Elephant Memory) at 37 years of age. This book’s protagonist, like the author, is a psychiatrist who did a stint as a medic in the colonial wars. Almost exactly in the middle of the narrative we learn that “between the Angola he had lost and the Lisbon he had not regained the doctor felt like a two-time orphan, and this initial sense of displacement had gotten progressively more painful, because much had changed in his absence.” This anxious feeling of inbetweenness, of not really belonging anywhere except perhaps in the secure world of a childhood that exists only in memory, will constantly plague the main characters of Antunes’s fictional world.
His second published novel, Os Cus de Judas (1979; translated as South of Nowhere), brought him international recognition, with editions in more than a dozen countries and languages. Artur Lundkvist, of the Swedish Academy, had this to say: “Every page is an inspired prose poem which surpasses all ordinary storytelling. It is rare that a work of prose should be so rich in associations in all directions, with literary and artistic connections that so astonishingly widen our consciousness and give fresh outlooks at every turn. When now a new Portuguese author such as this suddenly appears, he surprises us by his unusual experiences, his extraordinarily distinctive talent, by his bold style and sophisticated expressionism, by the combination of merciless realism and ever playful imagination.”
The story consists of a restless monologue told by a lonely Angolan war veteran to a lonely woman he meets in a bar, “like a hermit who meets another hermit during a plague of locusts.” As they drink scotch after scotch he tells his forever silent interlocutor the horrors of his military service in “Judas’s asshole” (the literal meaning of the book’s title), but more disquieting than the war’s outward violence is the intimate horror of its stupidity, of the fact that thousands die or are maimed or return home – like the narrator – with a broken spirit to a broken marriage and slim hopes for the future merely because of a government’s desire to preserve national honor. But if the war seems senseless, so do many interpersonal relationships, and the narrator weaves into his tale the accounts of his frustrated loves. Even the camaraderie he established with his fellow soldiers over the course of 27 months ends, on their arrival at Lisbon’s airport, with “a handshake, a slap on the shoulders, a feeble embrace,” and they go their separate ways, each man lugging his own baggage, “to vanish into the whirlwind of the city.” The narrator, who has spent time in a mental hospital since his release from the army, is like a soul fallen through the cracks, with nothing solid to hang on to that might give him real or imagined meaning. Indeed, what could be more meaningless than his encounter with the silent woman, whom he eventually takes to his apartment for a perfunctory one-night stand?
Antunes was the first Portuguese novelist to describe in forthright detail the colonial war experience, but his critical success had less to do with what he said than with how he said it. Antunes broke radically with the traditional molds of Portuguese fiction, and if something of Faulkner and Céline can be found in his layering of times and places (Faulkner) and in his inventive and highly colloquial use of language (Céline), he has brought other things to his writing: a unique narrative voice, which is perhaps inevitable in any great writer, but also a new, highly visual prose style. When we consider that he is sometimes cited in reviews as a successor to the likes of the mature James Joyce, not exactly light reading, we may wonder how Antunes’s books can sell tens of thousands of copies in a tiny country with one of Europe’s highest illiteracy rates. In fact the kinship between Ulysses and Nowhere or Antunes’s subsequent novels does not go very far beyond the so-called stream-of-consciousness technique. Joyce employs a battery of erudite references and difficult word games which, in their full-blown mode as found in Finnegans Wake, are apt to discourage even the well-informed and persevering reader. Antunes’s fiction is culturally “low brow,” requiring that the reader merely be able to visualize and take delight in the extravagant metaphors, such as the Angolan war veteran’s remark to the woman he has just taken to bed: “I will penetrate you like a humble, mangy dog trying to sleep on a doorstep, searching hopelessly for comfort on the hard wood of the steps.” Later novels become increasingly complex in their narrative structure, but they remain accessible, never presupposing special knowledge on the part of the reader.
Antunes’s third published novel, Conhecimento do Inferno (1980; “Welcome to Hell” loosely but aptly translates the title), completes what is a frankly autobiographical trilogy, revisiting the battlefront in Angola but delving more particularly into the microworld of the psychiatric hospital where the author himself works.
Explicaçao dos Pássaros (1981; translated as An Explanation of the Birds) charts new terrain, both thematically and stylistically. The anti-hero, Rui S., a dumpy and less-than-brilliant history lecturer, chose not to follow in the steps of his father, a wealthy industrialist. After being rejected by his first wife, a woman of his own social class, Rui seeks meaning and solace in leftist politics, and takes up with lower-class Marilia, described by the ex-wife as “one of those pitiful Communists who wear red ponchos and clacking clogs.” Despite this liaison, the party faithful never accept incurably bourgeois Rui into their midst. Realizing that they have little in common, Rui decides to dump Marilia, but she beats him to the punch, crowning his despair with humiliation. Explanation is on one level an anatomy of Rui’s suicide, but the larger object of dissection is Portuguese society. This operation is masterfully achieved through what the author himself terms his “polyphonic” technique, in which crisscrossing voices belonging to various characters in various time periods constitute the narrative web. First applied in Conhecimento, the technique is perfected here and will become a hallmark of virtually all future novels. Fado Alexandrino (1983; translated as Fado Alexandrino) is the author’s most capacious work, inviting comparison with Tolstoy or Gogol, two of the writers Antunes most admires. Like War and Peace or Dead Souls, Fado attempts to depict a nation and an age – Portugal in the transition years of 1972 to 1982 -, and the book is soberly divided into three, 12-chapter sections titled Before the Revolution, During the Revolution, and After the Revolution. But within the bounds of this formal structure, which evokes the wistful fados sung in strict alexandrines by blind women on Lisbon’s streets, the narrative pitches torrentially from voice to voice. Occurring within a time-frame of less than 24 hours, this is not a sprawling fresco in the manner of the 19th-century Russian classics but a kind of obsessive Guernica set to paper, a chaotic record of war’s ravages. Four war veterans representing diverse social strata meet at a military reunion in Lisbon, where they recall their times spent together in combat and recount their separate life stories since returning from Africa ten years previous. The 1974 Revolution of the Flowers (so called because the soldiers who staged it fired no shot but placed carnations in the barrels of their rifles) brought democracy to Portugal, but the emotionally maimed war veterans feel even more out of place in the new society than in the old.
Antunes won the prestigious Portuguese Writers’ Association Grand Prize for Fiction with Auto dos Danados (1985, translated as Act of the Damned), his most Faulknerian tale, about the final dissolution of a decadent aristocratic family in post-Revolution Portugal. The domineering patriarch is on his deathbed, and his mentally deficient progeny dumbly look on as their greedy in-laws scramble for an inheritance which turns out to be nothing but debts. The bankruptcy of the family reflects the economic and spiritual poverty of a country that languished for decades in “the perfectly white peace – shapeless and flat – of the Salazar dictatorship.” The narrative point of view shifts from character to character, but the state of the family and of the society that engendered it is desperate from every perspective.
As Naus (1988; several chapters published in English as The Return of the Caravels) closes a cycle in which Portugal may be considered the overriding protagonist. The specific focus of this novel is the retornados, the Portuguese who returned to the motherland in droves when the African colonies gained their independence in the mid-1970s. In this prose sequel to Camoes’ The Lusiads, the sixteenth-century epic of Portuguese conquest, Vasco da Gama and the other heroes of old find themselves in the less than glorious light of the modern colonial empire’s collapse. Or is it the post-Revolution retornados who find themselves in the “Lixbon” that was the capital of the sixteenth-century realm? As if to suggest that nothing much has changed in the last 400 years, the caravels are surrounded by Iraquian oil boats, while slave markets rub shoulders with duty free shops.
Antunes refers to his next three novels as the “Benfica cycle,” Benfica being the then suburban neighborhood of Lisbon where he grew up. The landscape and atmosphere of this cycle recall his very first novel, but the center stage is now occupied by the world of the author’s youth rather than by the author himself. In Tratado das Paixoes da Alma (1990; first section published in English under the title Treatise on the Passions of the Heart), two childhood friends meet up years later, as involuntary adversaries in the Criminal Investigation Department – one of them an Examining Magistrate, the other a terrorist who is to be examined and judged. As the interrogation proceeds they share memories of when they smoked cigarettes in secret, spied on bathing women and watched storks fly across the sky, arguing so passionately over the details and the significance of their past that the clerk-typist complains she can “no longer tell who’s questioning and who’s answering, it’s all topsy-turvy.” This confusion of voices, present in varying degrees throughout most of the author’s work, makes the characters equal in a certain way, reinforcing this fictional universe’s deterministic – we might say behavioristic – vision: the characters are products of the story, trying in vain to assert their individual importance or else resigning themselves to life’s small pleasures.
Some critics have complained that there is little goodheartedness and no salvation in Antunes’s novels, his characters being motivated by greed and envy, their relationships marked more by hatred than love. In his defense one might point out that when virtue and love appear in novels (even contemporary ones), they are almost always purer, or at least more noble, than in the “real” world, so that we are not used to receiving in literature what we experience in life: love and hate mixed together, and envy or self-interest tainting even our high-minded acts. According to this view, Antunes is simply being more honest, and if his works do not “elevate” us in the traditional sense, they perhaps help us to accept and appreciate the complexity and ambivalence of our natural sentiments. Treatise on the Passions of the Heart, like the author’s other works, celebrates passions of whatever stripe or color, and in their motley combinations, as they exist in the human heart.
A Ordem Natural das Coisas (1992; The Natural Order of Things) is the closest Antunes has come to writing a detective story. It is also a novel within a novel, invented by a dying woman who lives alone, filling the solitude of her waning existence with ghosts that she molds and manipulates, to stave off the thought of her approaching death. Antunes’s tenth novel, A Morte de Carlos Gardel (1994; The Death of Carlos Gardel), is concerned with the ordinary dramas of middle-class suburbanites, and most especially of the flawed or failed loves occurring and recurring over the course of several generations. The author has pruned some of the adjectives and elaborate metaphors from his baroque style, while the novelistic structure has become more complex.
In an interview published in April 1994, Antunes announced that he had reached a terminus and would strike out in a brand-new direction, both stylistically and thematically. Though he had not begun writing it, he believed that his next novel would have something to do with the “new religions.”
WORKS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION: South of Nowhere (1983) was translated by Elizabeth Lowe. Gregory Rabassa translated Fado Alexandrino (1990) and parts of The Return of the Caravels (1991, in periodicals). Richard Zenith translated An Explanation of the Birds (1991), Act of the Damned (1993), and part of Treatise on the Passions of the Heart (1994, in a periodical). ABOUT: Periodicals – New York Times Book Review July 24, 1983; Harper’s August 1983; The Literary Review (London) December 1983; The Guardian July 20, 1984; New York Times Book Review August 18, 1991; Choice February 1992; Times Literary Supplement September 11, 1992; Independent October 17, 1993; Times Literary Supplement October 22, 1993.