The Natural Order of Thingsby Antonio Lobo Antunes
“The Natural Order of Things . . . reads like William Faulkner or Céline . . . gorgeous . . . bedeviled [and] lyrical . . . a remarkable writer.” –The Boston Globe
António Lobo Antunes’s novels have earned him international recognition as a literary master – called “the foremost Portuguese novelist” by Newsday, “without doubt the greatest Portuguese writer now living” by Le Monde. Richly textured and multivocal, The Natural Order of Things is a tale of two families and the secrets that bind them.
Antunes tells the history of Portugal as “family histories, tales of power and passion, violent fathers and helpless sons’ (Die Zeit, Hamburg). In The Natural Order of Things, he draws us into a labyrinth of disparate lives whose connections become clear only gradually. A diabetic teenage girl in a Lisbon apartment complex is kept awake by the whispered childhood memories of the middle-aged civil servant lover she despises. Her father, once a miner in South Africa, is now reduced to dreams of “flying underground.” An officer in the pre-revolutionary army is tortured in prison on charges of conspiracy, plagued by memories of his illegitimate sister, locked away to live as a ghost in the attic like Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre. A secret policeman, who has abandoned his sanity to teach hypnotism by correspondence course, unwittingly holds the key to their secret histories. Rife with images of startling beauty, The Natural Order of Things attains the brilliance of Elias Canetti and Nikolai Gogol, entwining the voices and memories of its characters in a tragicomic portrait of a disintegrating society.
“[A] work of poetic and erotic genius from a master navigator of the human psyche. . . . Antunes writes the tales of these two families with the insight of a Faulkner, of a man who knows the scent and the taste of the dust from which his characters are begotten and to which they return. . . . [His] is the voice of Nabokov by way of Cortazar, Gogol by way of Dylan.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“António Lobo Antunes’s previous books have earned him comparisons to almost every literary master of the twentieth century–writers as diverse as Dos Passos, Céline, García Márquez, and Cormac McCarthy. This newly translated novel will likely have the same results, with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury the most apt comparison. Lobo Antunes has a deft touch in creating a tapestry of voices out of the jumbled interior monologues of his characters.” –Review of Contemporary Fiction
“The Natural Order of Things takes its sinuous structure from the shape of the Tagus River, which purls through Lisbon and each character’s consciousness in the same way the Liffey streams through Joyce’s Dublin. . . . [Antunes] deserves a wide audience of discerning readers.” –The Washington Post Book World
“The Natural Order of Things . . . reads like William Faulkner or Céline . . . gorgeous . . . bedeviled [and] lyrical . . . a remarkable writer.” –The Boston Globe
“A unique, masterful, highly accomplished writer . . . The Natural Order of Things is both beautiful and intelligent . . . sure to satisfy on many levels . . . a novel of technical brilliance and compelling social immediacy.” –The American Book Review
“The Natural Order of Things evokes the movements of a symphony. . . . Magnificent and enchanting, studded with images . . . With The Natural Order of Things, the most astonishing of Portuguese novelists has revealed himself to be a fascinating, Proustian explorer of the labyrinths of memory.” –Le Figaro (Paris)
“A formidable narrative undertaking for any writer, and one which Antonio Lobo Antunes sustains with an impressively sure hand.” –El Pais (Madrid)
Until I was six years old, Yolanda, I didn’t even know my mother’s family or the smell of chestnut trees that the September wind brought from Buraca as sheep and goats scurried up the road toward the abandoned cemetery, goaded by an old man wearing a cap and by the voices of the dead. And today, my love, lying in my bed waiting for the Valium to kick in, the same thing happens as when I used to lie down, on hot summer afternoons, in the coolness of the dilapidated graves: I feel a tombstone decoration pressing against my leg, I hear the grass of the graves in my sheets, I see the plaster Jesuses and angels threatening me with their broken hands. A woman with a hat planted cabbages and turnips between the roots of the cypress trees, the bells of the goats jingled in the ruined chapel, reduced to three charred walls, no statues, and a piece of altar with the altar cloth covered over by climbing vines, and I watched the night advance across the tombstones, congealing the saints’ blessings into patches of darkness.
But yesterday, as I held your body and waited for the medicine to release me from the bombardment of memories, an ancient twilight came to mind, from 1950 or 1951, after the flowers in the garden had just been watered and Uncle Fernando, wearing an undershirt, was doing his exercises on the verandah, some cats were tussling in the yard by the kitchen, and I was perched on the garden wall, sniffing the breezes from Monsanto Park and listening to the horses of the defeated monarchists marching down the hills (as I’d learned from my aunt Anita, who was a little girl at the time) on their way to the penitentiary.
I don’t know why you’ve never been interested in my childhood, Yolanda. Whenever I talk about myself, you shrug your shoulders, twist your mouth, and stretch your eyelids in disdain, and mocking wrinkles appear behind your blond bangs, so that I finally shut up, embarrassed, setting the plates, glasses, and forks on the table for lunch as your aunt coughs in the pantry and your father turns the TV buttons in search of the squeals of the soap opera. And yet, my love, as soon as you fall asleep, your face, scrunched against the pillow, recovers the childish innocence it had when I first saw you, in the snack bar near the high school, and your spiral notebooks and ink-stained fingers made me feel an irrational happiness,
as soon as you fall asleep and the whiteness of an elm tree with birds passes through the bedroom, I talk on without you mocking me, I hover over you and converse with your motionless hands and your defenseless thighs, and the house I lived in before I met my mother’s family suddenly appears, from out of an imperfection in the mirror or from one of the drawers in the dresser where our clothes have been jumbled up with the moth nests and copper handles ever since, some months ago, you said “Come” and I presented myself, with an umbrella and two old suitcases, in this minuscule apartment in Hyacinth Park, Alc”ntara, to explain that yes, I’m thirty-one years older than your daughter, but my government job isn’t so bad, Mr. Oliveira, and of course I’ll pay the rent, the electric bill, and the butcher.
Listen, love. Perhaps you understand me in your sleep, perhaps your body stops being ironic and loves me, perhaps your eyelids, now soft, flutter if I say I’d like you to touch me and let me touch you, perhaps you rub your triangular tuft of fuzz against me, and your knees slowly open onto a moist and smooth and soft cave that imprisons my desire with the firmness of nacre. But since the summer you’ve ignored me, you’ve fallen for a classmate with flaming acne and an incipient beard, who visits us on the pretext of getting help from you in geography or math, and when we shake hands he cruelly squeezes my knuckles until they crack. Reduced to being a vague relative with a vest, a tie, and thinning gray hair, unable to do a headstand, unable to read without glasses, unable to run fifty feet because of heart murmurs, unable, in other words, to compete with that pimpled youth who’s taller than me and has no paunch, no baldness, and no false teeth, whose eighteen years have defeated me, I wait with the stillness of a tarantula for night, when your body, seasoned with the oil and vinegar of toothpaste and cheap perfume, curls up on the mattress, when the rhythm of your chest becomes as secret as a boat’s, and when your lips, puckered by your slumber’s pouting, blow a kiss that’s not for me, I wait for night, measuring its depths by your father’s insomnia and your aunt’s bronchitis on the other side of the wall, and I resume my tale at the point where I left off, returning, Yolanda, to the house where I lived before I met my mother’s family, the house that had hundreds of hallways, hundreds of nooks, hundreds of crannies, the house, the house,
the house, my God, surrounded by seagulls and sea mist on top of a cliff, with tattered curtains and shutters banging in the wind, with a semicircular sign reading Hotel Central on the facade, and the three secret policemen, always dressed in black and raising their arms in the Nazi salute, who drank their morning barley in the small sitting room.
It’s then that I remember the equinoxes that confused the wagtails, causing them to alight on the china cabinet, on the banister’s flourishes, and in the torpor of my sinus troubles. I remember the storm that swept across the tiny square in front of the hotel, and on the square there was a darkish antiques shop with secondhand Buddhas and Spanish fans in the window. And I remember the garage of the albino mechanic who fixed cars in the summer, sliding under their engine bellies. The owls, Yolanda, would crash into the small window of my room, located next to the cook’s bedroom with a toilet near the bed and the sound of the ebb tide forever gurgling in the drain, and the hotel’s only lodgers were us two plus my godmother and the three members of the secret police, even if, in July, when the debris was cleared off the beach and a dull heat calmed the waves, the cook and my old godmother took turns sitting at the entrance, with crochet in hand, hoping against hope that a miraculous taxi would drop off a group of trembling American women, unnerved by the sinister pine trees and the backseat’s worn-out springs.
If I think, my love, of that village where spiders spun desolation in half a dozen crumbling and deserted chalets teetering over ravines full of cawing birds and I compare it with this apartment in Alc”ntara next to the grade crossing of the railroad and the Tagus’s dolphin-crowned ships that graze our pillowcases, then my legs instinctively seek the concave place between your knees, and I press my chest against your back in a plea for protection that baffles me, for it seems ludicrous to me that a forty-nine-year-old man should seek help from an eighteen-year-old girl who’s dreaming of leather-jacketed archangels accelerating on their motorbikes to save her from me, an innocuous geezer flustered with embarrassment and surprise. And yet, Yolanda, don’t imagine that my life in a village near Ericeira where the eucalyptus trees shed the tears of an incurable despair wasn’t pleasant. It was pleasant. When sciatica didn’t stretch her out in pain on her mattress, the cook played cards with me in the room with the broken boiler, while the secret policemen, planning tortures and arrests, made the floorboards creak over our heads. On certain autumn mornings the sea and the wind subsided, and there appeared a strip of sand that was soon covered by beach tents, picnic baskets, pyramids of sandals, and families in bathrobes. Mimosas sprouted from the rocks, and the kerosene lamps of former inhabitants wafted in the chalets, until a bus came and swooped up the vacationers to take them, jolting, back to Lisbon, and the waves swallowed the beach, storm clouds covered the sky, neat rows of seagulls screeched on the rocks, flocks of crazed robins flew out of the treetops, and my godmother, indifferent to the storm, took up her crochet needle and dreamed of extravagant American women wearing sandals and Panama hats as if on an expedition to the tropics.
The Lisbon night was sliced by a train running perpendicular to the streetlights of Avenida de Ceuta and parallel to the river flanked by warehouses, pontoons, cranes, derricks, containers, and freight trucks, all waiting for the lemon-colored dawn and the workmen who were already visible in the faint sunlight, walking on their way to the Tagus.
The train, my love, raced toward Estoril and Cascais (from where we live I can discern in the distance houses whose fingers hold albatrosses and steamers), and our second-floor apartment in Hyacinth Park rocked as if struck by a whirl of connecting rods, sending tremors through the shelves with clay bears, glass elephants, stuffed clowns, and the colored print of Wagner and causing the enamel box where you keep rings, bracelets, and the fake silver earrings I give you for Christmas, if I have any money left from my holiday bonus, to fall off the dress’r to the floor. The train raced toward Estoril with bells jingling and lights turning on and off, it discombobulated the buildings of Alc”ntara, and you tossed in your sleep until finally, without waking, you turned to me and moaned like a child. Your ankles rubbed my ankles, and while I continued to talk, my mouth slyly, stealthily, cautiously moved closer to yours, I smelled your breath, smelled your hair, smelled your neck, smelled the folds in your waist, the folds in your stomach, and I was about to fondle your pubis, to feel the texture you’re made of, when the cat, startled by my joyous frenzy, jumped off the bedspread, brushing against a lamp, whose shade shifted, lighting up the bedroom furniture for a second. And your elbows jerked, your body rolled over, and with it your thighs and shoulders, which slipped out of your gown’s straps, and I was left alone with the bad taste of nothing, lulled by the train cars that galloped past the sewer pipes, beaches, and boats of the Tagus, lulled by the river’s waves while my hands, as if praying, held the absence of your hips.
In the run-down hotel where I lived, Yolanda, before moving in with my mother’s family, there were no cats, for it was too wet, too windy, too gray, and in the foggy backyard with its wild reeds and bad-tempered owls, the waves that came and went would crash against the rooms, spraying foam all over. So that stray cats, despite the cook’s efforts to coax them with bowls of eels, scurried off into the eucalyptus trees, frightened by the sea’s commotion and by the corpses of sailors that clutched broken rudders and peered at us from behind the hatboxes in the closets.
There were no cats, but we had a crow with clipped wings that swayed like a cabin boy and indicated latitudes to the secret policemen, who were deathly afraid that an erroneous maneuver might pitch the hotel against the rocks, opening an irreparable hole underneath the balcony windows. Each morning the crow limped around his ground-floor command post, verifying that we were on course and that there were no enemy battleships, and he was the one who shouted
“Everyone to port side, ready the boats”
when one day, inspecting the deck of the foyer, he found my godmother lying facedown on the floorboards, holding on to her crochet needle.
I heard the commodore shout, Yolanda, but inside my dream, as if the shout were part of the story in which a band of nymphs was chasing me down garden paths (the plump pink goddesses of the oleographs in the hallway skipping hand in hand through a forest or by a brook), and even when the cook came to call at my bedside her voice, seeming at first like the bushes’ rustling, took a while to become real, through metamorphoses that my torso accompanied, stretching and contracting as my vertebrae softly clacked.
But I distinctly remember going down the stairs, disconcerted by the seagulls pacing in the open windows, and hearing the crow ask desperately,
“Where are the life jackets, for Christ’s sake?”
and I saw the secret policemen deliberating, taking notes, ready to open fire on the wind or to arrest the clouds, as per the instructions they’d received from nobody unless from the trees’ murmuring or the tables’ creaking.
I remember, with the vividness of childhood memories, the tops of the pines behind the houses on the square, the honey-suckles and eucalyptus trees that hid the road from view, and the jeep from the National Guard at the hotel entrance, with an armed soldier smoking in the driver’s seat. In the foyer the corporal, who before I was born had dated the cook, and a second soldier I’d never seen, both wearing gaiters and cartridge belts but with caps in hand, observed my godmother without daring to touch her, praying that the telephone would work so that they could summon the doctor from Mafra, who periodically grasped my chin and cured my tonsillitis with a vigorous swabbing. The albino, intrigued, paced around in the rain, lifting his piglet eyelashes to the sky,
and the doctor, Yolanda, arrived after lunch, sensing trouble as he entered with his rubber raincoat, cod-fisher boots, and a trail of sea parrots that chirped in the seaweed. The crow, much calmer, despite the whistling of pines in the inland forest, flitted up the stairs muttering vernier calculations. The corporal pointed at my godmother with his pinkie, and the doctor, with knowing eyebrows, squatted to examine her, ordered
and pulled from his raincoat a stethoscope with never-ending tubes, curled every which way in the infinite coat pocket.
“Seeing as she doesn’t cough, it could be she’s dead”
he concluded in a draped voice whose syllables were scattered by the storm just like the leaves from the acacia out back, reduced to a skeleton of water-pounded and wind-fractured ribs with pigeons crucified on its branches. The cook rubbed an eyelid with the corner of her apron, while the corporal respectfully stood at attention. The soldier, flat against the wall, gaped with open dentures at the deceased: he and I must have been the only ones who had never seen a corpse. The second corpse I saw, years later, was of a switchman who threw himself at the train I was riding in the Beira Baixa region with a co-worker, on business. I remember staring at the suicide in the gravel of the crossties and marveling at the peaceful look on his still intact face: that must have been when I stopped worrying about getting the flu.
I get out of bed, raise the blinds a sliver, and the lights of Alc”ntara extend to the docks and the Tagus River, dotted with rowboats searching for fish in the foam. At this hour of night, midway between sundown and sunrise, there’s no traffic in the circle, and the stoplights changing from red to green command only the shadows. The March mist transfigures the buildings, imbuing them with a majesty they don’t have by day, and when I think of this, Yolanda, the bedroom’s silence alarms me with fears I don’t quite understand, like my fear when I heard the doctor from Mafia, putting away his gigantic stethoscope, clear up the corporal’s doubt:
“It’s simple, friend. If she doesn’t obey, it means she bit the dust. Since there are no bullet holes, just call up the priest in Ericeira, and we’re set.”
And so later that same day, or the next day, or the day after (since hitting forty I’ve had trouble with my kidneys and with dates), while an apocalyptic thunder thrashed the town and the rain washed out a piece of the garden wall, they put a part in my hair and a black tie around my neck and took me to the church in the jeep of the National Guard. We rode through a nightmare of lightning bolts that lit up cedars, walnut trees, migratory birds sobbing in the willows’ long tufts, and dogs with large furry snouts that fled howling down muddy paths, frightened by the thunder. Houses of emigrants would loom, whirling, before sinking into the earth. I’ve never been back to Ericeira, but since everything in Portugal stagnates and is suspended in time (except for me, forever older), I presume it hasn’t changed a bit, even as Alc”ntara will endure for a thousand years exactly as I see it now, at three A.M. by my watch: a neighborhood of garages and repair shops proliferating over the barren terrain, and the chaos of the river’s swelling, with its harsh, tunnel-like echo traveling across the asphalt to the threshold of our apartment.
And just as here in Alc”ntara at this hour of the night, while you and your father and your aunt sleep on the lumpy beds of the poor, just as here, Yolanda, it occurs to me how tacky the objects in the living room are and how the mildew has formed archipelagos on the walls, I also remember, as I wait for another train to rush past toward Estoril or Cais do Sodr”, the cracks in the church on a hilltop with thickets and apple trees that resisted the north wind, I remember the panels with saints in the mortuary chapel and a fissure in the bricks through which the sea of winter entered and I could see Ericeira’s chimneys pitching helter-skelter into the water. There was a copper Jesus hanging from the cross like a drop of water from a faucet, drapery tatters against carved flourishes, a blackbird on a rafter taking a break from the rain, the secret policemen sitting on a pew, and a sexton who winked at us with his toucan eyes. Now that no one was left in the hotel there were probably dozens of taxis arriving from Sintra, their headlights shining in the crooked rows of pines, to drop off tour groups of hundred-year-old American women shivering from the cold in their low-cut dresses. The rooms were overflowing with trunks and suitcases, a foul sludge throbbed in the bidets, walking sticks stumbled up and down stairways, door locks sprang with a rusty screech, someone fixed the boiler in the basement, which now boiled with a duodenal languor, energetic hammers destroyed the upstairs, and the crow, bothered by the noise, squawked nautical expletives on the kitchen floor. Perhaps the waters, subsiding, uncovered a strip of beach among the rocks, perhaps a skewed light revived the weeping willows and the potted magnolias, perhaps there were ships on the horizon, tankers, sloops, caravels, gliding toward Rua #8 in Hyacinth Park. Sitting on a tiny throne that wobbled, oblivious of what was going on because in eight years of life I had so far been spared the world’s mysteries, I didn’t notice the lady who at the end of the day would take me away with her after packing up my clothes, with the cook’s help, in a duffel bag filched from the junk in the basement.
I lower the blinds as the next train approaches, and the billboards, the boxwoods, the streetlights, and the river lights start to tremble, the bedroom plunges into hopeless darkness, I walk to the bed, stepping cautiously so as not to bang my shins against the furniture, and when I lie down next to you the headboard shifts, the mattress slumps, and your body sighs with a cedar’s coos. It’s the moment, Yolanda, when I let myself say I love you, when I dare to fondle the curve of your shoulder, when my mouth approaches so as to feel with my tongue the feathery taste of your hair. The Valium has muffled my gestures and clouded my ideas without paralyzing my memory, it’s April, and I’m leaning toward you in the snack bar where I saw you for the first time, with two girlfriends, all giggles and whispers, chewing bubble gum and drinking strawberry milkshakes, and I asked if you wouldn’t mind me sitting at your table with my lemon tea for curing colds. And I sat there for an hour, anxious and agitated, while you traded photos of actors, discussed boyfriends and nail polish, complained about yesterday’s philosophy exam, and showed extreme interest in an olive-skinned man with curly hair, a mustache, and pointed shoes who was drinking a coffee at the counter and leafing through a sports journal.
I don’t know anything, I swear to God, it’s no use insisting, but hold on, wait a minute, don’t go away, maybe I can remember a thing or two for your article or book if you give me a little something to help pay the rent for my lice-infested room, expensive like everything, even if it’s in a rooming house for hookers on the Pra”a da Alegria, where between the slaps of the pimps and the guffaws of the lechers I can hardly sleep, and this goes on until five or six in the morning, when the trees begin to shake off the darkness and the pigeons descend from the Water House to contend for the food scraps left in the public gardens by choosy beggars. By day it’s pigeons I see from my window–pigeons, cripples, and the unemployed all stewing their miseries in the hot sun–while at night I observe the fate of the poor girls who work the Avenida, up and down, between two infections in their ovaries and an abortion by the midwife in Loures, in a basement apartment smelling of fried fish, with little posters of saints on the walls and a grandmother groaning in a corner. You don’t believe me? Write this on your pad of paper: that in the wake of the Revolution, after being locked up by the army for months without cause in Caxias, in the wing of the prison that faces the sea and the seagulls and the splendor of twilight, I returned to my ground-floor apartment outside Lisbon, in Odivelas, where I lived next door to a nurse who coaxed innocent fetuses out of women of the night right there in her living room, next to the dining table and the invalid’s chair where her mother nodded to the music of a transistor radio pressed against her ear. How about that? But the real trouble was that, with the Communists having come to power, the woman and her sick mother left the neighborhood, apparently to set up shop in Paris, in one of the immigrant quarters where Africans, Arabs, Spaniards, Yugoslavs, and Portuguese spend their miserable Sundays sitting on rocks and drenching up the sky’s grayness, so that there were hundreds of pregnant women waiting around the entrance to my building, balancing like storks in their high-heeled shoes and staring at one another with insomnia-ravaged eyelids. A cop with a stick finally shooed them like Christmas turkeys toward a bus stop, and the poor things, without protesting, nestled in a bus that would take them back to Lisbon, with their watercolor faces pressed against the windows. As for me, I stayed on for a while in Odivelas, without any job, any retirement, or any health coverage, staring at the fire station behind my curtains and letting my mustache grow so that I wouldn’t look like the photos in the newspapers, until one day the landlord came around, called me a fascist, confiscated my furniture and the booklets for my correspondence course in hypnotism as payment for back rent, and threw me out. The guy on the third floor who used to drink beer with me in the bar and pass along some free information showered me with insults and kicks in the shins that have left scars to this day, a complete stranger came up and spat in my face, hammers and sickles and fraying placards covered the walls of buildings, workers with clenched fists shouted “Down with the dictatorship, long live socialism,” and I thought, My goose is cooked, in no time at all the Russians will pack me off on a train to Siberia, where I’ll freeze in a wooden shack. I went straight to a forger of doctor’s certificates and driver’s licenses and used the last money I had to change my name on my identity card, I started wearing dark glasses, the kind used by blind accordionists, I stopped shaving, and through a hustler who wears suspenders I found the cubbyhole where I live, in a flophouse for whores, with a clammy bed, permanganate in a corner, and turtledoves everywhere, tormenting me even in the toilet at the end of the hallway, the toilet used by all the rooms on my floor, by all the girls in the rooms plus all their clients, with the turtledoves warbling in the eaves, peering through the windowpanes, cleaning their feathers, turtledoves from the yard next door, turtledoves from Alc”ntara or from Chelas, turtledoves from Almada, turtledoves from the abandoned warehouses, rotten hulls, and crumbling palaces along the Tagus, homeless turtledoves, vagrant turtledoves, gypsy turtledoves, turtledoves that mock and laugh at us from the window ledge,
turtledoves unlike the ones here at Santana Park, plump, solemn, stately, patriarchal, hanging from the gutters, perched on the rooftops or in the highest tree branches, turtledoves and ducks and also, since you’re taking notes, the cry of peacocks when the day starts dying, not to mention the sirens of the ambulances on their way to one of the hospitals surrounding us on all sides, the s’o Jos’ Hospital, the Capuchin Hospital, the Hospital of Arroios, Santa Marta Hospital, Estef”nia Hospital, or Miguel Bombarda, the mental hospital, whose lunatic patients, wearing medals and stripes, walk along the flower beds and bum cigarettes at the stoplights, not to mention the vagabonds wrapped in newspapers to protect themselves from the morning dew, not to mention you and me, observing all this, each one with his soft drink and dish of peanuts in this restaurant next to the medical school, whose columns hide God knows how many cadavers cut up by students in white coats.
You’re a writer and never thought of this? You never imagined yourself naked, smelling of formaldehyde, flat on your back in a marble tub, waiting for them to cut open your ribs with a huge pair of scissors? Ever since democracy caused me to lose my job as a section chief in the National Security and Information Bureau and I started eating in a soup kitchen, ever since the day after the coup when the Communists surrounded our building on Rua Ant”nio Maria Cardoso while we hurriedly burned papers, peeked through the blinds, and ran down the hallways with pistols in hand not knowing what to do, I’ve felt certain that one of these days two firemen will wrap me in a sheet and carry me out of the rooming house as the consternated hookers look on in their panties and bras, they’ll carry me out on a canvas stretcher and eventually dump me onto a stone table, among other stone tables with mutilated bodies, while men with rubber aprons use saws and pincers to rip open a child’s stomach. There are times I dream of this until the turtledoves wake me up, times I hear pliers grinding my bones and I smell the soft vapor from my exposed guts, times they sew up my stomach and chest with coarse thread, and I wake up with a start, shouting in the middle of the room, and it takes me forever to realize I’m still alive, still breathing, still able to come to this outdoor caf” at Santana Park and watch the lunatics converse with the late afternoon swans. Doesn’t this talk about dead people make you thirsty? A beer, no, I don’t drink or smoke, but a mineral water would be nice, along with a cheese sandwich, because these memories give me a painful knot in the throat.
But to get to what interests you, I think a check for one hundred dollars would help my memory, because it all happened so long ago that it’s kind of fuzzy, plus there’s the landlord who every single night threatens to throw me out if I don’t pay up by next week, and surely you wouldn’t want a sixty-eight-year-old man to have to sleep on a park bench, in a nook at the ruined castle, or in the stairwell of some building, getting my backbone royally screwed, and with winter just around the corner. It’s not even an honorarium, no sir, I wouldn’t consider it, it’s a loan, give me your address and as soon as I have an income I’ll repay you, I’m in the process of setting up a correspondence course in hypnotism, all I need is some capital to print the lessons, the illustrations are what’s expensive. It’s a guaranteed profit maker, people send in money and I send back lessons for them to while away their evenings, wearing a turban with a ruby on their forehead, making magnetic hand movements and giving orders to their families, “Wake up,” and with a little luck they’ll succeed in floating off their balconies, just imagine dozens and dozens of people flitting around, and the husbands desperately shouting, “Come back here, Alice,” as their wives glide toward Spain like ducks in the fall, while I, with ever more disciples, open up branches in Covilh” and in Avintes, for example, or in Viseu, think of the whole town of Viseu lifting off the ground and flying to Morocco, imagine Portalegre or Caldas da Rainha cruising toward London, you can write down that hypnotism is the transportation of the future, and besides, everyone loves to get special offers in the mail, to open up an envelope and find a man in a suit pointing his solemn finger and indignantly asking WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR TO BE HAPPY? THANKS TO PROFESSOR CHEOPS’ HYPNOTISM COURSE, I BECAME A MAN OF SUCCESS. And speaking of hypnotism, what would go well after that sandwich is some carrot soup and a steak, because I feel suddenly weak.
But to get back to the point, yes, I recognize the face in that photo, who would ever have guessed that a hundred dollars plus lunch would revive my memory, now if you’ll lay a five-dollar bill on the table I promise I’ll dig him up, it’s just a matter of leafing through the past, because my memory, you see, is like a scrapbook, I’ll flip through and find the right page in a jiffy, show me his picture again, hmmm, he must go way back, can’t you give me a hint? because he doesn’t seem to be from my childhood, where what I see is a beach in the Alentejo, at Odemira, in August, with my mother limping to the clothesline among the aloes, she has a laundry basket in her arms, and the waves, ah, the waves reverberating in the incredibly blue sky, my mother reflected upside down in the clouds, hanging up long johns, my sister in the baby carriage, my father in a frame on top the buffet, with neatly combed hair and a tie, and a huge silence over the fields as far as the mountains. And the tavern, and the priest, and the houses in winter, sad and pallid in the rain, and stray dogs ranging the empty streets with their noses pressed to the ground, as if searching for the pups that were taken from them. No, your man doesn’t figure in my childhood, I never played with him, and I left the Alentejo before I’d finished school, hold on, don’t get upset, be calm, let’s take a look through the postcards from when I came to Lisbon and lived in Marvila with my uncle who worked for Philips as a doorman, my uncle the fat widower, forever drunk, who lived with a dog in a sixth-floor walk-up next to the Tagus, and now and then he’d clutch the stair rail, gasping and heaving, and say “Take my pulse, young man, take my pulse this instant, get the nurse over here from the Polyclinic, I feel a thump in my chest, this could be adios.”
Marvila, but in the lower part, please note, where there were streetcars, little vegetable farms, stone walls, old men playing cards on the sidewalk, and my uncle, loaded with wine, yelling at his own shadow, jumping and twirling around to escape it, stomping it under foot, saying “Let me go,” or else sprawled out, sleeping it off, while I learned to be a clerk in a sewing shop, and the widower pocketed my entire paycheck, which wasn’t enough for his brandies in the caf”, so he hocked the remaining furniture, none of which matched, a couple of wobbly tables and chairs without seats that he routinely flung down the stairs, my uncle whose wife had devoted her life to spiritism and, dead from a mystical illness she contracted From an angel, now wafted through the apartment, making the teapots rattle with her jittery breath. It’s possible we’ll bump into the man from your photo here, in Marvila, which at that time, 1930-something and just before the war with the Germans, was a hotbed of foreign spies who wore hats and gabardines with the collar turned up and knifed each other in alleyways. Marvila, Marvila, hmmm, don’t worry, it’ll come, I’ll bet I find him in my memory’s pictures of the recreation club dances, among garlands, balloons, and humorous sayings on the wall, or in the smiles of the excursion group, with box lunches in hand as they board the bus for F”tima. If your man wasn’t one of the sorry souls whose breath stank up my uncle’s apartment, and he wasn’t murdered by an English secret agent on a corner near the Tagus, then we’re sure to run into him where we least expect, such as under a cloudy halo chalking up a cue stick in the Oriental Pool Hall, tilting his head in preparation for his next shot, or perhaps snoring with a bottle in hand, propped against a barrel next to a dockside warehouse, among the beggars hawking lottery tickets that hung like accordions from their jacket cuffs, beggars who passed the time counting swallows on April mornings and rolling their trousers up to their knees to hunt for shellfish in the sand of Chelas. No, it’s no use, he’s not there, either. How about a rice pudding, my friend, to kill the taste of the steak? To locate somebody is hard work, I thought we’d have luck in that smoky pool hall where absolutely everybody used to hang out, and there were wicker chairs so that former champions, now with gout-twisted fingers, could watch the tournaments with nostalgic sighs, and absolutely everybody would set his cigarette on the edge of the table, lift his heel, revealing his checkered sock, and stretch across the green felt to make the decisive stroke with his cue, I’ll have a little more cinnamon, please, that’s enough, you never went there? No shark ever offered you a five-to-one advantage with an innocent smile, you never got a whiff of tobacco mixed with green felt beneath tarnished lamps? I keep flipping through faces but can’t find the one you want, everything’s out of focus, haven’t you noticed? Could it be the nicotine, or the fog from the river that’s just a quarter mile away? A vitamin-rich banana or apple would no doubt cure me of my myopia, hey look, don’t move, look, that guy in the striped coat talking with an old codger looks just like your man, no? Farther back, next to the door to the toilet, same nose, same mouth, same chin, am I right? Sorry, you have a point, he’s blond and stockier than the man in your photo. You know how it is, you get all confused when you want something really bad. It’s like when we’re waiting for a woman and for some reason she’s late (though women don’t need any reason for not being on time); pretty soon all women start resembling the one we’re impatiently waiting for, we greet complete strangers, then apologize, all embarrassed, and go back to leaning against the window of the clothing store, looking ridiculous, pathetic, and bewildered, with too many hands and not enough pockets, and that’s the point we’re at, my friend, hopelessly scanning Marvila’s pool hall as the waiter behind the counter wipes glasses with a dirty cloth, whistling a stupid refrain.
But that guy, at any rate, is no stranger to me, I mean the blond guy talking with the codger who’s wearing an overcoat and a cap and who won the three-cushion tournament of the Penha de Fran”a Sports Association in 1923, thanks to a monumental series of twelve cleanly sunken balls that’s talked about to this day by people in the neighborhood. If you were born around here, then you surely remember it, even though you’re younger than me, I’ll bet your father told you about it, it made quite a stir, yes, the old man is undoubtedly Fausto Junior himself, the mass’ king, but I also recognize the blond guy, the one who’s blowing his nose and sticking his finger into his nostril, how gross, you’re right, here I am eating a banana and without any consideration he picks boogers from his nose and stares at us while the great Fausto Junior goes on about a complicated ricochet shot, that same guy, now in plain view at the third table, note his Clark Gable mustache, that guy, from whom the others keep a wary distance, was the one who got me a job at the state police a few months after the war. My uncle had recently passed away after throwing up a bunch of blood, and I was exempted from doing military service because of this defect in my hand, which meant I was living all alone in my spiritist aunt’s apartment, a bit dazed by the whispering of the ghosts, and so, take note, it’s no longer the great Fausto Junior who’s talking to the guy with the mustache, it’s me. The three-cushion champion has taken his chair to observe with disdain the dance of the other pool players, and although I’ve changed, having gained weight and a double chin, anyone would still recognize that it’s me, quiet and attentive, me propped on my cue stick next to the scoreboard, me scratching my left leg with my right ankle and biting my lip while the guy with the mustache, who rests his palm on my shoulder and then around my neck, talks to me in a low voice about the need to defend the nation, do you hear, to defend the Portuguese, do you hear, to defend yourself, against Russian invasions and tanks pouring in to destroy Odemira, to level the pretty little pine trees on the square, to force everyone to ride on tractors and plow stones in the fields, under the direction of traitors paid in rubles who are already conspiring, their teeth as sharp as a vampire’s, in cellars crawling with rats, vodka, machine guns, lists of those (including me) condemned to die, and pamphlets announcing God’s funeral.
©1992 by Antonio Lobo Antunes. Translation ©2000 by Richard Zenith. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.