Sunday, 28 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: The Return of the Caravels

Portuguese cover (1)


Did you go, to bygone beaches, watch a ship sail?
You’ll watch it return, throbbing, at airports.
It now has the triumphant profile of a bird,
But in its entrails brings five dead centuries!

Overseas it left a rag of plagues,
The memory of hatred, the whirlwind of flights.
It brings hidden, from twenty five wounds bleeding,
A pavilion of fear and embarrassed wrinkles.

It was expected by dust, fetid detritus,
The crime of indifference and children’s hunger.
Rather everything end in an explosion of screams
Than in this tripping on revenge’s sharp edge!

Did you go, to bygone beaches, watch a ship sail?
You’ll watch it return, without glory, to airports.
Rather it had gone empty and returned empty.
But in its entrails it brings five dead centuries!

This 1976 poem by António Manuel Couto Viana, a right-wing poet, gives an indication of to what fits of apoplexy the dissembling of the Portuguese Empire sent some people incapable of moving on with the times. In 1974, when a military coup overthrew the dictatorship, Portugal was Europe’s remaining empire and had been waging a war in Africa, across multiple fronts, since 1961, in order to preserve it from several independent movements. Initiated in the 15th century, when seamen started exploring and occupying territories along the uncharted African shore, its ruin began almost immediately, but it lingered on until the 20th. The Portuguese have never dealt with their colonial past; post-colonialist theory is not as widespread here as in other countries, and we never had a motivation to engage in a dialogue about our past. Even today many consider the empire one of the fatherland’s glories and believe that it was stolen from it, since it had a historical claim to them, as part of a geopolitical game between Russia and the EUA. There’s still a sense of ownership and a sentiment that these territories were Portugal too and that the nation was reduced to a smaller and poorer reflection of itself. And yet this propaganda and the mentality it produced are relatively recent, having started during the dictatorship, when Salazar, isolating the country from the rest of the world, boosted his peoples’ morale by convincing them that Portugal, with its colonies, was larger than Europe. Nowadays people, dangerous, influential people like politicians, still think Portugal goes from “Minho to Timor,” as the old motto used to preach. 

I can never show this map too often; I adore it.
Before Salazar the empire was really an emporium, with few infra-structures or cities, a small population, no colonization policy, and used especially to house criminals. Before Salazar nobody had any money to invest in the colonies and they just existed, rotting away far from the metropolis, occasionally wielding some diamonds and crops. Plans existed to monetize it, but funds were always scarce. For this reason once in a while someone proposed buying or selling them. Most people probably don’t know this, but in 1912, Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorial Organization got in touch with the republican government to buy land in Angola to build a Jewish state there, and they gave it serious consideration. In 1903, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, had contacted the monarchy in order to achieve the same goal in Angola, but his proposal was rejected because of the country’s wide anti-Semitism. In 1905, after Herzl’s death, the Zionist Congress decided once and for all that no state outside Palestine would be acceptable. But Zangwill disagreed and created his own organization to find suitable territories. By 1912 the monarchy had fallen and a religiously tolerant republic was open to negotiations. The question raised some objections, of course, but also drew support fro many deputies, for two reasons: first, it was believed the Jews had the money to monetize the colonies in a way the bankrupt republic didn’t; secondly, the liberal republic believed it had to atone for Portugal’s crimes against Jews. Allowing them to build their state in Angola was like an historical reparation. However, a mixture of problems made all parties abandon the project, not least because the JTO considered the geological and climate conditions too adverse. Then in the 1930s Salazar’s propaganda machine set in motion the myth that Portugal was indissociable from its colonies, that each inch of them were sacred. This insane conviction justified and sustained a war that raged for thirteen years and ultimately destroyed the same regime that had started it.

But in 1975 the colonies gained their independence, the empire officially died and Portugal had to harbour thousands of male and female colonists who suddenly returned to the metropolis, an event in recent history that is still so controversial it’s hardly addressed in fiction and non-fiction: although the revolution was on the side of the colonies’ aspirations to independence, it is today argued that the decolonization process was too rushed, chaotic and poorly conceived. The plight of these people, the retornados, their confusion in abandoning what was for them their homes and unexpectedly finding themselves in a strange and uncaring motherland, and the impression that the cycle of the discoveries was finally over, is what animates António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels. What this novel attempts to do is mix both these ideas to confront his readers with this past that is half-fabled and half-forgotten. For that end Lobo Antunes created an atypical novel for him, something closer to magical realism, via surrealism: he imagines a fabulous, anachronistic Lisbon composed of bits and pieces from different eras. To understand what I mean here’s how a character returning from Africa describes the city in the first chapter:

“After three months journeying a little peach-coloured sun showed up amidst the granite clouds and a moment later they sighted Lixbon’s continuous Syrian market hubbub jumping in the distance, the castle walls, Jewish bonfires, flagellant processions, a simultaneous traffic of slave wagons, cruisers and bicycles.” In a single sentence we have allusions to the Inquisition, the slave trade and modern times. What the character finds beyond the peer is no less amazing. “Then we dropped our luggage in the yard, above the agapanthuses the mechanic hoses sprinkled in circular bursts, near the workers working in the sewers of the avenue that led to the football stadium and Restelo’s tall buildings, in a way that the Cape Verdean’s tractors crossed with wheels carting princes’ tombs and piles of altar arabesques. Going through a plaque that designated the incomplete building and said Jerónimos we hit the Tower at the end, mid-river, surrounded by Iraqi oil tankers, defending the fatherland from Castellan invasions, and closer, in the bank’s wrinkled waves, waiting for the colonists, bound to the water’s limes by iron roots, with frill-cuffed admirals standing next to the deck’s handrail and first mates up in the masts preparing the sails to set out into the sea smelling of canoe nightmare and gardenias, we found, waiting for us, amidst rowboats and canoes, the ship of discoveries.” Lisbon is a mantelpiece made of many historical rags, a synthesis of periods. In fact the spelling alludes to this reality, instead of Lisbon Lobo Antunes writes Lixboa, as it used to be written; other words also show up with old spellings: reyno (kingdom), physico (physican), King D. Manoel instead of Manuel.

The man describing this Lisbon is Pedro Álvares Cabral, the sailor who discovered Brazil in 1500, but here he’s a retornado with a woman and child. After walking through a bureaucratic nightmare to apply for state aid, he’s sent to an inn called Apostle to the Far East, owned by one Francisco Xavier, in real-life co-founder of the Society of Jesus and Catholic saint, but here an Indian pimp who sold his wife in return for a ticket to run away from Mozambique to Portugal. As if that weren’t enough we also cross paths with Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea path to India, D. Manuel, the king of the discoveries, Fernão Mendes Pintos, one of the first Europeans to visit Japan, Diogo Cão, “who three, or four, or five hundred years ago led the Infante’s ships down the Africa coast,” Manoel de Sousa Sepúlveda, famous figure of a shipwreck account (2), Garcia de Orta, pioneering botanist and pharmacologist and first European to study cholera, and Father António Vieira, a celebrated Jesuit priest. Miguel de Cervantes, Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel have cameos.

What Lobo Antunes does is pick up these historical figures and pervert them with his usual sordidness. Miguel de Cervantes is a one-armed man who sells lottery tickets. Diogo Cão is an old sailor who gets drunk in bars. Vasco da Gama goes visit D. Manoel and both of them got paint the town red, get in trouble with the authorities and the king is put in a mental hospital for insisting he’s a king and owner of everything. Francisco Xavier, “a fat Indian in sandals,” Miguel de Sousa Sepúlveda e Fernão Mendes Pinto, who “sold bibles, erotic pictures and gramophones door to door” in Africa, keep a prostitution business. Pedro Álvares Cabral is put in the saint’s inn and his wife is forced to prostitute herself in order to pay their ever-growing bill. Stuff like that. There’s also a man simply called Luís, who arrives with his dead father in a coffin, is confused with a smuggler and retained in customs, and after a bureaucratic impasse gives the corpse a furtive burial. When that’s taken care of he started writing an epic poem called The Lusiads.

I’m not sure this amounts to anything successful. I don’t think Lobo Antunes has the talent or the inclination for this kind of fantasy and caprice; his strangeness works well when grounded by his hyper-realism, but here everything’s too incoherent: I’m still trying to figure out what Buñuel is doing in the book; too much of it is too gratuitous. It’s funny, this was the novel that got me reading Lobo Antunes again; without it I wouldn’t have read Fado Alexandrino, An Explanation of the Birds and Act of the Damned, but now I realise it was my least favourite. It has everything I enjoy: the richness of vocabulary, the unexpected similes and metaphors, the absurdist humour. But it seems too silly and puerile even. For once there are no visible autobiographical marks, but perhaps that’s a problem, perhaps the author needs that connection to his person life to write well, his unfettered imagination produces strange monsters.

But there are interesting themes. One is the decadence of Lisbon, the metropolis. This is Pedro Álvares Cabral searching for the inn: “He asked the address to a secretive-eyed mestizo, to kids going through waste with sticks and to an alcoholic survivor of the distant seas hugging a rusty anchor, tripping on scaffolding planks, burnt walls, twisted concrete, wall leftovers and stairs to empty apartments, through which at night navigation lights slid, in the windows’ intervals.” As always, Lobo Antunes has a dysphemistic worldview: the city is simultaneously in construction – “scaffolding planks” – and ruination – “burnt walls.” What is being built is already rotten, old, dirty and without future. Amidst this unreal Lisbon we see signs of a deceptive progress but also symbols of its decline, like D. Sebastião’s procession before sailing to die in Africa. In this city without a future, poverty rules and forces its citizens to emigrate, with Europe as their destination. No longer explorers, they’re now exploited. “The people abandoned the castles and moved to Luxemburg or Germany, looking for job in car and plastic mould factories. The dukes managed bank branches in Venezuela.” Amongst the emigrants are the tágides, the nymphs of the river Tejo, invented by Luiz de Camões in his famous epic poem, here degraded to hookers in Amsterdam’s red light district. The present has been cancelled thanks to a past that didn’t do anything useful save generate material for poetry.

Another theme is the instability in the former colonies after the independence and the widespread fear or reprisals. The whites live in panic, afraid of being killed by the revolutionaries who’ve taken over power. “A neighbourhood with gold on her caries, divorced from a land surveyor who measured in palms, on his knees, rivers and hills, fooled in his calculations by the mineral stillness of crocodiles, narrated in detail that there would be revenge, executions, shooting, searches,” says Pedro Álvares Cabral. Like many other colonists, he abandons Africa with the same nothing they arrived with, and with a feeling of uprootedness. “We don’t even belong to ourselves, this country has eaten our fat and flesh without mercy or profit since they were as poor as when they had arrived.” In this situation they can only think that they don’t belong anywhere anymore. “We’re from no place now,” laments a character. There’s a general feeling that the motherland does not exist to help them.

Finally we have the inversion of roles. Pedro’s wife is turned into a hooker by an Indian from the former colonies. There’s a sinister symmetry to this: the Francisco Xavier of history is known for having converted many souls in the East; now one of those souls returns to make money converting helpless colonists into modern slaves. The empire strikes back: the explorer becomes the exploited. And in Lobo Antunes’ delirious mind the empire strikes back in unusual ways: Luís takes shelter in the apartment of a man called Garcia de Orta, who grows tropical plants inside, only for them to see the plants slowly devour his family members, take over the apartment and forcing them to flee. Ah, none of the past glories matter now; Garcia de Orta may have been one of the great botanists of his era, but in the end everything the Portuguese were proud of just comes back to destroy them. This is one of the best chapters, by the way, it’s The Day of the Triffids on crack.

Although this short novel is too silly for me, Lobo Antunes can’t help showing genuine moments of compassion over the ordeal of the retornados, ordinary people whose lives were torn asunder by a political mess between two continents, and I wish he had focused on such moments more often, especially because the retornados are a theme seldom brought up in fiction and non-fiction, that needs to be discussed, and whose omission leads to a cultural amnesia that from time to time still creates the feelings expressed in another António Manuel Couto Viana poem:


This beggar, once upon a time, was a golden boy,
He had an empire of his own, but he let others steal it.
Nowadays he doesn’t know if he’s Castellan or Moor
And goes to the beaches see if there’s any sea left!

1 I hope I'm not the only one who thinks the American covers are fucking ugly. They tend to be inventive and appealing, but Lobo Antunes was saddled with some really awful ones. The Portuguese cover, by contrast, is perfect in its design since it explains the novel's main themes in a single image: instead of ships we have a shopping cart, which ties the idea of the discoveries to the drive to make money; at the same time the cart is empty, which alludes to our post-imperial poverty; the cart is standing before the Tejo river, from where the ships used to sail to Brazil and India; and if you squint you can see a bridge in the distance, the Vasco da Gama Bridge: that's what Portuguese history has been reduced to - material for naming avenues, schools, streets and bridges; it also shows how this glorious past is ever present in our consciousnesses, stopping us from forging a future. It's all there in one cover. 

2 Manoel de Sousa Sepúlveda shows up in a 1735 book called História Trágico-Marítima, one of Portugal’s many bizarre literary works. We never had a history of great poets, novelists or playwrights, but we had a rich literature of travels: the Portuguese of yore loved to travel, by sea and by land, and usually wrote down their experiences. This book is a compilation one Bernardo Gomes de Brito made of “relations” of 16th century shipwrecks of ships returning from the Indies. I just love the idea of a book about real-life shipwrecks.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: Act of the Damned

In Act of the Damned, like in so many other António Lobo Antunes novels, the reader reaches the last page with the impression that nothing truly happened. Portugal, September, 1975. It’s been less than a year and a half since the fall of the dictatorship; the country suffers many political convulsions; the democratic process progresses slowly: several factions control or vie for the control of specific regions, extremist parties carry out bank robberies to finance their activities, there is terrorism, and many signs point to civil war. The poor, who are of no concern here, live in a mixed state of euphoria, hope and caution; the rich think the world has ended and it’s just a matter of time before communist brigades line them up against walls and shoot them. Nuno, a dentist, wakes up, eats breakfast, chats with his wife, Ana, heads to his office, then at lunch meets his former lover, a junkie named Mafalda who needs an urgent prescription of drugs, then visits his mother say farewell, picks up Francisco, Ana’s eleven-year-old brother, picks her up, and the three drive off to Reguengos de Monsaraz, in Alentejo, where Ana’s family is meeting to wait for the death of the patriarch, Diogo, in order to inherit his fortune. The story is told in media res, and from several points of view temporally displaced in different future time periods, so early on we find out that the old man is going to die, that there is no money, and that the family is going to run away to Spain and then Brazil, to escape the dangerous communists (a real or imaginary threat, it’s only relevant in showing the state of the mind of the richest class at the time) who are consolidating their power in Alentejo (a place historically associated with big landowners, class conflicts and civil rights movements, and the setting of José Saramago’s majestic Raised from the Ground), while two family members remain in the mansion living together. And that would be all if Lobo Antunes didn’t have the habit of stuffing everything in his novels. The family meeting, the death of the patriarch, are only the epicentre of an earthquake whose aftershocks extend towards the past and the future, creating a vortex of memories, evocations, fantasies, desires, humiliations and secrets.

As usual with this author, the novel has a complex, careful structure, in this case divided into five chapters: the first one is narrated by Nuno along a day, beginning in Lisbon, during the morning, and ending at night on a road to Reguengos, after the police has stopped the car and he’s run away leaving Ana arguing with the officers; in the second chapter, already in the mansion, there are two parts: first a narrative by Lurdes, Ana’s mother, next one by her daughter. The third chapter is from the perspective of Francisco (narrated seven years after this event, when he’s a painter and a junkie, or as Nuno explains earlier, “he plays the clarinet and sells smidges in art galleries in Lisbon.”): he doesn’t suffer from an acute mental retardation like his father, Gonçalo, but is a troubled, restless, mute boy; when Nuno picks him up in Lisbon, he’s hiding in an apartment, living with an elderly governess, because his family fears the communists will arrest him. The fourth chapter is narrated by the dying Diogo, from his bed, still conscious and observing the anxiety of his relatives in getting hold of his fabled fortune once he kicks the bucket. The last chapter is split in five sections: first we have a nameless woman, Ana’s cousin, who lives ostracized in a nearby terrain the family owns because of a secret they try to keep hidden; then the village notary who reveals that there is no money anymore, just debts; then Gonçalo and Leonor, father and aunt of Ana’s, share their voices in the novel’s most inventive part, with its sudden perspective and time shifts; then a doctor who is called from the bullfight in the village to declare the Diogo’s death; and at last Rodrigo, Leonor’s husband, as the family prepares to cross the border with Spain. An auto is an old word for theatrical play. Gil Vicente (1465-1536), the father of Portuguese theatre, usually named his plays autos: Auto da Barca do Inferno, Auto da Índia, Auto da Fé, and so on. In fact his first work, Auto da Visitação (1502), is also called Monólogo do Vaqueiro. I bring this up because it could be said that this novel is a collection of monologues, each character goes under the spotlight once, declaims the text of his life, and then steps out to give somebody else his turn.

There’s another connection with Vicente: the critique of a changing ethos that comes with a change in the nation’s social-political situation. Vicente wrote his plays in a time of transition: Portugal had just discovered the sea route to India, was establishing an empire, and money was flowing in from the spice trade; suddenly Portugal was known throughout Europe for its discoveries and contributions to nautical, astronomic, cartographic and geographical sciences, and for countless new products unknown to most Europeans; the discoveries brought opulence but also mass exodus to India, in pursuit of dreams of quick and easy enrichment, and a neglect for the country, whose domestic industry and agriculture floundered; this greed brought with it habits of luxury, laziness, and a looseness of morals. The critique of this new world would be one of the dominant themes of Renaissance Portuguese literature from Vicente to Luiz de Camões. Lobo Antunes, in his own time, is also charting changes in post-1974 society. Changes is perhaps an inadequate word: what he’s doing is making full use of his freedom to show taboos that existed underneath a society repressed by censorship. Let’s not forget that something as innocuous as suicide was off-limits to the media: people did not commit suicide in Portugal, they suffered accidents, or so the usual euphemism went. Perhaps it’s because Portugal was euphemistic for so long that Lobo Antunes feels compelled to go the opposite direction in this novels, towards absolute dysphemism, the portrayal of an over-the-top ugly, sordid, vicious world: so the reader attends a procession of incest, metal illness, abortions, rapes, junkies and other signs of decadence that the Estado Novo tried to keep outside the fortress it erected around Portugal, and invisible wherever it manifested within walls. This is part of his literary project, to bring to the fore this change of mentalities, or rather, to bring into literature everything that was kept out of it. He brings everything to the page as if to say, “Nothing will ever be the same again.” The reader of Lobo Antunes must always expect this voyeuristic, sensationalist display of misery in all its splendour; we’ll get tired of it before he grows tired of trying to shock us with it.

The continuities from novel to novel persists. Once again we have the journey theme (better developed in Knowledge of Hell) at least in the chapter involving Nuno; and even his saying farewell to his mom before leaving to Reguengos evokes Rui saying goodbye to his dying mother before going to Aveiro (in An Explanation of the Birds). Once again we have a rich family in terror of the revolution and which runs abroad, like Rui’s family or Inês’s family (Fado Alexandrino). Once again the ghost of the revolution lurks in the background (every novel he’s written up to this point). However this time the family, which has been on the margin of the narrative in other novels, occupies centre stage, and it’s a more laboured family, more developed, more detailed, but also stretched to the limit of a parody of degradation and perversion, or as Nuno, an outsider observer, says, “a disgusting family of goats and tame oxen mutually devouring each other in the Guadiana mansion, hiding each other’s inheritances, hating each other, stealing each other, crushing each other, destroying each other, and all this under the cigar-holder and the grandfather’s caustic eyebrow, spilled in the living room’s rocking chair, watching in a formidable joy the agony of his lineage (…).” And what a family: Diogo was a brute who beat his wife, Adelina, and children and sicced the dogs on them, and even tried to rape his wife after finding out that she was cheating on him with his brother. After she leaves him he spreads the rumour that she died. As for his children: there’s Gonçalo, a mental retard who lives obsessed with toy trains and has built tiny rails all over the house, in several rooms, and walks around dressed in a uniform; another daughter with a mental disability (she never gets a proper name and is called only the mongoloid); and Leonor, a relatively normal woman but married to Rodrigo, a Lothario who seduces and sleeps with every woman in the family: when Ana arrives from Lisbon, after Nuno dumps her, she goes upstairs with her uncle, while her mother and aunt pretend they don’t know what they’re doing; later on we find out he also seduced Lurdes and even impregnated the mongoloid, who gives birth to Ana’s reviled (and nameless) cousin, who also gives birth to a daughter by Rodrigo. Mental problems are common and move down from generation to generation: although Ana is normal, Francisco suffers from mental disturbances that in his adult life lead to his drug addiction (in fact he narrates his part while on a rehab clinic). And Nuno refers to his children with Ana as “that pair of epileptic imbeciles.”

The absence of filial love is a constant theme. Nuno takes pleasure in imagining that his troublemaking and unruly children are bastards, preferring the shame of being cheated on by Ana than accepting that they’re part of him. And he’s even embarrassed by them: when someone asks him how many kids he has, he “hesitated before extracting the savages’ pictures from the wallet, blonde fringes, chubby features, perverse grimaces: They don’t look like me, I’d explain, they’re closer to their mother’s parts, and I put away the wallet, and changed subject, and talked about something else.” Lurdes also shows negative feelings about her children: when she remembers Ana’s birth, all she can say is “… and months later my bones broke at the Reguengos Hospital and they brought me Ana, amazingly red, and me looking without strengths at her and thinking Who is she, who can this be, why did they bring this horrible larva into the room.” And if that’s not cold enough, she describes an abortion she had before Francisco as “a painful black paste in a bucket.” Looming over these examples we have Diogo and his contempt for his children. This inexistence of filial love is simply the novel’s general lack of love taken to its extreme: nobody likes nobody here: Nuno no longer cares for Ana; Ana is tired of Nuno; Rodrigo doesn’t like anyone but beds every woman; the family despises the mongoloid’s daughter; the mongoloid’s daughter hates her family, etc. Instances of love are to be found only in Lurdes, the foreman’s daughter, unexpectedly married to Gonçalo, who truly loves the cruel Rodrigo and stays with him in the mansion taking care of whim when everybody else flees; and Francisco, whose messed up childhood results in a drug habit, narrates his story to Lídia, object of his love, whom he misses because he’s locked in a clinic. Save for these two cases, there’s only hatred, libido and greed.

All these feelings, ironically, are revealed at the same time a party is going on in the village, with its music and rockets whose explosions are heard inside the mansion’s walls. For the family members, the death of Diogo is also a party since they hope to inherit his fortune, and one gets the impression that inimical group of people is only together there because of that. Even the mongoloid’s daughter, an artist, shows up to claim part of the money. “The studio doesn’t profit anything, the clients don’t buy my blankets, I need my part of the inheritance. I’ve been having this idea for a local shop, an antiquarian, an art gallery: landscapes, oil portraits, regional cakes, clay figures, stuff like that.” Alas she gets too late at the party and misses the best part: there’s no fortune, or as a relative laments, they went there to “inherit poverty.” “You must be crazy!” a character tells the artist. “What inheritance? Your mother and your little train uncle have eaten up everything in clinics, your grandfather had the habit of putting them in expensive hospitals in Spain, and you have the nerve of thinking anything’s left? Inheritance? There’s even a mortgage on this building, how do you like that?” The fortune is replaced with obligations. “Debts. Debts. Debts. Debts and both of us responsible for them, the creature said, showing paragraphs upon paragraphs with the pinky’s indignant nail. You managed to turn us both into millionaires of mortgages.”

Act of the Damned has a hard narrative, the toughest of Lobo Antunes’ up to this point, since each chapter is narrated by a different person and he doesn’t offer many clues to understand who’s narrating, we have to go by the narrator’s relationships to the other family members, pay attention to whom he calls brother, son-in-law, uncle, etc. Ellipsis abound. Fortunately I had the good company of Maria Alzira Seixo’s essay. The narrative is also heavy because of its content, as I’ve made it clear. Lobo Antunes’ fictional worlds, although infinite in misery, are limited in feelings and seem to exist only on the crepuscular side of the emotional spectrum. There simply aren’t normal or happy or well-adjusted people in his books. Nuno, perhaps the sanest character, still hails from a father who profited from the war in Africa (“Sixty helicopters for Angola? Imagine the commission fee”) and a mother who was prostituted by her husband: she organised parties and dinners for that helped attract generals and secretaries of state, and was encouraged to seduce guests to help cinch a business. In a way their relationship mirrors all the power relations in the book, including the decision of Lurdes, from a working-class background, despised by Ana’s family, to stay in the mansion taking care of Rodrigo because that servile mentality has been forced into her from an early age. These power and sex relations run through the novel, and are present even in Nuno, who blackmails Mafalda, a former lover, into giving her drugs in return for sex. “We could try going upstairs,” she says, anxious for a fix, “but if she [the maid] is in and she complains to my mother they cut off my allowance.” He deliberately strips naked in order to be caught by the maid just to get her in trouble. Thinking about why, now that I re-read my notes, I presume it’s because he can; he knows he’s leaving Portugal, he can disrupt her life because he can afford to be irresponsible and petty like all the other characters. This mean pettiness is the burden and fate of the characters. According to Francisco, after splitting up with Nuno, Ana settles down in Brazil and finds another man. “I don’t know anything about her life since she fell in love, in Rio de Janeiro, with a swimming coach my age, she abandoned her husband and children and stayed with him in Brazil, where they say the athlete beats her up regularly, breaking successive surf boards on her back.”

I guess there’s not a lot more to say about this novel that plunges into the deeper reaches of moral dissolution. In spite of everything, that’s one of the pleasures of the book, isn’t it? As the dark as the book may be, it’s funny in a sadistic way. The author wrests in himself an instinct for voyeuristic squalor and a tendency to turn everything absurd. The balance is perfect. Like a character asks, as if the author were winking at the reader, “Who doesn’t get happy at other people’s misery?” Perhaps less than he imagines, after all there are so many readers who avoid reading depressing books. But few writers manage to write about pain, despair and suffering with the humoristic intensity of António Lobo Antunes.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: Fado Alexandrino

Fado Alexandrino. The fado is a Portuguese type of music named after the Latin word fatum, or fate. Supposedly it appeared in the seedy bars next to the Tagus river, where sailors and prostitutes converged, has a pessimistic and resigned outlook and usually deals with tragic love. Morbid shenanigans. An alexandrine verse is a verse with 12 syllables. In the novel a military unit gets together in a restaurant to celebrate tem years since returning from the war in Africa. They returned from Mozambique in 1972 and it’s now 1982. The action progresses from night till morning, as five soldiers chat during dinner, then escape the restaurant to visit a striptease bar and finally end their celebrations at home of one of them, accompanied by some prostitutes. Of the five four narrate their lives before and after the 1974 military coup that overthrew the dictatorship and restored freedom. The novel is composed of three books (Before the Revolution, During The Revolution and After The Revolution); each book contains 12 chapters; each soldier has 3 chapters per book… well, sort of; Lobo Antunes throws a curve at the reader near the end. The protagonists are: soldier Abílio; lieutenant colonel Artur; communications officer Celestino; second lieutenant Jorge. The fifth member, called simply the “captain,” sometimes intervenes, in an oblique way. Giving this fleeting presence the rank of captain may not be gratuitous; the military coup is also called The Captains’ Revolution since the main masterminds shared that rank. The reader is lead to entertain the hypothesis that this shadowy captain may have been one of them, which would make it ironic since the coup is a sacred cow the novel doesn’t mind butchering and grilling for juicy material. But the novel belongs to the other four, who narrate in the author’s usual style of meshed voices and timelines: sometimes there are up to 4 different narratives going on in the same endless paragraph and the reader has to pay attention not to lease the thread. In terms of sheer virtuosity, narrative construction and control, this 700-page novel is Lobo Antunes’ most ambitious and perfect yet.

Fado Alexandrino is a tapestry about Portugal in the 1970s and forms part of a 4-novel cycle. There are connections to An Explanation of the Birds, Act of the Damned and The Return of the Caravels: colonial war, dictatorship, the April 25 Revolution, decolonization, the flight of fortunes abroad, disillusionment with democracy. The protagonists come from or interact with different social backgrounds, allowing a complete panorama of society. The rage and the ugliness that make the author famous persist; there’s no love, kindness or happiness here, just unfulfilled desires, weakness and failure. It’s a world of predators and the adjectives are the usual: dirty, rotten, filthy. And there’s an order of nouns that refers to states of uncertainty, instability and deformity: puree, jelly, gelatine, paste. This is how the communications officer describes coming home: “A rotten aroma of piss impregnated the mats, and the old ladies floated like divers inside that smell, releasing through their mouths bubbles of the rice powder they breathed.” In a novel with such a complex structure perhaps the best solution is to isolate each narrative:


Through the soldier we come across some of the main themes: the unease of the return; the difficulty adjusting to civilian life; the feeling that the fatherland has abandoned the soldiers. Wherever they look, at any moment, unexpectedly, they see Lisbon transforming into Africa: they’re always on the lookout for bushes, barbed wire, shelters, silhouettes, trapped between these two worlds. And this is how Abílio describes the dispersing crowd that came pick up the soldiers: “The octopus behind the gates diminished little by little, clusters of people moved away, surrounding a soldier, out the Encarnação Square, where traffic patiently circulated like a big exhausted ox, manuring with smoke turds the rotunda’s slim trees, which impressed on the walls’ wax plaques the delicate, bronchi-like, footprints of the branches.” Abílio heads to his sister, Otília, who didn’t write during his 27 months in Africa, save once to tell him that father was dead and that she needed whatever money he had to help pay the funeral. But Otília won’t offer him a room to live in. “What distance now separates us, he thought: you talk with me as if I were a stranger, without a kiss, without a pat, without a shadow of tenderness: he closed his eyes and the octopus of faces, gestures, exclamations, anxious laughter convulsed again in his head, by the headquarters’ gate, on that misty morning in Encarnação.” Hapless he’s taken in by Uncle Idílio, owner of a moving company, who lives with his wife, Dona Isaura, and stepdaughter, Odete, with whom the soldier falls in love. But a cultural abyss makes her unreachable to him: she studies, is sophisticated, follows politics, likes vanguard arts and has a secret political life that will have tragic consequences in the novel’s climax. As for Abílio, he lives cowboy novels, comic books and horror movies. He started working at the age of 12, as it was normal then, and never studied, not to mention he lived his childhood in his grandmother’s brothel. To woo Odete he puts with “incomprehensible, highly complicated French, Italian or Polish flicks (…).” His travails to seduce Odete allow Lobo Antunes to satirise Portuguese machismo. Like most men at the time, Abílio thought physique was enough to attract women. This doesn’t work with her so he tries to educate himself, without success. In this sexually-repressive culture women were second-class citizens, men were above them. But the irrationality of love doesn’t care about social niceties and he ends up prostituting himself to a rich homosexual in order to have money, since he believes that’s the other way, besides looks, of getting women. Ironically Odete never shows any love for him, even after they marry.

His life tragedies progress without resistance: Dona Isaura has a thrombosis and slowly withers away in a back room; Uncle Idíio loses his love for life and the company starts losing business. Otília reappears, married and full of kids, to beg money. Later, after Uncle Idílio has passed away, she returns to take her share of the small inheritance. One day Abílio reads the newspaper and finds out that the man she lived with has stabbed her to death. This echoes another violent death: the rich homosexual is also murdered by his Senegalese lover. Amidst all this misery Abílio thinks he’s seen a gleam of happiness when Odete accepts to marry him, but this is an illusion: they have a child but it dies. Shortly after she dumps him. He even loses the house because of a mixture of fraud and bureaucracy. Not even his child’s bones are sparred: in Portugal, due to its small size, it’s custom for graves to be dug up after a few years and emptied out into a common grave; Abílio doesn’t have the money to rent a personal grave so the bones just go the way of thousands more. Odete’s separation leaves his sex life in disarray; he loses heart to commit himself again, although he shacks up with a superintendent who pesters him to divorce in order to marry her.

In spite of his braggadocio and machismo, Odete freezes him into inaction. Although he keeps dreaming about visiting her at the Ministry of the Army, where she works, “Not angry, you see, not spiteful, not in a daze, not to hit her, just sad, confused, perplexed, just to chat with her, just with the bitter, melancholy necessity of understanding,” although he has this burning desire he cowers every time because “I saw her always so cheerful, so strong-headed, so happy, moving her hands with energy (…).” So much pusillanimity sends the superintendent into fits of rage, who urges him to give Odete the divorce papers. “And the voice in my head ordering me You get there, you give a couple of slaps, a kick in the balls, you give them eight days to deliver the divorce papers in court, another slap or two so they’ll remember what you want, you turn your back on them, you leave.” Of course he doesn’t have the guts to confront Odete and Osvaldo, the man she lives with.

The soldier is a coward but also a victim of laziness. He tells the others he had intended to stay in Africa, marry an African and open a shop; it’s doubtful he would have gone ahead. But in any event he’s happy he didn’t because of the catastrophic decolonization process that took place after 1974 (a theme parodied in The Return of the Caravels). Of course he’s happy, that way he can blame his failure on external circumstances. The soldier is incapable of doing anything to turn his fate around. On the morning of the coup the soldier is working with Uncle Idílio and ignores the event. Then the moving business was doing alright, without any input from him. “It prospered out of inertia, not out of work, like when they cut off the water, what’s left in the pipes drips away, withered, from the faucets, and we know soon, after two or three burps, pffffffff.” In 1982 all he can do is complain “The moving business doesn’t matter to me: if I put myself into it for real I’d be a millionaire by now, I’d be driving in a Mercedes, all fat, full of arrogance, I’d preside over recreational associations, I’d set up a lover in Restelo. Now I work the least I can, I drink my beers on Sundays, play dominos with this or that friend who shows up: the usual pain in the ass, always the same, the fucking forties, the spine bending, the quitting, the captain knows how it is.”


The lieutenant coronel has ambitions and problems of his own. He arrives from Africa and immediately drives to the hospital, where his wife has recently died from cancer. In a Lobo Antunes novel that means things will only get worse. Hours later he’s already drunk and is being wakened up by his daughter, Maria João, who tries to take care of him and gets a superintendent (the same the soldier sleeps with) to manage the house. But not long after they’re having sex and the daughter catches them in the act. Embarrassments aside, he also has professional problems: he’s appointed a headquarters and gets dragged into the revolutionary vortex; he has meetings with members of the underground movement who want to know which side his loyalty is on, but he doesn’t have a side, he wants to remain neutral to protect what little he has achieved. “I was afraid of losing all the shit I had won all those years, you see, the command, the headquarters, the promotions, the certain of dying of starvation, the typical ordinary life, the one I got used to, without complications, without a dick, without troubles.” When the revolution he joins the winning party and is responsible for writing reports to get rid of army officers loyal to the old regime, finding any little thing that can be used to destroy their careers; effectively he has to get rid of people to open vacancies for new promotions in the new regime, which is full of arrivistes, “the voracious cancerous microbes who feed on it and around which they moved, political parties, games of influence, personal hatreds, the insatiable little ambitions of the frustrated: I want to be field marshall, I want to be rich, I want to be minister, I want a boat, a house with a pool, a colour television, an expensive mistress, I want twenty thousand creatures applauding me, excitedly agitating banners and flags, I want to fuck others over, I want to crush others, I want to ass fuck others, I want to stay alone, heroic and bronze-like, at the vertiginous top of a pedestal.” After a counter-revolution that curbs the communist influence of the April 25 Revolution, he receives orders to start finding motives to get rid of all communist officers. And he does so without complaining because he just wants to survive.

As for his sex life, it’s all screwy: first of all he lives in the castrating shadow of his mother, and sometimes talks to himself as if he were his mother. Later on he marries Edite, who also domineers him. Their first attempt at sex ends with a vexing case of impotence. But things get better when he meets a young shop-girl at a boutique: they’re doing it like almost every night; well until her mom finds out and blackmails Artur into setting up a house for her and her family. And of course he acquiesces, until everything is found out and he’s put on reserve in the ensuing scandal. Finally he tries his hand at private enterprising, with predictable disastrous consequences. Meanwhile Edite starts having an affair with the communications officer.


The communications officer lives with his godmother, her dog and Esmeralda, an old maid. The godmother passes away in 1975, “worn out from the PIDE going over in the morning, fetching me for interrogations, for threats, for jail.” The most militant and politically committed of the four, he works for a communist clandestine group that wants to overthrow the regime. An idealist, he believed the revolutionaries were “capable of turning the universe into something undefined but obviously stupendous.” The leader is Osvaldo, who gets him a secretarial job in the Ministry of the Army to spy and collate data. His contact is Dália, with whom he falls in love. Before the revolution he’s arrested and tortured in the infamous Caxias Prison for political prisoners. After he’s released, amidst a euphoria he doesn’t share, he rejoins the network, a tiny group of no importance within the cluster of communist, Marxist, Leninist and Maoist groups that emerged, each claiming to represent the true values of the revolution. As the revolution lost steam and people returned to their ordinary problems, these groups prepared for internecine battles in what was to be known as the Hot Summer of 1975, when the country was on the brink of a civil war, one of the murkiest periods in Portuguese history because no one quite agrees on what happened: the left and the right were at war and even different hues of the same political colour were devouring each other; the communists controlled half the country, bent on building a Soviet Republic, although the Soviets weren’t too keen on that, and lurking from the margins were Henry Kissinger and Frank Carlucci, US Ambassador and CIA coordinator in the country. Whether Portugal was saved from communism or the Americans backed a conservative counter-revolution greatly depends on the observer’s political sympathies. Whatever the case, the communications officer takes part in this unrest and is even dragged into a ridiculous attempt at making a new revolution that will protect the real interests of the oppressed proletariat. Some of the novel’s most hilarious and deranged pages satirise the group’s meetings, rhetoric, delusions and idiotic strategies. When they get ready for their coup, instead of real weapons they receive water pistols and toy machine guns: “Here are your weapons, we actually had real rifles buried in Alentejo, and even a drawing showing their location, but no matter how much we dug we couldn’t find them, I spent all night shovelling, here and there without results, comrade Nunes and comrade Pinto are still there, going at it with a pickaxe, covered in dirt, under cork oaks (…).”

In the end he’s disillusioned and bitter, and comes up with socio-psychological explanations for the dictatorship’s longevity: “If it weren’t this way, listen to me, with us rolling in joy at being treated badly, stepped on, hurt, the communications officer argued, drilling my ribs with his finger, how do you think, captain sir, the dictatorship managed to stand on its feet?” This is basically a variation of Miguel de Unamuno’s infamous suicide thesis.


The second lieutenant also has trouble adjusting to civilian life. “I looked at people, captain, at secretaries, colleagues, waiters, janitors, I sent files, perused proposals, signed reports, and thought Of course I was here yesterday, what the fuck did I drink to have so many dreams last night?” The son of a typographer, he meets Inês, the daughter of a rich family, they date during what he remembers as the happiest period of his life, but then he impregnates her shortly before leaving to fight in Africa. In a hurry he’s introduced to her parents and he’s forced to marry her. Her parents are despicable people, especially the mother-in-law, full of disdain for him and poor people in general.

After he returns from Africa his father-in-law gives him a job at his bank. He quickly grows tired of that life and of going to dinners and parties with Inês’ parents. The marriage isn’t as idyllic as the dating; ouot of boredom he gets into an affair with Idla, a colleague from work, although he dumps her when he finds out she’s pregnant. Ilda decides not to have an abortion but he never finds out what happens to her: shortly after the revolution Inês’ family, terrified of communist violence against rich people, flees to Brazil. Five years later he returns, divorced and wondering what has happened to Ilda’s baby.

From Inês he had a daughter called Mariana. Their marriage wasn’t doing well since his return from Africa, and in a melodramatic twist he discovers that his wife is a lesbian (this would have been very shocking in Portugal in 1983, I’m sure): shortly before they abandon Portugal he intrudes upon Inês rolling around in bed with one of her mother’s friends. In Brazil they finally split. But although he’s poor he accepts the humiliating terms of the divorce she proposes him, like giving away half his earnings in alimony, because she sent a couple of thugs to beat up his lawyer. Like the soldier, he constantly imagines a plan of action to regain his lost honour. “I’m going up there, I torn the furniture apart and kick the shit out of you until you’re apologizing on your knees (…).” Of course it never crosses the threshold of imagination. One thing is constant in the novel: all the men are weaklings. In the end he’s living with a midget woman and asking the soldier for a job in the moving company.

There four narratives are stories of conformity and humiliation. Their lives interweave and mirror each other in order to reinforce these themes and show how nothing changes; the men may change, the circumstances also, if modestly, but the fates are identical. Lobo Antunes also demands considerable attention from the reader in order to notice certain details. A blink or jumping over a word and you may never learn the name of a character. I laboured under the assumption that the communications officer was called Eduardo until Maria Alzira Seixo’s book corrected me. Her essay on this novel also elucidated some ways their lives interconnect that I hadn’t noticed since Lobo Antunes is deliberately dense and opaque. The communications officer, for instance, has an affair with Edite, the lieutenant coronel’s wife. Inês, after her return to Portugal, is living with Maria João, his daughter. The soldier shacks up with the superintendent that was sleeping around with the lieutenant coronel.

The novel tackles many themes. The most forceful is that nothing ever changes. This is ironic because Abílio works in a moving company. In Portuguese that’s called empresa de mudanças, from the verb mudar, which means exactly to change. He may change boxes around from one house to another but he and the others are all screwed. What changes, however, is time and a sense of social values. They grow old and get that bitterness that comes with reflecting on misspent lives; but the novel is also a document of subtle changes in terms of customs and habits. When Inês finds out she’s pregnant, “she bought, with great embarrassment, the test kit at the pharmacy.” (My italics). In the 1970s Portugal was an isolated, puritanical and deeply Catholic country. But with this novel Lobo Antunes kind of wants to say that the modern world, for better and for worse, has marched in through Portugal and there’s no going back. And I suspect that he comes up with shocking theme after shocking theme with glee: paedophilia and child rape (the second lieutenant buys a young girl in Africa to have sex with), homosexuality, lesbianism, male and female prostitution, divorce, urban violence, adolescent pregnancy (the second lieutenant’s 14-year-old daughter asks him money for an abortion), drug use, racism, transvestites. Perhaps, however, nothing is as offensive as his satire of the revolution.

Another question, albeit implicit, floats around the narrative: when did Portugal fuck itself up? This question has a lot to do with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral. The matter of Lobo Antunes’ debt to it is unavoidable: the Peruvian novel is divided into 4 books; it takes place during a dictatorship and a few years beyond; it’s about two old acquaintances who meet out of the blue and have a long conversation about the past in a bar; there are abrupt temporal shifts, although Lobo Antunes is more extreme. Even Ambrosio’s homosexual relationship with Fermín Zavala seems like a prototype for the soldier’s prostitution. In answering this question, Lobo Antunes sort of implies that Portugal has always been fucked. It’s not so much the revolution, which some of the characters blame for their misfortunes, that fucked them; it’s more of a miasma, a deep-rooted mentality, a cultural sense of fatalism which perhaps achieves its greatest expression in the music known as fado. Nothing changes because the Portuguese are impervious to spiritual change. And this leads to a need for scapegoats. “I thought the revolution was giving people a better life, the soldier was startled, I didn’t know that what mattered was for everything to remain the same (…).” They hope the revolution will spare them being accountable for their personal failures: as if the revolution by itself could have the power to change anything, as if it weren’t just the collective will of people but a sentient being. “The same landscape, ladies and gentlemen, the same faces, ladies and gentlemen, I bet not even an earthquake, not even twenty earthquakes can one day, ladies and gentlemen, modify this shit (…),” they argue with a pretentious philosophical wisdom. And they even discuss what went wrong: for the soldier “there weren’t executions, captain, there wasn’t blood, there wasn’t a real uprising, those who ruled are back again, after a few years of exile, after a few weeks in jail, so that we continue in the same land of shit, so much happiness, so much work, so much fuss for what (…)”. But in spite of that fatalism the truth is they didn’t have the strength to change themselves. “If we look at things the truth is I’ve never done anything right in my life, captain, said the soldier.” This is a theme that runs through Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa; Lobo Antunes is just reworking it for a new era.

The failure of these men takes us to a new theme: Lobo Antunes is interesting in dissembling the Portuguese macho men. The protagonists are always discussing strength and violence, always about bragging of knowing how to put women in their place. They’re constantly making claims for an extraordinary sense of self-dignity. “And no matter how crap we are we always have our pride, don’t we?” asks the soldier. But in fact they’re dominated by women: the soldier by Odete; the second lieutenant by Inês and his mother-in-law; the lieutenant coronel by his mother and wife; the communications officer by Dália. When the second lieutenant reveals that he found his wife sleeping with another woman, the soldier indignantly asks, “And you put up with that crap without giving her a slap, a beating at least?” Of course his performance regarding Odete wasn’t any better. Even the prostitutes hanging around the soldiers complain about johns: one wants to be treated like a baby; another one can’t have sex unless they’re being watched by his pet mannequin. Lobo Antunes isn’t terribly kind to men in this novel…

Finally I can only say that Fado Alexandrino is one of António Lobo Antunes’ best novels and it demonstrates all his qualities. His metaphors and smiles are at their best and his long sentences have never been more incantatory. Its delicate and complex structure is carefully orchestrated and executed, down to the abrupt rupture when he gives voice to an unexpected character. If I had to define him I’d say he’s a hyper-naturalist, he’s fascinated by amounts of minute trivia: this is when the soldier takes Dona Isaura, during her thrombosis, to the hospital: “Odete released one of her mother’s arms (fingers like chorizo, violet fingernails, a tiny wedding ring compressing the flesh).” Why so much detail? Why zoom in on the arm in such na intense way? What does it add to the narrative? The thing with Lobo Antunes is that he’s not an introspective writer, he’s a highly descriptive writer, he wants to secure reality on a purely sensorial level, that’s why we goes overboard with gorgeous metaphors. His characters don’t act they talk or remember, they have more memories than inner lives and thoughts. They don’t reflect, they don’t think about their lives, they talk about them to others. They describe everything minutely, with exaction, capturing the whole world of sounds, smells, colours and tastes. His characters don’t stop to wonder about the essence of time, love, good, evil, death, the spirit, the meaning of life, there aren’t pithy definitions of abstract concepts in his books, just matter-of-fact statements, just people laying bare the accumulated stuff of their minds. When they’re not talking, someone else is, usually a super-omniscient narrator. But in spite of this hyper-realism he sneaks enormous doses of surreal humour into his novels. Thinking about the differences between him and his arch-enemy, José Saramago, I’d say that Lobo Antunes writes about what’s ordinary and suddenly turns it into the absurd; whereas Saramago starts with an impossible premise and makes it convincing. As for his trademarks – long sentences, dialogues inside brackets, non-linearity, the accretion of points of view – the more I think about them the more I like them. It’s funny, only recently did I realize this: he’s like an improved version of a mediocre but bizarrely overrated Hungarian novelist called László Krasznahorkai. A year ago, ignoring my usual suspicion of old, unknown novels that suddenly set the world on fire, I read a book called Satantango, coming out of the ordeal with my suspicion vindicated and reinforced. Everything he does: the dialogues in brackets, the longueurs nobody shuts up about, the doom and gloom of whatever, it was all in Lobo Antunes years from the start. I don’t presume to understand the volatile and mysterious mechanisms through which the Anglo-American market (and let’s not fool ourselves: no other matters in book business) “creates” “great writers,” but Krasznahorkai’s meteoric rise to fame is beyond comprehension to me; the accolades he’s been receiving for a couple of years are the accolades Lobo Antunes should have received a decade ago, and yet he lingers in nigh-obscurity as if he were a novice at this, but anyone who reads Fado Alexandrino won’t have any doubts that he’s one of the greatest living novelists.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: An Explanation of the Birds

My António Lobo Antunes itinerary is recent and short enough for me to remember all of it: in 2007 I read A Morte de Carlos Gardel (1994); in 2012 I read Knowledge of Hell (1980), Memória de Elefante and The Land at the End of the World (1979); and last July, in a frenzy of boldness, I read in a row The Return of the Caravels (1988), Fado Alexandrino (1983), Act of the Damned (1985) and An Explanation of the Birds (1981). The five-year intermission between the first and second book results from a poor impression that did not leave me impatient for more: sure, I immediately recognized his dexterity in syntax, metaphors, similes and surrealistic imagery, but the plot didn’t enthral me. That was my mistake: recently I discovered that Lobo Antunes doesn’t care about plot at all. He’s one of those writers. And I find that very disappointing: I don’t understand why a writer who’s so good at writing can have such a vulgar imagination for inventing situations. His novels, with few exceptions, tend to take place in naturalistic settings and concern themselves with typical middle class affairs: men and women, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, drug addiction, adultery, family members tearing each other apart, class prejudice – the fascination banality exerts upon him disturbs me. The second book, however, overwhelmed me so strongly it was one of the first books I wrote about. Reading it was fundamental because without it to reassure me of the author’s genius and humour, the next two would have put me off him forever. Two years later the nigh-transparent vestige of pleasure that remained in my brain after detesting them got me to cautiously read another one, and another, and another, and another, and before I knew it I had read his first seven novels.

I’m a very unruly reader: I can’t read the same writer for long, I’m always rushing to discover new voices, new ideas, new places; I like to move through literature like someone lost in a labyrinth with no hurry to get out: going one way, going back, going another way, without panic. But specialized knowledge is also beneficial when I want to appreciate a writer’s evolution over time. And Lobo Antunes has shown great evolutions. I’m going to spend a couple of weeks writing about the four novels I read this year, but first I need to clear away his first three novels. Now I like to call them “The Rant Trilogy” because that’s what they constitute: they’re all endless rants from a narrator/protagonist complaining about everything. In fact the complaints jump from novel to novel and become repetitive. Just how repetitive? Well, let’s turn to an expert for help. Lately I’ve been reading bits and pieces from Os Romances de António Lobo Antunes, by Maria Alzira Seixo, responsible for organizing his complete works. This mammoth book, besides devoting one essay to each novel he wrote up to 2001, comes with plot summaries. This is how she describes the first novel: “A day in the life of a psychiatrist who returned from Angola and is separated from his wife and daughters, narrated in the third person (by the author-narrator), but with many interferences in the first person (the doctor’s dialogue or the delivery of his thoughts).” In other words, this is an autobiographical novel about António Lobo Antunes. She forgot to add that the author, like the protagonist, used to live in Monte Estoril, went to the casino every night and picked up women there to bring home. I didn’t spend two weeks writing about his personal life for the reader’s amusement, although I hope you had some, but to make the connections between his life and work clearer. Now the second novel: “A night of conversation in a bar in Lisbon, between a former soldier in Angola’s colonial war (who takes over the narrator’s role) and a random woman (who listens to him without intervening, or whose interventions emerge only through the narrator’s speech, who integrates them in his discourse.)” This novel, like the first one, ends with the protagonist taking a woman home for sex and seeing her off in the morning. The third novel is just barely different: “A psychiatrist travels by car, on his own, during an afternoon and part of the night, from Algarve to Lisbon; in the morning he arrives at his parent’s house, in the Maçãs Beach, where he takes a nap; during the journey he remarks on the landscape he observes, and on thoughts of several kinds, but especially two, which entangle in an inextricable way: his clinical activity in the Miguel Bombarda Hospital and his stay in African combat zones.” The narrator, incidentally, is called António Lobo Antunes, like a celebrated Portuguese novelist who was in an African war, used to practice psychiatry in the Miguel Bombarda Hospital and has a daughter called Joana, to whom he constantly addresses himself. It’s like he said to himself, “Ah, what the hell, everyone knows I’m just writing about myself, why keep pretending otherwise?” And so he’s joined the honourable ranks of novelists who insert themselves in novels, like Philip Roth and Curzio Malaparte, with the usual self-deprecation, vulnerability and black humour that makes this sub-genre palatable. I can’t explain why but I loved this novel: it’s not different than the others; it’s the same diatribes, the same thoughts, the same memories, the same nitpicking, the same relationships, the same war, sometimes even identical episodes are evoked: a soldier’s suicide, the difficulty of adapting to civilian life, the idiocy of psychiatry. But it’s like a culmination of everything he had in his system, a depuration: it’s funnier, more inventive, more laboured too. There’s a noticeable growth in narrative complexity. And it’s almost a total exorcism: everything he has to say is said with intensity and resolution, as if he wanted to put an end to it. And although the themes reappear, they’re now at the service of a new vision of fiction.

In An Explanation of the Birds we follow the suicide of one Rui S. It’s 1980: in 1974 a military coup had overthrown a long dictatorship; a free parliament had replaced the Revolutionary Council in 1975; a left-wing coup had been averted; the ignominious past was something people avoided talking about – like Eduardo Lourenço once joked, “fascism never existed” here – and post-revolutionary euphoria had given way to general disappointment and a feeling that democracy had brought no solutions. Rui, a History assistant professor, visits his mom in the hospital: she’s in the final stages of a terminal illness; then he goes home to drive to Tomar for a congress on the 19th century; but instead he convinces his wife, Marília, to stay with him in an inn in Aveiro over the weekend. There he hopes to gain courage to tell her that he’s fed up with her and wants a separation. But he dallies, after discovering that perhaps he still loves her after all, and it’s her that surprises him by demanding a divorce. Distraught, he leaves their room in the dead of night, ambles about and finally jumps into the water to die amidst the birds.

I’m not revealing anything. The suicide is announced by the narrative in the earliest pages, even before he knows he’s going to kill himself. Lobo Antunes doesn’t write novels the traditional way. Structurally speaking, this book does not differ from the previous ones; his novels usually revolve around limited time spans and locations: 24 hours in the day of someone; a night; a car journey. In this novel’s case it’s split in four big chapters: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Many of his stylistic traits resurface: abrupt shifts from first to third person, abrupt linear and temporal shifts, parallel actions, a constant recreation of the world through unexpected metaphors and similes. Regardless of these similarities, however, I did not have to read Alzira Seixo’s book to realize that “here the fiction of António Lobo Antunes truly begins,” that’s so obvious. With this novel the author gives up his monologues for dialectical actions: he invents characters, they interact, there are decisions, conflict, climaxes.

I don’t think I ever read a novel quite like this. It’s an ordinary but bewildering novel: ordinary because the plot is frugal and made of everyday situations, and yet I’ve never read a life dissected in such a merciless, cold, distant, even sadistic way. It’s not that it’s impossible to sympathise with the protagonist, on the contrary, he’s a nice fellow anyone can easily pity; no, it’s that the omniscient third person narrator is so ruthless and mean-spirited he shows absolutely no concern over Rui’s plight, it’s a totally unsentimental book. And for a suicide book that’s remarkable. In fact the novel is structured like a grotesque circus show where his death is the main event put on stage for a vile audience that ridicules and sneers at his death. Some 250 pages before he even dies, there are already fleeting voices that make all sort of crude, uncaring remarks as if he were not alive anymore. The book is composed of parallel narratives: on one level we have the journey to Aveiro, confrontation with Marília and fallout; on another one we have testimonies, depositions, opinions, snarky gossip about him. The best way to explain it is by showing it:

   - The doctor gave her one week tops, baby.
   - The stroke caught almost the whole heart – elucidated the Indian [doctor] in the middle of the ring, turned to the family that cheered, enthused, from the seats.
   He removed from the pocket a red, round, bleeding volume, and showed it slowly around him:
   - The illustrious audience may please have a look.

The first dialogue is uttered by Rui’s cousin when he visits his mother at the hospital. The second one is clearly fantasy. The Indian doctor reappears as the person who conducts his autopsy. Or how about this scene on the way to Aveiro, where he’s simultaneously alive and dead.

   - For a work day there sure is a lot of traffic on the road – Marília said searching for a bubble gum in her purse.
   - His problem is that he never truly believed in anything, he was never visited by the Holy Faith – assured his godfather, dressed as a priest, blessing his coffin. A group of midget clowns, masked as mourning women, hiccupped a chant of screeches, brandishing huge red scarves. – Whoever doesn’t believe in anything, my dearly beloved Christians, ends up like this – he concluded with his arms open, in a clamour of orchestra cymbals.

We know we’re reading a Lobo Antunes novel when the protagonist fantasises about his own death: that happens right in the first pages; in fact the opening sentence prefigures his watery demise. The author has often declared that he harbours suicidal thoughts, and his characters tend to share that self-destructive urge. Alzira Seixo uses a word that I think best sums up the atmosphere of his work: dysphemism, which an online dictionary defines as “the substitution of a harsh, disparaging, or unpleasant expression for a more neutral one.” That’s it: every time he has the chance to say something nice, he does the opposite. Everything in his books is dirty, ugly, filthy, rotten, disgusting, bad, dusty, rusty, smelly. I’m just listing the most frequently used adjectives. In this particular book that resource is quite effective. In some book Milan Kundera talks about the suicide of Anna Karenina: he explains that before she kills herself there’s a death of beauty around her. He lists several examples of how Anna observes a world from which beauty is receding, turned degraded and distorted. In order for her to kill herself, he concludes, first she must lose her sense of beauty. I find that a remarkable thesis and is quite similar to what Lobo Antunes proposes here: Rui’s journey also charts his growing inability to see anything good, positive or hopeful about the world, it’s as if every thought he concocts in his depressed brain excites him onwards towards death. This distortion of the world is visible in the smallest descriptions. For instance when he visits his dying mother without great displays of feelings, inner or outward:

   - Good morning mother – he said
   And thought right away How you’ve grown thinner damn it, looking at the tendons in the neck, the too pale forehead, the salient veins in the arms, the green irises fixated on the pillow, round, spying him, the nose’s viscous sweat.

Viscous sweat. That’s vintage Lobo Antunes. Rui can’t see her pain, he can’t see past her physical outlook, he can’t even think about her in terms other than body and appearance, the spiritual side is of no importance to him. Later on, when he’s already in Aveiro, he thinks whether or not to call to know how she’s doing, but decides not to. He’s stopped caring, if he doesn’t quite realize it. The rest of the novel is just more of this. Usually the author’s novels are limited in time and setting but the character’s memories can encompass decades, entire lives. That’s the case here: the narrator puts Rui’s life under the microscope and shows every humiliation, inadequacy, fear and trauma that has emotionally stunted him.

What do we know about him? He’s written a manual that is to be published and leaves behind an incomplete doctorate thesis. His father, a Sub-secretary of State during the dictatorship, was a seldom seen figure in his childhood, never at home, always away in business, leaving Rui’s mother alone. He had lovers, for every rich patriarch had them, which everyone knew about but ignored because that’s what you did back then. As the novel progresses they’re separated and his father has bought a house for his new lover, which sends Rui, a poorly-paid teacher, into fits of rage and envy because he lives in a crummy rented apartment. He obviously disappointed him for choosing not to be rich, not to follow him in the family businesses. “And he guessed his dark eyes, behind the glasses, wondering without believing: I had to lie to you, I always had to lie to you, you couldn’t stand that I was different than you, that I composed bad verses, that I preferred to be a teacher in a lousy suburban high school, on a miserable monthly wage, to working in the company, dressed up, wearing a tie, like the other tribesmen.” His father wanted him to show interest in economy, management, money. Rui, just to spite him, got involved with communists and started taking part in their seditious activities, until the secret police pinched him. To his shame his father used his influence to release him, embarrassed to see his son mixed with those reprobates. Rui learned his lesson for a while, but the resentment never left him. “You never even let me revolt, go all the way in my anger: your huge, tutelary and authoritarian shadow castratingly protected me, and that’s when I decided to go to Letters, to be a teacher, to reject the company, to stop wearing a tie, to teach structuralism, theory of literature, French poetry or other equivalent and aberrant useless things. Perhaps he liked to work in the union, but the Left mistrusted him, the Right hated him like a class traitor, and both were right in their reservations, in their fears, in their criticisms. He thinks What am I anyway, what do I want to be anyway, a bourgeois wife, a communist wife, a strange combination of conservative and frustrated, pathetic, weak adventurer.”

His bourgeois wife was Tucha, a woman from the same social background. He had two children with her and he genuinely loved her. But one day, out of the blue, they’re watching TV and she turns to him and decides to divorce him. Now he gets to see his kids on weekends. His communist wife is Marília: he’s not sure why he hook up with her. Perhaps because he was lonely and needed company; perhaps because he needed to marry a proletarian girl to appease his aristocratic conscience. Or did he use her to get back into the Communist Party after the revolution? He’s not sure. He meets her at the university where he teaches, she’s a Semiotics teacher. Marília is a caricature of a ‘70s liberated woman: she likes the vanguards, you know, Andy Warhol, boring European cinema, Godard of course; she’s a fierce feminist and an acritical purveyor of communist slogans and doctrine. She’s also often described as ugly, as practically masculine and no one understand what Rui sees in her; she dresses badly, she’s tacky, she has no manners and is rude to people. His parents hated her, she reciprocated. She had heated arguments with his father over the colonies, politics, and the country’s social conditions. By the time he met her, his parents had returned from Brazil, to where they had fled after the revolution, and regained their power, fortune and property. “My mother refused to have you over and you answered back with a haughty grimace: I don’t need those fucking fascists for anything, but when I went home on Christmas and Birthdays on the way back you threw me sibylline jokes: You’re just a goofy bourgeois, an intractable conservative, I’m complaining to the party. One night she shut herself in the toilet crying, I spied through the keyhole and there she was cleaning with toilet paper her suddenly thick eyebrows: I wanted to hard to hug you, I like you I like you I like you, make love just like this, standing up, against the tiles, discussing the complication, which he did not understand, of life.” He impregnated her, she wanted an abortion and he didn’t stop her, only to regret it later. At first his love for her was genuine and beautiful too, like Tucha’s, but it also turned unbearable like everything else in his life, so that “he started believing that he’d never seriously love anyone, that he’d never be seriously interested in anything whatsoever.”

He clings to only one good memory, a childhood memory spent on a farm, when he and his father were watching birds: “The wings fluttered in a noise of wind-agitated leaves, tiny leaves, very thin, multiple, like a dictionary’s, I was holding your hand and suddenly I asked you Explain me the birds. Just like that, Explain me the birds, an embarrassing request to a businessman. But you smiled and said that their bones were made of beach spume, that they fed on wind crumbs and that when they died they floated belly up in the air, eyes shut like old ladies in communion.” But this precious memory is not enough; it’s just more fuel for the degradation that his existence is subjected to by the many voices that discuss and comment and criticise him: “The fact is, he was a strange person with funny interests, with absurd fancies: Look, right before he died, for instance, he came ask me to explain the birds for him, as if the birds, you know, could be explained: I never understand what he meant by that: the birds, hey look, do you understand?” Is this real? It’s clear several of the post-mortem asides are fantastic: although it’s stated that his mother died without being told of his suicide, she belongs to the people who rummage through his personal life. As I write this I wonder if all these cruel asides aren’t fantasies he’s imagining himself, as part of self-flagellation. The truth is he’s a character who’s constantly punishing himself, who constantly wallows in uncertainty and fear. “I’m leaving, goodbye, or I stay, what’s the alternative, go where, will I be happier alone, can I ever be happy with this perennial disquiet in my bowels, this sort of colitis of the soul, this distress of the guts (…).” Or. “I want everything to go screw itself save this aroma of rotten water following me, these willow trees, this grass, these nameless trees.” Or: “And what if I don’t want Eternal Life? What if I’m fed up with all that shit?” Or: “Five years ago I was an idealist, an enthusiast, a bit dumb, I walked out a bit hurt from Tucha’s marriage and I believed in the Revolution (…).” There’s nothing to enthuse about, there are no more ideals to live for. He only has himself and that’s not much: he’s a cowardly, passive, fat, unattractive man with a crappy job, terrified of living and given to staging events and conversations in his head that he can never turn into reality. “I bring you to Tomar to tell you that I don’t like you anymore. They immediately think that there’s another woman: There’s no woman at all, I want to be left alone a few months, thinking, then we’ll see, try to understand.” This is just one of his many ghost dialogues. In fact when the time comes to have a frontal talk with Marília he chickens out, convincing himself that he still loves her, but perhaps that’s only a defence mechanism to hide the fact he’s afraid of living alone, that he needs someone to look after him.

There’s a police report on the second chapter, but in a way the whole book is a report on his soul; it’s as if some omnipresent, omniscient entity went about interviewing people all over the world (Tucha and his kids now live abroad) to know more about him. But the picture formed from these depositions is wholly negative, petty, critical, loveless. Mother, father, sister, cousins, brother-in-laws, godfather, wives, sons, college friends, former girlfriends, former teachers, everyone remembers him in a negative or anodyne way, without emotion or fondness. Even a psychologist, for Lobo Antunes can’t help himself mocking head doctors, chips in. This is after a spat with Tucha:

   - But who argues in this house? – I disputed. – I never raise my voice. I lost my head a bit a while ago, I’m sorry, it’s over.
   - Aggressiveness-submission, aggressiveness-submission, aggressiveness- submission – articulated the shrink moving his index like a metronome. Women detest men who are too predictable, they love a coefficient of surprise and what surprise can a temperament like this offer us? None.

And also:

   - People who no matter how much they search never find a meaning for life – lectured the shrink drawing careful circles with on a sheet of paper with a pencil – always constitute potential suicides. Sooner or later the emptiness of their quotidian hurls them into an angst of claustrophobic lab rat, and then we have the pills, the gas, the bullet, the sulphuric acid, the eight floors, the knife, the electricity, the catwalk, the pesticide, the oil, the sea: their imagination, ladies and gentlemen, literally does not have limits.

And so we’re subjected to an endless procession of failures, for instance at school:

   - Get him a Physics tutor if necessary – commanded the tiny voice. – I don’t want to son to walk around like a bum.
   - He never understood the Second Law of Thermodynamics – revealed an old man with his sixth grade notebook open in front of him, and a bottled ship on the book shelf. – It may be that he was better at Letters, I won’t argue that, but at exact sciences he was always a disaster.

Tucha accuses him of sexual impotence. His mother criticises him for having a divorce, that kind of thing didn’t happen in her time. I could go on. Even Marília admits she probably never cared for him:

   - In the beginning – said Marília – I thought he was a bourgeois that could be saved, a potential socialist apt to be converted, through reading, through mingling and through example, to the glorious ideology of the working class. Living with him was for me part of my militant work, until the comrades, in a meeting, scientifically demonstrated otherwise to me, that is, his hardened capitalist mentality, his atrocious elitism, his absolute egotism. Of course I’ve already performed my self-criticism within the Party.

This portrait of him is totally adverse to what we see through his eyes: he’s a passive, harmless, with a generic dose of compassion, decency and politeness. He has a moral consciousness. His only problem is an unexplainable unrest that puts him at odds with everyone: his family, women, the Communist Party he wants to be a member of. To escape all these failures, but especially this unrest that will continue to make him fail again and again, there’s suicide. The final chapter, which takes up some sixty pages, is the long preparation and execution of the circus act that his life has become, with an eager audience and even ads that promote the most absurd products.  All the preceding abrupt asides served to deflate all the dignity and solemnity of this moment. He’s so pathetic, or so cosmically despised by some unknown force, that not even his death is freed from the mediocrity and spitefulness that hounded him in life. For a careful man who did things in moderation, this death could at least have the value of something unpredictable and bold, but by being announced before even he decides to carry it out it’s reduced to a mere show put on for the pleasure of an audience of spectres. Even his brother-in-law mocks it: “My intimate conviction, ladies and gentlemen (…) is that he’ll fail, without honour or glory, his stunt, or, rather, his project of a stunt, the same way so far he’s failed, so to say, everything in life.”

I don’t know a more unkind book towards its protagonist than this one. It’s ingrained in the actual fabric of the text. But I think it’d be interesting to see more books where the omniscient narrator clearly hates the character’s guts. For those readers who need to like their protagonists, rest assured that it’s easy to ignore the evil background noise and appreciate his qualities. What I’m curious about is why Lobo Antunes goes to such lengths to totally lampoon his suicide and to filter his existence through the testimonies of such a collection of resentful, rancorous people. This novel is almost like assisted euthanasia, as if every line were there to help Rui make his decision. What is the point? What is he trying to say, if he’s trying to say anything at all? Or is this a mere formalist exercise? Whatever may be the case, An Explanation of the Birds is one of the best, funniest and most original novels I’ve read in a long time.