"Os cus de Judas", em Inglês
The Land at the End of the World, by António Lobo Antunes
June 29, 2011
THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD
By António Lobo Antunes
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
222 pages. W. W. Norton & Company.
Combat experiences are like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: no two are alike, which may be why they often make for great novels, as Tolstoy also knew. The cause need not even be noble, since a hopeless situation and senseless violence can actually fortify a work of fiction. Certainly that is the case with António Lobo Antunes’s “Land at the End of the World,” set in Angola in the early 1970s, as Portugal’s ludicrous effort to preserve its African empire was meandering to an inglorious end.
The unnamed narrator is a young doctor wrenched from a comfortable life in Lisbon and forced to spend 27 months on the front lines treating his hapless fellow soldiers. He resents that they have been made “agents of a provincial form of fascism that was corroding and eating away at itself with the slow acid of its own sad, parochial stupidity.” But mostly he is sickened by the mutilated bodies delivered to his care, and fearful the same may happen to him. Though there are flashes of humor, almost always mordant, this is not “M*A*S*H” but something far darker and more absurd.
“The Land at the End of the World,” newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, was originally published in 1979, four years after Portugal’s withdrawal from Africa and the final collapse of America’s intervention in Vietnam. At that time it was interpreted as a comment on the inherent futility of those recent Western adventures in the third world. But read at more than 30 years’ remove from those events much of this account of what Mr. Lobo Antunes’s narrator calls a “painful apprenticeship in dying” would no doubt make sense to survivors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“What have they done to us,” the narrator asks in one of his typically long and torrential sentences, “sitting here waiting in this landlocked place, imprisoned by three rows of barbed wire in a land that doesn’t belong to us, dying of malaria and bullets, whose whistling trajectory sounds like a nylon thread vibrating, fed by unreliable supply lines whose arrival or not is dependent on frequent accidents en route, on ambushes and land mines, fighting an invisible enemy, fighting the endless days that never pass, fighting homesickness, indignation, and remorse, fighting the dark nights as thick and opaque as a mourning veil.”
Back home in Lisbon, his marriage yet another casualty of the war, the traumatized doctor finds no solace. “Rootless, I float between two continents, both of which spurn me,” he says. “I have no place anywhere, I went too far away for too long to ever belong here again, to these autumns of rain and Sunday Masses, these long winters as dull as blown light bulbs.”
Even sex cannot provide relief, or a distraction, since he is capable only of collecting women “the way you might find odd bits of change in the pocket of a winter coat.” The narrator’s story unfolds over the course of a long, drunken night in which he successfully, but only half-heartedly, seduces a woman he has just met in a bar, who has the “aseptic, competent dandruff-free air of an executive secretary.” He knows this erotic escapade will end like all his others: with “the damp defeat of two exhausted bodies on the mattress” after an act of coitus that has all “the limp joy of two strands of spaghetti entwining.”
Like Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams and Moacyr Scliar, Mr. Lobo Antunes belongs to that select group of writers who are also doctors — a psychiatrist, to be more precise, who himself served in a field hospital in Angola. But the novelist-doctor he probably most resembles is Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose “Journey to the End of the Night” is also a grotesque reflection on the horror of war and the failure of European imperialism in Africa. Mr. Lobo Antunes has even told of how, as a teenager, he experienced such “bedazzlement” from reading Céline’s “Death on the Installment Plan” that he wrote a letter to that misanthropic Frenchman, who, to his credit, responded with, he recalled, “immense tenderness.”
The original version of Mr. Lobo Antunes’s novel had a suitably Céline-like scatological title, which refers to the anatomy of Judas and is a common Portuguese-language slang expression meaning something like “the back of beyond.” Ms. Jull Costa has had to find a less pungent substitute, as did an earlier translation, published in 1983, that was called “South of Nowhere.” But once the story begins, her rendering of the novelist’s language and style is simply splendid. He has created a memorably unhinged narrator, and she manages to capture, perfectly and faithfully, the bitter, hallucinatory and increasingly desperate tone of his monologue.
Perhaps because of his training as a psychiatrist, Mr. Lobo Antunes is also an unusually observant writer, which in turn seems to have bestowed on him a particular gift for coining unusual but apt similes. Rain clouds in the tropics are “as heavy as udders,” an exhausted soldier slings his rifle “over his shoulder as if it were a useless fishing rod,” a skinny schoolmarm in a bereft colonial outpost has “collarbones as prominent as Brezhnev’s eyebrows,” and basic training finds the narrator “side by side with a fat recruit as wobbly as a crème caramel on a plate.”
Ms. Jull Costa begins her introduction to the novel by noting that Mr. Lobo Antunes is “generally considered to be Portugal’s greatest living writer.” She was writing a few weeks after the death last year of the Nobel laureate José Saramago, whose work she also has translated, but even during Saramago’s lifetime many readers and critics preferred Mr. Lobo Antunes, who certainly is the more subtle and sardonic of the two. Where the doctrinaire Saramago saw simple blacks and whites (communism and atheism good, fascism and Catholicism bad), Mr. Lobo Antunes is an equal-opportunity skeptic, firing darts at all kinds of targets, including his narrator.
Since the publication of “The Land at the End of the World” Mr. Lobo Antunes, now 68, has gone on to write more than a score of other novels and win many literary prizes. Often, as in “The Inquisitors’ Manual” and “The Return of the Caravels,” his subject has again been Portugal’s troubled history, in particular the scars left by colonialism. But it was “The Land at the End of the World” that first enabled him to open that floodgate, and, as this fine translation shows, it continues to stack up against the best of his later, more mature and experimental work.
Los Angeles Times
July 6, 2011
Book review: 'The Land at the End of the World' by António Lobo Antunes
By Kai Maristed
Angola? Let us
rephrase the question: Have you heard of the Angolan war for independence,
1961-75, that brutal, pigheaded attempt by the Salazar dictatorship to hang on
African colony? If you draw a blank, don't worry. Portugal's most admired living
writer, who was drafted as a young doctor into the conflict in 1971, compressed
his two-year experience into a short, intimate novel that packs the impact of an
exploding mortar shell. Read António Lobo Antunes' "The Land at the End of the
World," and you, like the protagonist, may never forget the hallucinatory
depravity, degradation and corruption of an unjust war that sent so many young
men to Africa while stay-at-home elites reaped the profits.
In other words, it was a war like most wars: senseless orders, bad food and unimaginable atrocities.
The narrator's confession, as poured out eight years later (along with plenty of
whiskey) to a woman he's trying to pick up in a Lisbon bar, opens with
deceptively whimsical reminiscing about his privileged, if lonely, childhood. In
the zoo nearby, the ostriches looked like "spinster gym teachers, waddling
penguins like messenger boys with bunions, and cockatoos with their heads on one
side like connoisseurs of paintings." When it comes to simile and metaphor, Lobo
Antunes is a shameless fountain of originality; comparison is his method,
Hemingwayesque austerity be damned. Of the soldiers in camp he observes,
"masturbation was our daily workout, we were pistons huddled in our icy sheets
like aged fetuses no uterus would ever expel, while outside the pine trees and
the fog met … the trees superimposing on the night the sticky dark of their
trunks, sugared by the mist's fairground cotton candy."
Without the brilliant inventiveness of this prose (precisely translated by Margaret Jull Costa) that proliferates like jungle vines, it might be the rare reader who has the guts to go the whole harrowing distance with this guilt-ravaged field doctor. But the pleasure of reading is in the repeated shocks of the unpredictable, whether found in flashy arm-twists of plot or, far less often, in an entirely original turn of mind. Along with metaphor Lobo Antunes also excels in the aphoristic art of nailing a truth in one line. Happiness, as defined in Angola by the cynical doctor, was "that vague state resulting from an impossible convergence of … a good digestion and a smug egotism untouched by regrets." But later, having brought the nameless, accommodating listener home to his echoing bare apartment — her "black bra draped over a chair like a bat waiting for darkness to come in order to leave its rafter in the attic" — he speaks to the ghost of his Angolan love, Sofia, and recalls a different, humbler happiness: the peace "found in the curve of a woman's shoulder on which I could rest my despair and fear, in that tenderness devoid of sarcasm."
Is "The Land at the End of the World" fiction or memoir? The key events and dates of the story appear to map seamlessly to the author's biography. The narrator even sends up his younger self, a literary aspirant who dreamed of arriving in Stockholm "on board a boat of printed paper" and who "shamelessly plagiarized … the glassy glitter of the cheap metaphors I loved."
But a writer can imagine multiple outcomes to his own life. The emotionally crippled, self-despising narrator of this novel is not the Lobo Antunes who would go on to write 18 more books and be compared variously (and confusingly) to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Gabriel García Márquez, Proust, Faulkner, Conrad and Joyce. If one more name may be added it would be that of Tim O'Brien, author of "The Things They Carried." At its mid-point, Lobo Antunes' novel shifts into a seven-page rising crescendo, shedding all metaphor in four driving sentences, detailing the "wear and tear of war" with the empathy, rhythm and seething anger of O'Brien's Vietnam march. From there, this novel carries the reader with it like a swollen river on the Angolan plain. There's no turning back.
Maristed is the author of several novels, including "Broken Ground" and "Out After Dark."
An early novel by a great Portuguese writer manages to thrill despite the foulness of its vision
The Land at the End of the World: A Novel
by Antonio Lobo Antunes, Margaret Juli Costa
The land at the end of the world is poor little Portugal, backed on to a thin slice of the Iberian peninsula by boisterous Spain; it is also – in this early novel by António Lobo Antunes, first published in 1979 – Portugal's even remoter and more godforsaken African colony of Angola, defended against rebels by the regime of the dictator Salazar during a long and futile war in which Lobo Antunes, serving as an army doctor, patched up mutilated casualties and watched his fellow conscripts suffer nervous breakdowns.
But the extruded, inaccessible land is also a bodily zone, a part of ourselves that remains out of sight behind us. The novel's original title is "Os Cus de Judas", which literally means the multiple arseholes of Judas. The slang phrase refers to any disregarded region – the Portuguese often grimly say that they live in the arsehole of Europe – and to any problem that is insoluble, a hopeless case like corrupt, backward Portugal itself. A previous translation was entitled South of Nowhere; in this version, the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, has opted for a title that is even more euphemistic, evoking fantastical distance and avoiding the book's obsessive references to an ordure that is closer to home.
José Saramago, Portugal's Nobel prize winner, magically suspended the laws of reality and probability in order to write about undiscovered islands, buoyant ships of stone and elephants trudging over the Alps. Lobo Antunes, by contrast, is no flighty fabulist and his novels, like autopsies conducted on a putrid corpse, investigate the crimes of recent Portuguese history: the brutality of fascism in The Inquisitors' Manual, treachery after the revolution in Fado Alexandrino, the miseries of a druggy urban underclass in What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?
His is an excremental vision, obsessed by the foulness of the body politic and its filthy discharges. The Land at the End of the World contains a disquisition on spitting; it also makes a detour to the beach outside Lisbon, where the city's sewers dump their effluent in the ocean, allowing the narrator to treat himself to a plump, plopping bowel movement, which he likens to a hen laying an egg. A fat woman is described as "a vast ambulant gluteus maximus" whose face is so anal that her nose resembles a swollen haemorrhoid. Though Lobo Antunes is qualified as a physician and a psychiatrist, writing is not for him a healing art. He's not unlike a military dentist he describes, who "depopulated gums, howling with murderous glee": after analysing national and personal guilt, the remedy he prescribes is pain.
The narrator of The Land at the End of the World is patently the novelist himself and his reminiscences about childhood, conscription, carnage in Angola and marital breakdown are rawly autobiographical. All this is regurgitated in a monologue addressed to a silent, faceless woman encountered in a bar, with whom he later enjoys a few minutes of loveless sexual oblivion. Nothing else happens: you go on reading for the sake of the language, since this is less a novel than a prose poem made up of endlessly metamorphosing metaphors that mimic the riffs of jazz trumpeters or saxophonists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom are admiringly cited. Knitting needles "secrete sweaters as they clashed like domesticated fencing foils", and women at the hairdresser's wear conical "Martian helmets". The morbidity of Lobo Antunes's imagination means that the montaged similes procreate in order to die: in his bath, the narrator feels himself to be a dead fish, "evaporating into a sticky foam, its putrefying eyes bobbing about on the surface".
The reader needs a lot of help and the translator's footnotes characterise Lisbon localities, explain Portuguese political crises and even identify a Brazilian pop singer. The assistance is welcome, though it suggests that Lobo Antunes is best understood by his compatriots. Even when alluding to cultural icons outside Portugal – one paragraph ticks off Chaplin's Modern Times and Beckett's Godot, Cézanne's painting of card players and a Bosch inferno, finishing with a quote from a Paul Simon song – he is overanxiously establishing his own universality. Is anything revealed by telling us that his baby daughter's ears have "the pink transparency of an Antonioni sea"? Even a footnote can't make sense of the observation; its only purpose is to demonstrate that Lobo Antunes, despite his confinement at the end of the world, has managed to see Antonioni's films, which surely no one ever doubted.
Saramago is popular everywhere, as easily digestible as the sardines and Madeira wines exported by Portugal. Lobo Antunes, for all his verbal bravura, is a harder sell. Fixated on that eponymous arsehole, he sometimes seems at risk of disappearing into it.
Friday, 1 July 2011
Norton, £16.99, 224pp.
Before reading António Lobo Antunes's stunning novel about Portugal's colonial war in Angola (newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa), I knew little about the African country's history, its Portuguese colonisers, and its bitter fight for independence. The two years Lobo Antunes spent in Angola, serving as a medic, affected him profoundly and was a major theme of his earlier novels. His second, The Land at the End of the World (first published in 1979), suggests the author had a psychological compulsion to write about his experiences.
His narrator is a traumatised Portuguese medic who, six years after the end of the conflict, his marriage over and numbed by alcohol, recounts his 27 months of hell to an unnamed lover. He describes himself as "a cynical, prematurely old creature laughing at himself and at others with the bitter, cruel, envious laughter of the dead".
The medic painstakingly illuminates the dehumanising effects of watching his fellow men dying in agony, the constant hunger, and the lack of even the simplest of pleasures – human touch. He reveals his revulsion at the atrocities committed on both sides, but also his shame for not denouncing them. The soldiers' pervasive fear of death is summed up perfectly in the following passage: "Twelve hundred miles from Luanda, it was late January, it was raining, and we were going to die, we were going to die and it was raining, raining. Sitting in the cabin of a truck beside the driver, cap pulled low over my eyes, an endless cigarette vibrating in my hand, I began my painful apprenticeship in dying."
Blending politics into fiction, Lobo Antunes is unremitting in his anger at those waging war from the safety of their offices and the ruthlessness of the widely feared PIDE agents (International and State Defense Police), there to protect "the wealth of the three or four families who shore up the regime". His narrator describes how the soldiers are instructed to test out the sand ahead of the trucks for mines because "a truck was more important and more expensive than a man".
Although the chapters are orderly, following the letters of the alphabet, the horrors of war are rendered in unruly, often wildly beautiful prose. Lobo Antunes has been hailed as Portugal's greatest living writer and, judging by this brilliant portrait of mental trauma, I would be inclined to agree. He conveys, like little else I've read, how the emotional scars of combat never fully disappear.
Reviewed on: 03/14/2011
The Land at the End of the World
António Lobo Antunes, trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Norton, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-07776-6
Antunes's (What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?) haunting work entangles the reader in a maelstrom of ghastly wartime impressions, recounted by a young medic during the Angolan struggle for independence during the early 1970s. The narrator is a writer looking back after a period of some years, remembering his bourgeois Lisbon family's pronouncements when he was posted to Angola--"At least doing his military service will make a man of him"--yet recognizing that the horrific, raw experience of caring for the sick and wounded in the squalid harbor town of Luanda, Angola, over two years only created a creature "made up of lascivious despair." The Portuguese imperialist presence in the country is everywhere felt, especially in the sexual exploitation of the Africans, and the narrator toils amid the "gigantic, unbelievable absurdity of the war" at a hospital, patching up the dismembered, blown-apart, and malaria-ridden, drinking heavily, and questioning his own insignificance. He is a person of exquisite education and sensibility, having come of age amid the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar in the 1960s; his fluid, hallucinatory narrative (addressed to a tender lover, "you") meanders through memory, cultural allusions, and visceral sensations to describe a surreal experience that proves devastating and transformative. (May)
Jun 10, 2011
The chronicling of bourgeois exhaustion - spiritual, intellectual, emotional, sexual, political - has played a major formal role in European literature since the early 19th century. Paradoxical though it may seem, this exhaustion has proven to be one of the richest themes in European fiction: it appears as a central psychological structure in works as widely separated by time, language, style and temperament as Alexander Pushkin's Belkin stories, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Franz Kafka's The Trial - to say nothing of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina or Middlemarch. Indeed, it is more difficult to imagine a European novel, immortal or 10th-rate, that does not take up in some way, at some point, this seemingly fathomless topic.
Whatever this irony may say about the actual condition of Europe's upper classes, the Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes, as the scion of a well-rooted and now tottering (if his own portrayal of it is to be believed) Lisbon family of doctors, businessmen and politicians, is as well-equipped to perform his own such investigation as could be imagined. That he clearly views his country as irretrievably second-rate, serves only to qualify him further for the task. For it is precisely the second-rate - that which appears to resemble but falls deadly short of the truly powerful and truly significant - that concerns the students of such exhaustion.
Portugal's Colonial War, which lasted for more than a decade and has been all but forgotten by professional advocates of social justice, was a second-rate war if ever there was one, a second-tier European power desperately attempting to retain its dwindling African possessions, undermanned, unsupported and doomed. Lisbon and Angola, slumberous mediocrity at home and violent mediocrity abroad - these form the poles of The Land at the End of the World, Lobo Antunes's latest work to be translated into English (by the diligent Margaret Jull Costa).
The Land at the End of the World was Lobo Antunes's second novel to be published; it appeared six years after his return from the Angolan front and went a considerable way towards securing his reputation as one of Portugal's most important writers, which makes the lateness of this new translation seem odd.
The book recounts its narrator's misadventures as an adolescent and young man in Lisbon's stifling society, as a bewildered, terrified and furious army medic in the hinterlands of Angola and as a young husband and father, loving but unfaithful.
Indeed, sexual longing, of the tawdry and often unfulfilled variety, forms a central element in the novel: Lobo Antunes structures his book as a series of 23 brief chapters, narrated from the murky present of a long, dull Lisbon night, through which the protagonist examines his own past in a long, broken monologue aimed at seducing a nameless woman he has met in a bar, in whom he feels only a rote, conventional interest.
The book's diction and style are idiosyncratic in the extreme, for good and ill. The narrator - as perhaps befits a man who lacks any real sense of himself and of his social and historical context - can hardly speak more than a sentence without introducing a simile, even in the case of relatively commonplace objects, even in the book's opening pages, where the narrator recalls his youthful trips to the Lisbon zoo with his father:
"The zoo had a whiff about it like the open-air passageways in the Coliseu concert hall, a place full of strange invented birds in cages, ostriches that looked just like spinster gym teachers, waddling penguins like messenger boys with bunions, and cockatoos with their heads on one side like connoisseurs of painting."
Already, it seems, the line between human and animal - and consequently the line between nature and culture - has been blurred.
We follow the course of the narrator's memory from the bizarreries of the zoo into the "stunted, crocheted universe" of Lisbon society. And then, with stops at various military installations and colonial outposts, to the jungle edges of Angola.
At this journey's end, in the titular Land at the End of the World, the understaffed, undermanned Portuguese garrisons skirmish with native militias, led by Jonas Savimbi and Agostinho Neto (who would, after Angolan independence, wage their own bloody and long-lasting civil war for control of the newly formed state.)
It is in those jungles that the sadly comic pretensions to empire of Lisbon's burghers reveal themselves - as in Lobo Antunes's vision - the superficies of a nihilistic horror. The rebel forces are as deadly as they are unseen, the Portuguese soldiers militarily ineffectual and pathetic, the landscape alien and fraught with dread, and the rage of the colonised explosive and potent.
It is here that the weakness and suppressed fear of the Portuguese - who have been living, as Lobo Antunes suggests, in a kind of waking dream during the long-lasting reign of the Salazar government - meet directly, without any cultural or political buffers, the brute facts of their dying sovereignty in Africa. The soldiers' deaths are numerous, minutely narrated and utterly bereft of dignity, and (through a series of deliberate temporal distortions culminating in the narrator's tale of his own mortal wound, death and self-resurrection) Lobo Antunes suggests that they are leading fractures in the breakdown of historical structure.
Despite all this, our narrator's service is not unremittingly dark and empty. His wife gives birth back in Lisbon and they spend a passionate month of leave together. He meets another woman in an outback town and enjoys a brief, intense and doomed tryst with her. In a van, travelling back from a battlefield, he experiences an instant of true friendship with a fellow soldier, "one of the rare moments in [his] life where [he] did not feel alone".
These brief illuminations, it might be said, prove the narrator's current isolation to be complete and unbreakable. He exists, as he himself puts it, at a much later stage of the "painful apprenticeship in dying" that began in the stench of the Angolan war. He describes himself variously as a "melancholic bachelor … who coughs occasionally just to feel as if he had company" and, with less self-pity, as a man whose emotional core is a "sad, cynical greed made up of lascivious despair, egotism, and eagerness to hide from myself".
The Land at the End of the World hews closely to the contours of Antunes's own life: he, as mentioned, grew up in the overdecorated living rooms of Lisbon, he too trained as a doctor, he too served in Angola. That he is so willing to portray himself as cowardly and vain speaks well of his gifts, and lends his narrator a certain magnetism.
So it is with friendly attention that we observe, when he does succeed in seducing his nameless bar partner - with results as depressingly mediocre and stultifying as any of his other Lisbon experiences - how he runs off to the woman's bathroom in the middle of the night to have a private conversation with the spirit of his Angolan lover, executed as a collaborator by his own army, and carrying the resonant name Sofia.
Her death, of all the deaths the narrator sees, wounded him most deeply, and - it is implied - gave shape to his current wretched bachelorhood and colourless, passionless affairs. "Sofia", of course, can be read as the Greek Sophia (it's hard to imagine that Antunes did not intend his readers to hear that echo). This suggests that our narrator's moral and sexual mediocrity may be a symptom of some intractable Portuguese malady, and that, just as the memory of Sofia has not saved him, the consolations of art cannot redeem Lobo Antunes's Portugal.
"You see," he says of his countrymen, "we belong to a land where vivacity stands in for talent, and where dexterity takes the place of creativity. In fact I often think we are little more than a bunch of dexterous mental defectives mending the blown fuses of the soul with some temporary wire device."
Those blown fuses and that wire device form the compass of a heroic insufficiency. And yet our narrator persists. Just as his creator has, fighting his own painful war against oblivion, a war as noble as it is bathetic. Which we can, in the end, only applaud.
Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review.
Jun 29, 2011 11:37 PM EDT
The Land at the End of the World By António Lobo Antunes 224 pages. W. W. Norton & Company.
The Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes is the most important living writer you've probably never heard of. A household name in Portugal, a celebrity across the Latin world and an icon in France, he has nevertheless remained partially obscured in the international shadow of his near-contemporary, the late José Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998. Saramago's death last year might have promoted Lobo Antunes to Portgual's greatest storyteller but he has been all along Saramago's better as the insistent siren of Portuguese history, the dark crooner of a nation's conscience. Lauded by the best minds in literature—Harold Bloom, George Steiner, and J.M. Coetzee among them—Lobo Antunes crafts macabre fever dreams as if possessed by an abler Poe, and few other novelists have his Bellovian ability to see both deeply and minutely, to render the world, the fallen world, as if never rendered before.
Still, many American readers remain contentedly averse to serious novels in translation (Stieg Larrson is not serious), as if they were the gypsies of fiction: could be a danger, could be a revelation, might be arduous to understand, so best just to leave them alone. Many readers are averse also to universal truths too dour for easeful consumption, and Lobo Antunes' truth-telling is about as dour as it gets. Where Saramago often brought playful allegory, half-grinning subversion, and the reluctant optimism of an idealist (his leftism always endeared him to international audiences), Lobo Antunes brings an almost taunting fearlessness in the face of existential squalor. Europeans are generally more accepting of a novelist's nightmarish vision; in America we like our visions with a little sunlight, or, to echo William Dean Howells: Americans don't mind a tragedy as long as it has a happy ending. But the time has come to welcome to our shores this world-class weaver of seductive sentences whose horror-tinged genius is necessary for a fuller understanding of our lives. We are not whole without him.
Margaret Jull Costa—Saramago's translator who is poised to become heir to the great Edith Grossman—has just released her definitive translation of Lobo Antunes' second novel, the antiwar dirge The Land at the End of the World. (The first English translation, titled South of Nowhere, appeared in 1983 incomplete and badly marred to boot.) Published in 1979, six years after Lobo Antunes returned from Portugal's asinine colonial war in Angola, The Land at the End of the World established him as a preeminent European novelist unafraid of spotlighting the hell inside us. Lobo Antunes worked for two years as a psychiatrist and medic during that war, elbows-deep in demons and blood, cursing the warped politicians in Lisbon who had sent him and his countrymen to be butchered in “the asshole of the world.” As Jull Costa suggests in her artful introduction, the pointless slaughter of that campaign scorched him to his core and supplied all the darkness for his earliest books.
The Land at the End of the World unfurls over the course of a single evening as the unnamed, alcoholic narrator addresses a silent woman in a bar, telling of the carnage he witnessed as a doctor in Angola. His disenchantment, sense of absurdity, and separation from God are as consummate as Geoffrey Firmin's, the alcoholic consul from another masterwork of cavernous, bat-filled psychology, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. From the bar to the bedroom, the narrator's sex/death seduction song is also to his survival hymn: In the nightly retelling of atrocity and despair, he achieves communion, and punctures, however briefly, "the hopeless opacity" of his existence. "Look at me and listen," he says, "I so need you to listen." His is a storytelling of sustenance, the One Thousand and One Nights of a former Portuguese army medic who tries to stay his own self-inflicted execution through confession and coitus. How else to beat back nihilism in a world turned absurd, abandoned by the holy? He tells his listener: "I'm searching for an empty space in which I might drop anchor... the long mountain range of your body, some recess or hollow in your body where I can lay my shamefaced hope." Like Nick Adams, Hemingway's shell-shocked hero who can't sleep in the dark for fear of losing his soul, Lobo Antunes' narrator can't sleep alone for fear of disappearing altogether.
For a novelist who shares Rilke's death obsession and ancient, dark interiority—the body count is high across his nine novels translated into English—Lobo Antunes makes serpentine sentences that buzz with vibrancy and immediacy, page-long sentences with the improvisational quality of jazz that turn far within themselves before bursting with light and life (a jazz fan, the narrator speaks of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ben Webster as if they were the last path to delight). And that zooming eye never falters: Morning brings "the polar, crepuscular unreality than enfolds objects and faces in the same kind of transparent halo that perches on the tops of pine trees"; masturbating soldiers "were pistons huddled in our icy sheets like aged fetuses no uterus would ever expel"; visiting officers from Luanda looked "preserved in the formaldehyde of air-conditioning"; "cobras lay coiled in soft dungy spirals, and the crocodiles seemed reconciled to their Tertiary Age fate as mere lizards on death row."
If animals are Lobo Antunes' preferred metaphor—the novel begins at the Lisbon zoo—it is because he apprehends the world with the sensibilities of both Dostoevsky and Darwin, refusing to ignore the beasts we are, the monstrous afflictions we foist upon ourselves and others. The narrator wishes to make love "as furiously as rhinoceroses with toothaches... two pachyderms intent on devouring each other amid a concert of squeals." Again and again soldiers are referred to as animals, as cretins turned lunatic by such "senseless, imbecilic violence." As a boy, he could hear his parents in bed, "making a noise like the toothless, lumbago-ridden elephant clanging its bell" (the young Kafka, too, was outraged when overhearing his parents make love in the night).
Lobo Antunes might be as flesh-infatuated as any true Catholic, current or lapsed, but his fixation on the animality of our bodies is both a doctor's practical engagement—Maugham had it—and a source of spiritual succor. The Land at the End of the World culminates not in a trendy dejection but in the possibility that we can still provide sanctuary for one another, that storytelling can save lives, that a lyrical consciousness is capable of lasting beauty. This Portuguese genius has seen too much, indeed, but in giving witness to the wasteland he has given us wonderful gifts.
William Giraldi's novel, Busy Monsters, will be published in August. A senior editor for AGNI, he teaches at Boston University.
Published: June 24 2011 17:28 | Last updated: June 24 2011 17:28
Review by Tamzin Baker
The Land at the End of the World, by António Lobo Antunes, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, WW Norton & Co, 256 pages
Before he became one of Portugal’s biggest literary stars, António Lobo Antunes trained as a psychiatrist and served two years as a medic in Angola during the Portuguese colonial war of the 1960s and 1970s. Lobo Antunes’ autobiographical novel – published first in 1979 to great acclaim and now translated by Margaret Jull Costa – draws on his memories of the conflict.
The story unfolds in a bar in Lisbon, where the narrator – a medic recently returned from Angola – relays his troubles to a woman in the hope of seducing her. From his narrative emerges a portrait of a disillusioned alcoholic forever at odds with himself and his country.
Dazzling metaphors and surreal images breathe life into this tragic lament about a war that made brutes of its soldiers. Lobo Antunes crafts a story that often reads like poetry, delivering a message as relevant today as it was 30 years ago
May 16 2011
The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes
Before he became a novelist, António Lobo Antunes was traumatized by his nightmarish experiences in the Portuguese Colonial war of the 1960s and '70s. Serving as an army psychiatrist in Angola and other "lands at the end of the world," Antunes—and many of his narrators—witnessed horrors as the Portuguese government tried to violently quell nationalist movements in their African colonies. If the treatment of the locals, the pointlessness of the war, and the living conditions of the soldiers weren't wretched enough, troops returning to Portugal were faced with new social conditions, and were generally despised and alienated.
All of these wrongs fuel Antunes's literary work, in particular The Land at the End of the World (Os Cus de Judas, 1979), his first and most autobiographical novel (here translated by Margaret Jull Costa). By seizing on his rage and transforming it into blisteringly energetic—and darkly comic—prose, Antunes places himself in the tradition of other "authors of complaint" such as Thomas Bernhard and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Ranting against the stupidity of society, against war, against fame, ignorance, the inequalities of life, etc., these authors craft screeds that bluntly expose and critique society, charming readers with the direct way they speak truth to power and a sort of manic humor. From The Land at the End of the World:
Have you asked yourself what it is we're doing here? Do you think anyone's grateful? No, dammit, they're not! Even worse, yesterday I got a letter from my wife, informing me that the maid just quit, decamped and left: you see what happens when I'm not there to sort her out? Believe me, Doctor, if the master of the house doesn't occasionally stick his ladle in the soup, no maid is ever going to feel any real loyalty to the household. . . . I never heard a rude word from her, it was always your thingummy this and your doodah that, give me your doodah, sir.
Antunes's later novels—Act of the Damned and Fado Alexandrino in particular—are equal parts Céline and William Faulkner. The plots are more labyrinthine, the novels more polyphonic. It's as if the kernel of Antunes's rage has crystallized into a complex design, more nuanced in its depiction of Portuguese society, one that requires more engagement on the part of the reader to fully comprehend the tapestry of voices, plots, and viewpoints.
Which is why The Land at the End of the World is like reading Antunes's novelistic template. It's very straightforward: Over the course of an entire night, a psychiatrist/writer, back from the war, gets wasted in a bar while seducing a (silent) woman with his tales of anguish and hatred. It advances through a series of rants, grotesque metaphors, and repetitions that lay bare his shortcomings, while making him sympathetically bleak:
I think I lost her in the same way I lose everything, drove her away with my mood swings, my unexpected rages, my absurd demands, the anxious thirst for tenderness that repels affection and lingers, throbbing painfully, in the form of a mute appeal full of a prickly, irrational hostility.
Underlying his anguish is a desire for companionship—for someone to listen to him. That's why he somewhat traps this woman in the bar, impressing on her his need to be heard:
Listen. Look at me and listen, I so need you to listen, to listen with the same anxious attention with which we used to listen to the calls on the radio from the company under fire, the voice from the communications officer calling, begging, in the helpless tones of a shipwreck victim . . .
Throughout, his monologue seems almost memorized, something he repeats night after night in hopes of retaining his sanity. As he recounts his experiences—treating other soldiers who will do anything to get discharged, witnessing the obscenely poor communities that constitute the "glory" of Portuguese Africa, finding out about the birth of his daughter via telephone—he both brings the past back to life and tries to exorcise it from his memory. This dual effect is the crux of the narrator's problems: He is the sum total of these horrors, making it impossible to truly escape his past. This sort of double-bind is what Antunes continues to explore in his later novels. Those later books might be more complex, but here, with The Land at the End of the World, we find the clearest articulation of Antunes's overarching literary strategy: "I'm just giving you some spiel, the ludicrous plot of a novel, a story I invented to touch your heart—one-third bullshit, one-third booze, and one-third genuine tenderness, you know the kind of thing."
Chad Post is the director of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester.
11 Jul 2011
Although virtually unknown in this country, Antonio Lobo Antunes vied with Jose Saramago, until the latter’s death, for the status of Portugal’s Greatest Living Writer.
Now that the field is clear we may hear more of Antunes, although being a novelist primarily concerned with his own country and its history, he may not have the immediate appeal of the more thematically universal Saramago.
The Land At The End Of The World – written in 1979 and considered by many to be his masterpiece – betrays another reason why Antunes may struggle to get a readership. His writing is dark, difficult and brooding. Given the subject matter, it’s hardly surprising.
Determined to be a writer from the age of seven, young Antonio had to put his ambitions on hold, first when his father insisted he study medicine. He combines his writing with a highly respected career in psychiatry. He was held back again by National Service, unfortunately for him at the height of the brutal Portuguese Colonial wars in Africa. He was sent to Angola where the Portuguese army fought a long, poisonous and exhausting battle against the combined guerrilla forces of the MPLA, UNITA and the FNLA. What he witnessed there was horrendous and dehumanising but gave him material for many novels, including this.
What he does share with Saramago is a robustly literary approach. The Land At The End Of The World has an unnamed medic, returned from the war, relating his story to an equally unnamed woman in a late-night Lisbon bar. The medic is the least likely of seducers. The war has eclipsed his world and every human in it – including his date.
A compulsive truth-teller, he describes to her her own “crumpled, shrunken, insomniac face, enlivened only by lifeless, blinking eyes”. He tells her about his sordid couplings with old, overworked Angolan prostitutes. He encourages her to go home with him, but doesn’t make the prospect appealing: “We could perhaps try making love, or rather that form of pagan gymnastics that, once the exercise is over, leaves on the body and on the disaster area of the sheets a taste of sweat and sadness.”
As a chat-up technique, regaling her with stories of how he still loves his more beautiful ex-wife is hardly advisable. But mainly he recounts, all night long, in gory detail, the atrocities he has seen, the wounds he’s failed to heal, the dead he has had to leave unburied. The woman does go home with him, and Antunes convinces us she might.
But we don’t really need to believe in her. She is never described and possibly doesn’t exist. The most recent novel employing the device of one side of a conversation is Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. But there the unheard party has a direct impact on the drama. In Antunes’ novel she is simply the receptacle of the protagonist’s grief and despair. The reader feels that, even if he does have company, the burnt-out medic is irredeemably alone, hermetically sealed in his loss of faith.
The Land At The End Of The World is not an easy, or comfortable, read. Yet as the story of the war unfolds, through all its monstrosities and minor acts of barbarism, there remains something benign in the telling, even gentle. Antunes’s graceful and elegiac prose is both dreamy and precise; one can even believe that his escort in this long night of the soul might be seduced by the sheer honesty and eloquence of the tale. And that we all might as well seize the moments of human connection offered us, no matter how tarnished.
Monday, 11 July 2011 00:00
By Adam Eaglin
For many years, António Lobo Antunes and the late Nobel Laureate José Saramago have been widely considered the two leading men of letters in Portuguese literature, each with his own defenders and detractors. As men of Portugal, their various approaches to the country provide a striking comparison. Many of Saramago’s novels, for instance, might be called globally nonspecific, set in locales without name or where the backdrop is ancillary to the story. But for Lobo Antunes, Portugal is more often the subject.
Last summer Saramago died, and Lobo Antunes, now in his late seventies, remains one of the preeminent novelists living and writing in the Iberian Peninsula today. Still, despite international acclaim and the prevalence of his work in English translation, the psychiatrist and Colonial War veteran from Lisbon seems relatively underappreciated beside his Nobel peer.
Nevertheless, Lobo Antunes has been highly popular in Portugal and Europe since the late 1970s. His second novel, The Land at the End of the World, continues to be a bestseller in his native country. It’s a beautifully compressed epic that chronicles a young man’s experience in the Portuguese Colonial War in the 1960s—an experience that mirrors Lobo Antunes’s own biography. Published in 1979, The Land at the End of the World established Lobo Antunes in his native country as a writer of great skill and singular style, and thirty years later, with an expert new translation from Margaret Jull Costa, it makes for the perfect introduction for an English reader discovering the author for the first time. The book has all the hallmarks of Lobo Antunes’s work—a kind of narrative density, idiosyncratic style and structure—but it’s also a direct glimpse into the author’s formative experiences. Inflected with undeniable autobiographical details, the novel was written only six years after the author’s return from Angola.
As a young man in the 1960s, Lobo Antunes, partly at his father’s insistence, trained as a psychiatrist. Like many of his peers in Portugal, he later found himself on the front lines in Angola for two years as a medic in the Portuguese Colonial War. The protagonist of The Land at the End of the World is also a medic recently returned from Angola, a journey he intimately details to an unknown woman in a bar over the course of a long, desolate night while he tries to seduce her. The book unfolds in twenty-three brief chapters that form the man’s monologue, and as the night continues and the narrator gets further into his story, we get to know a young man who is solitary and alcoholic, scarred by his participation in a forgotten war; on returning, he struggles to assimilate back into a society he no longer recognizes. In its contemplation of Portuguese government and society in the late ‘70s, it’s also very much a focused tale and political critique of Lobo Antunes’s native country through the prism of the man’s experience.
Reading Lobo Antunes’s prose gives one the odd sensation of both familiarity and novelty. With long, meandering sentences and thick, eccentric diction, Proust, Faulkner and Céline are all frequently cited as Lobo Antunes’s influences. But a Lobo Antunes sentence is distinctive. There’s a feral quality to this particular novel’s narration, with sentences that furiously push forward for entire paragraphs. Lobo Antunes is a deeply poetic writer—his passages move into the surreal territory of prose poems—and the narrator is drawn, almost comically, to speak in intricate metaphors that use the imagery of animals and untamed nature when discussing society or human behavior:
If I were a giraffe, I would love you in silence, gazing down at you from over the wire fencing, as melancholy as a dockyard crane, I would love you with the awkward love of the very tall, and, thought-fully chewing a leaf as if it were gum, jealous of the bears, the anteaters, the duck-billed platypuses, the cockatoos, and the crocodiles, I would slowly lower my neck on the pulleys of my tendons in order, tenderly, tremulously, to nuzzle your breasts with my head.
Lobo Antunes’s involuntary memory, unlike, say, Proust’s Madeleine, is more corporeal; a piece of cake and champagne drops into the narrator’s stomach making “the same sound as the pebbles we used to throw into our grandfather’s garden, plof, creating concentric circles in the lake of our chicken soup at supper, the pond beneath the trees next to the wall by the road where we used to go and smoke a sneaky cigarette . . .” Just as quickly, then, the narrator calls up grisly, haunting memories of treating the wounded and dying—beleaguered by injury or malaria and infection—as a medic in Angola, a perspective of the largely forgotten colonial war that is at once vivid in detail and muddled by the narrator’s trauma and fear.
Each chapter progresses in this manner, wending back and forth in memory and time, even as the story in the foreground—the narrator’s slow, almost routine seduction of the woman—continues. The narrator, we learn, had much waiting for him on his return to Lisbon after the war: A wife and daughters who, years later, grow up in a house “that contains fewer and fewer memories of [the narrator], full of furniture drowned in the dark waters of the past”. The narrator’s melancholy is, in a way, inextricably linked to these nightly liaisons with unknown women, with his sexual desire and deep remorse for the past blurring together. In this way, the book hauntingly depicts the Portuguese government’s effects on the individual—a reminder, as Margaret Jull Costa notes in her introduction, “that we should always question both the morality of war and the wisdom of our leaders’ decisions to enter into wars whose horrors they themselves will rarely experience firsthand.”
Published: July 24, 1983
By ALAN CHEUSE; Alan Cheuse is the author of ''The Bohemians,'' a novel, and ''Candace & Other Stories.''
WIDOWS By Ariel Dorfman. Translated by Stephen Kessler.146 pp. New York: Pantheon Books. $11.95.
SOUTH OF NOWHERE By Antonio Lobo Antunes. Translated by Elizabeth Lowe. 154 pp. New York: Random House. $11.95.
''WIDOWS'' is the first work of fiction by the prolific Chilean exile Ariel Dorfman to be published in this country, and it has a curious publishing history. As Mr. Dorfman explains in a brief dedicatory statement, he wanted to write a novel about the plight of the ''missing'' of Chile and the other southern cone countries of Latin America and about the torturous life of their distraught families. Had he written such a story with its true setting, he explains, it would never have been published in his native land. So he invented a Danish author named Eric Lohmann, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Denmark in World War II who was supposed to have written this ''masked'' novel about Denmark by setting the story in what appears to be Greece during a similar moment of political oppresssion.
Mr. Dorfman even gives us a foreword by the ''author's son,'' Sirgud Lohmann. In it we learn that, while the Danish writer was taken into custody by the Gestapo a few days after the completion of his novel and was never seen again, the book survived the ravages of the war and is only now being published.
All of this subterfuge, our real author explains, was to get the novel published in Europe in Danish, German or French so that it could then be ''translated'' into Spanish and brought out in Chile and other Latin American countries. But even after this intricate scheme was devised, no Latin American publisher was willing to risk bringing the work out. And now any reader with the two or three hours to spare for an encounter with this sharply dramatic little novel of large passions will discover why. ''Widows'' does in fact wear a mask - the down-turned mouth and grieving eyes of tragedy - and it pierces the body politic of any number of suffering countries.
The plot resounds with the moral thunder of classic drama, specifically that of ''Antigone'' and ''The Trojan Women.'' Mr. Dorfman's Antigone is a peasant grandmother rather than an aristocratic young woman. Sofia Angelos's struggle against the reigning military authorities in a country resembling the homeland of Sophocles and Euripides deserves to be compared with the oldest agons we know. First, her ancient father has been carried off by the secret police, then her husband and sons disappear. When a faceless, multilated corpse of a man washes up on the river bank outside her village, Sofia struggles with the local commandant for the right to bury it as her kin. After much torment, she wins her battle only to engage the authorities again when a new corpse appears on the shore. Interestingly, we see all of this action from the viewpoints of various children, the confused but doggedly determined army officers and judges and civilian flunkies.
DESPITE the fact that Mr. Dorfman has transported his novel from his native Chile to other places and times, it gains (in Stephen Kessler's serviceable translation) emotional amplitude and political resonance precisely because of the sharply observed details of the bereaved, who suffer no less painfully from the abuses of mortal rulers than they would have from the cruelties of vengeful or indifferent gods. The self-conscious apparatus of ''Widows'' soon drops away, and the reader, deeply touched, moves as if in a dream of outrage among its tombs of love.
First-rate war novels are always to a certain extent political novels. In ''South of Nowhere,'' Antonio Lobo Antunes, a young Portuguese novelist (and veteran of 27 months of Portugal's ill-fated military campaign to subdue Angola), succeeds in straddling the two modes as much through linguistic energy as through any new use of the form. In fact, the form he has chosen, a monologue in the manner of Camus's ''The Fall,'' might seem ill-suited to his material, particularly the battlefield portions in Angola.
Imagine a Vietnam novel in which the news from the front comes in the ranting recollections of a randy, self-hating, inebriated and almost psychotic veteran over the course of a long night while he attempts to seduce a young woman who is his drinking companion. If this sounds like mixing gin and Scotch, you've got it right. But it is precisely this mood of self-destructiveness and wrong-headedness that the novelist wants to recreate as he tells of the abandonment of an entire generation of Portuguese youth in the lost cause of colonialism and in the last gasps of fascism at home.
''It's strange, really, that sometimes I have to ask myself if the war is really over or is still going on somewhere inside me,'' the narrator says to his bar-mate as she is about to become his bedmate. But it is just such internal strife that forms the heart of his character. We hear it in nearly every line he speaks, in his shifts between toughness and tenderness, bravado and boyish desire for affection, between the present (''this endless night,'' he calls it) and the past, between Lisbon and Angola, between the butchery of the battlefront and the boredom of the barracks, the wretchedness of the Angolans' daily life and the beauty of their country's landscape.
This is a desperate, daring novel of protest (in a lively translation by Elizabeth Lowe) over which presides ''the serene, unreachable sky of Africa,'' where, above the torture, public and private, shine the remote constellations ''like ironic eyes.''
Published: July 29, 1990
By ARIEL DORFMAN; Ariel Dorfman's most recent book is a collection of stories, ''My House Is on Fire.'' He teaches literature at Duke University
By Antonio Lobo Antunes.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa.
497 pp. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. $24.95.
In the late 1960's, Antonio Lobo Antunes was sent to Angola to serve as a medic in the fruitless war that Portugal was fighting to retain its African colonies. Out of that experience came in 1979 an extraordinary fictionalized memoir that was translated into English in 1983 as ''South of Nowhere.'' Through a hallucinatory monologue set in a Lisbon bar, its protagonist managed not only to explore the degrading consequences of that specific war but to recall the bitter homecoming of so many soldiers of other countries and other times as they mourned their own lost innocence.
The same obsessive scrutiny of the nightmare world of the colonial war veteran, the same brutally lyrical language, the same maelstrom of erotic violence and guilt can be found in Mr. Lobo Antunes's second novel to be published in English. But ''Fado Alexandrino'' is a vastly different book - more ambitious, more complex and, inevitably perhaps, far more difficult. The one lonely narrator of ''South of Nowhere'' has been fractured here into four failed combatants who, as they expose their own crisscrossed lives during one tumultuous night, also recount the sprawling epic of their country in the 10 years after its troops came home from Africa.
Although of different rank and social class, all four men share a common destiny of frustration that seems emblematic of their nation's history. Somewhat in the same way that, even after they have crumbled, the country's 400-year-old empire and the almost 40-year dictatorship of Gen. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar continue to influence the present, so too do the past mistakes of these men continue to haunt them, contaminating not only their efforts to alter their society but also their compulsive attempts to find comfort in sex, and maybe even in love. Not surprisingly, the bedchambers of Portugal end up being as much a battle zone as the jungles of Mozambique.
Mr. Lobo Antunes has chosen to transmit his characters' stories through a dense web of confessions laid before a silent and enigmatic figure they call the Captain - an army investigator? a psychoanalyst? the author himself? - who accompanies them on a long orgiastic night out on the town with five prostitutes. Though this technique - which juxtaposes Africa and Portugal, a rape and a funeral, yesterday and today and anticipations of a possible tomorrow - can be confusing and even tiresome at times, it is crucial to the author's intention of revealing the hidden, mingled layers of his nation's subconscious, of charting how far it has traveled from the experiences of the now-legendary Vasco da Gama, who set sail many centuries ago to claim the world for Portugal and inspired the great poet Luis de Camoes's 1572 epic, ''The Lusiads.'' Now all that is left of that archetypal unity are the splintered masks and voices of the ruined Portuguese male, and the only exploratory journey a descent into a shattered series of private hells.
Before the night is over, Mr. Lobo Antunes's characters will have revealed that they are secretly linked to the same women, that they have been making love to one another's wives and mistresses and fiancees. And, because of this connection, one of them will be murdered, ''lying face down on the sidewalk . . . amid the indifference or the fright or the hunger of the birds.''
Will the dead man be the lieutenant colonel who has spent his years in the army serving whatever faction happens to be in power, drifting from bed to bed in an attempt to exorcise memories of his dead wife? Or will it be the second lieutenant who, divorced by his high-society lesbian wife, returns to his country from Brazil to marry a deformed and jealous dwarf? Or will it be the noncom who was tortured and imprisoned for belonging to a Maoist sect, but has since lost all belief in the revolution? Or another soldier, who sold his body to strangers in order to have enough money to impress the young woman he loved - who dumped him anyway, almost as soon as they married? Ultimately, it does not really matter; the turmoil of their society will, like the primeval sex they fear so much, end up swallowing them all, their existence nothing more than a ''beach full of detritus and seagulls and the slimy mouths of sewer pipes.''
What is miraculous in ''Fado Alexandrino,'' which often reads like a mad amalgam of Dos Passos and Celine, is that its readers are not themselves devoured by this chaos. For the author, with the very energy and vision that he denies to his blindly cynical characters, narrates this account of their lives with a remarkable, savage swirl of imagery that controls and sustains the wanderings of their jumbled fates, allowing us to look deep into the predatory origins of their incessant violence - a revelation made possible in English by Gregory Rabassa's splendid translation.
Mr. Lobo Antunes's earlier book, ''South of Nowhere,'' was a masterpiece that, unfortunately, did not catch on in America. The more arduous and disturbing ''Fado Alexandrino'' gives readers in the United States a second chance to plunge into the strange and yet oddly familiar war-weary world created by one of Portugal's pre-eminent writers.
Recensões do livro em Português
Expresso – Atual n.º 2021, de 23 de Julho de 2011
Quarto Livro de Crónicas
António Lobo Antunes
Dom Quixote, 2011, 328 págs., 14 €
António Lobo Antunes - desvaloriza as suas crónicas, chama-lhes “croniquetas”, considera-as textos fáceis; em bruto, talvez triviais. E, no entanto, as suas crónicas são um momento alto, a decantação de uma tristeza profunda e uma ternura reprimida.
O autor explica com frequência que os seus romances não são romances, uma vez que o que lhe interessa são vozes e não histórias. Pois bem, nas crónicas, essas vozes parecem organizadas em torno daquilo a que ele chama “historinhas”, mais um diminutivo pejorativo. E essas historinhas, umas biográficas é outras ficcionais ou ficcionadas, são a estrutura ideal para o universo de Lobo Antunes, além de que, lidas individualmente, não provocam efeito de cansaço de alguns romances mais extensos.
Bicho-do-mato, ensimesmado, o escritor ignora por completo a “actualidade. Referindo-se a Ernesto Sábado, Lobo Antunes critica o argentino dizendo que ele vivia num drama interior perpétuo”; mas estas crónicas são notáveis precisamente pelo modo como encenam o drama interior perpétuo de António Lobo Antunes. O bar de Benfica deu lugar ao bairro da Estefânia, uma verdadeira aldeia no centro da cidade. E é nos curtos percursos que o autor faz; de casa para o restaurante, que encontramos uma fauna que aqui representa toda a comédia humana. Aquela zona de Lisboa é uma colmeia de mercearias, cabeleireiros, cafezinhos, bares de alterne, dentistas, sapatarias, uma parte da cidade movimentada mas desolada e atravessada por criaturas desoladas. Velhos com sacos de plástico, homens que almoçam sozinhos, senhoras mergulhadas em revistas de escândalos. E também loucos, travestis, bêbedos, mendigos, marginais, uma procissão de humilhados e ofendidos que o escritor conhece, cumprimenta e respeita.
Com efeito, o motivo central destas crónicas é a dignidade humana daqueles que sofrem. Muitas vezes, os protagonistas dos textos são os transeuntes da Estefânia que o autor encontra ou observa. Outras vezes, esses homens e mulheres surgem transformados em personagens de quase-contos, e somos surpreendidos porque não percebemos de imediato o que é confissão e o que é imaginação. As histórias retratam um mundo esquálido e desesperado, com maus casamentos, exames médicos fatais, adultérios sem convicção, conflitos entre vizinhos. E as pessoas das histórias vivem sozinhas, envelhecidas, assustadas e sem esperança. Lobo Antunes admira a coragem de quem sofre e escreve uma das suas melhores páginas autobiográficas quando nos apresenta uns quantos doentes que, como ele, esperam uma sessão de radioterapia. Gente humilde e decente perante a qual ele não se sente digno de estar vivo, de ter ficado vivo.
Outras vozes são vozes familiares. O cronista confessa que passa a vida a “olhar para ontem”. E a memória é uma galeria de fantasmas: de repente, por causa de coisa nenhuma, chuva na janela ou vento lá fora, o autor, que escreve a crónica à mão, sentado à mesa da cozinha, lembra-se do cheiro do cachimbo do pai, de um brinquedo perdido, da casa dos avós que foi vendida, de heróis de banda desenhada, de manicuras que lhe davam ponta, do seu irmão João, de um baile nos Bombeiros Voluntários Lisbonenses, de rebuçados de laranja, de uma vez que usou brilhantina para se parecer com o Gary Cooper. Algumas memórias são amenas, outras, como as da guerra, são terríveis, e Lobo Antunes dedica páginas gratas aos seus leais camaradas de tropa.
É um mundo antigo, ajoujado de mortos, incluindo o pai, e com o travo de desamparo, incompreensão e injustiça que a morte suscita. Um mundo trágico, irrecuperável, enterrado como os mortos, morto-vivo. As crónicas são escritas como se de um só fôlego, usam frases coloquiais ou poéticas repetidas como estribilhos, recorrem à vírgula que mantém uma toada, à elisão do verbo, a cruzamentos narrativos, a detalhes de gestos e de português castiço, a repetições, a vozes torrenciais mas cuidadosamente estruturadas em prosa impecável, evocativa, melancólica.
Alguns textos sobre os tormentos da escrita são menos bons, demasiado óbvios, e, se o enfado com a consagração tem alguma graça, há momentos de uma arrogância quase indecorosa. Pouco importa. Estas crónicas, sendo literatura, não são sobre a literatura. São sobre a empatia. Basta ver que os escritores citados recebem em geral mais elogios pela sua genuinidade humana do que pela sua bibliografia. Estas crónicas modernistas e acessíveis resgatam a ideia de sinceridade, conceito nada modernista mas muito acessível. E o cronista, que é um fingidor, finge a dor que deveras sente.
Pedro Mexia escreve de acordo com a antiga ortografia