Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? by Antonio Lobo Antunes

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa. (Portugal, W. W. Norton)

For years, Antonio Lobo Antunes has been one of my personal favorite authors, and Act of the Damned one of my all-time favorite books. So I was really excited when his most recent title — What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? — made our Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist.

It’s also fantastic that Antunes won the 2008 Juan Rulfo Prize and honored at a ceremony that took place a couple weeks ago at the Guadalajara Book Fair.

Rather than describe this really inventive, hallucinatory, mesmerizing book myself (everyone should read this—it’s one of those books that teaches you how to grasp it as you read. And the way the incomplete sentences/thoughts/memories weave together is very musical and complicated in a gorgeously artistic way, despite the fact that a great amount of pain and suffering is at the heart of this novel), I thought it would be more interesting to published the introduction that Robert Weil of W. W. Norton—Antunes’s current English-language editor—gave at the recent Juan Rulfo ceremony:

It is tremendous honor to give this introduction on behalf of Antonio Lobo Antunes, whom I publish in the United States. Hailed as one of our greatest living writers, regarded by a burgeoning number of exuberant critics as the most brilliant novelist of his generation in Europe today, Antonio Lobo Antunes, has given us an astonishing body of work, well over 20 novels and memoirs. Prizes and literary accolades surely are impressive enough, but Lobo Antunes has more: that rarest of gifts – a genius to make us understand what it feels like to be human, to render both love and sorrow on the printed page. He is a man whose stories somehow enable us to transcend our own everyday existence, a man whose own search for compassion awakens the compassion that sleeps within all of us.

How do I describe Antonio Lobo Antunes’s writing? For those of you who have already had the thrill of reading him, you’ll know that his language will mesmerize, if not overwhelm your sensory system with an almost hallucinatory power. If literature were music, Antonio would be a composer of swirling symphonies, or intensely deep operas, with themes plucked from Verdi’s tragedies and soaring cadences resembling Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. For those of you who have not yet had the privilege of reading him, his books, suffused with the raw truth of everyday life, and often tinged with an inescapable feeling of sadness or loss, ring with a voice, a music that is his alone. His pages, you’ll discover, boil with seductive rhythms. His dazzling literary tropes and leit motifs define the very essence of this Portuguese master. Trust me, when you take the plunge, his language, will forever emblazon itself into your memory.

It is then not surprising that Lobo Antunes, born in Lisbon under Salazar’s dictatorship in September of 1942, yearned as a boy to be a poet. His novels, as much as they are stories, are also strings of poetic words, indescribably beautiful, that transcend the conventional forms of modern fiction. Each is, in fact, a rare necklace worth beholding. In reading his novels, be it early ones like Memoria de elefante or Os Cus de Judas, or a more recent one like Que farei quando tudo arde?, we discover breathtaking phrases and somersaulting paragraphs that prove Lobo Antunes has a sorcerer’s ability to bend and twist the rules of time: he can retrieve the universal memories of a childhood lost; compress time or make it stand still; exhume the murky past and graft it seamlessly onto the present as if it had never gone away. He replicates the wild and unpredictable patterns of human consciousness right there on the page, not the way, say, a Victorian novelist like Henry James might want to harness the unruliness of life in a lady’s corset. No, Lobo Antunes presents life just as the brain really perceives things: memory and imagination, cognition and literature, suddenly collide and merge into one.

Lobo Antunes is receiving this esteemed prize in Mexico. How appropriate, given the many similarities between him and that greatest of Mexican writers, Juan Rulfo. Fourteen years ago, in an essay that she wrote about Rulfo’s great classic Pedro Paramo, the American critic Susan Sontag described a surrealistic narrative that “switches back and forth between first person and third person, present and past,” in which Rulfo effortlessly juxtaposed a haunted world of the living with that of the dead, so that the two towns of Comala, present and past, crash together in the same surreal time. In many ways, though, Sontag could have been writing about Lobo Antunes, himself so skilled a juggler of disparate voices – poor and rich, young and old, benevolent or despotic – that he would have made Rulfo smile. To me it seems clear that Lobo Antunes’s lyrical narratives, stories imbued with his own love of peasants, pensioners, widows and gigolos, simple people all, often pay homage to Rulfo’s own literary style and pyrotechnic forms. As recently as just three weeks ago, I was delighted to see a review of a Lobo Antunes novel that compared him to Rulfo. Reviewing What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? in the Washington Post, Jaime Manrique observed that this novel, newly translated by Gregory Rabassa, “brings to mind the late Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, which also centers on the search of a son for his dead father. Here too,” Manrique noted, “the dead address us from the underworld.” The similarities to Rulfo do not merely end with form: like Rulfo, who studied law but ending up selling tires for many years to support his family, Lobo Antunes did not gleefully start writing as a young man. Forced by his concerned father to go to medical school, Lobo Antunes chose the specialty of psychiatry, but was summarily drafted and, in 1970, sent as a young man to Portugal’s last colonial war in Angola. There he communed with the young African women whose squalling babies he had to deliver, addicted himself to man’s inexhaustible litany of human suffering, and observed the obscenities of war so totally that these barbaric images permanently seared his mind and invaded what would become his life’s fiction. Like Juan Rulfo, literary recognition then came late, for after returning shell-shocked from Angola, Lobo Antunes worked in Lisbon’s teeming public hospitals, where the “nurses glided like swans” and where “the silence of rubber, the gleam of metal, [the] people speaking in hushed tones as if in church, the sad solidarity of waiting rooms, the interminable corridors, [and] the terrifyingly solemn ritual[s]” of life and death all fascinated him. Futilely struggling throughout the 1970s with multiple drafts of a novel that never came to pass, suddenly “some kind of fetus turned a somersault inside [his] belly,” and in 1979, Lobo Antunes finally published his first two novels. He was already 37.

Yet the destiny to be a writer was always there. The oldest child of two oldest children, robbed of his innocence by the quick-fire procession of no less than five younger brothers, Antonio recalled that “as soon as one of my brothers was transferred to the bedroom, another howling baby would take his place in the cradle.” Yearning, of all things, to be a poet, young Antonio was ineluctably drawn to the oddities of existence, fascinated by impulses that would hardly interest other young boys. “At seven years old, “he recalls “I was dying of love for the gypsy girls at the Saturday markets who helped their families sell mules whose sores they disguised with black paint. I remember dark eyes, sometimes surprisingly fair hair, bare feet, dealers in gold jewelry on bicycles . . . [who] at night . . . would come in dreams to trouble me, cawing like crows and saying nothing.” While his father played tennis and his grandfather relaxed with a newspaper at the family’s summer villa, nestled in a pleasant fold of hills, little Antonio “saw the open coffin of a child pass by, a little white coffin,” and listened in the distance for the church bells tolling for the dead.

One after another, these boyhood observations amassed — first a gentle breeze that takes on force . . . that becomes a gale, then a tropical storm, and finally a hurricane of such power and velocity that its path cannot be altered. As Antonio has written in hindsight, “I will never forget the beginning of my literary career. It was sudden, instantaneous, fulminating. I was traveling on the street car to Benfica…when a surprising certainty blinded me: I’m going to be a writer. I was twelve years old,” he recalls, “preparing for a brilliant career as an ice-hockey player, and unsure whether to be Spider-Man or Flash Gordon, but inclining slightly more toward Spider-Man because he could climb buildings, and in the midst of this came the call, the vocation, the certainty of a fate entirely unconnected with my plans, my dreams, my fantasies about muscles and fights. . . . The following day I unleashed a few sonnets. They must have been pretty awful because, when I showed them to my mother, she gave me the pained look one bestows on cripples and hopeless idiots.”

Yet his mother’s reservations could not dissuade him. He recalls one year later, at thirteen, then at fourteen and fifteen, “I used to read any book I could lay my hands on, my parents’ books, the books I stole and the book I could buy, [and] for some reason I always came back, just as the tongue tirelessly searches for a missing tooth, to these lines from a French poem I had copies into a notebook: Beyond grief, an open window a lighted window. Beyond grief, an open window a lighted window.

Fifty-four years after he received that first calling, that mysterious intimation that he had to be a writer, we are all, whether here this morning in Guadalajara, or in the two dozen countries where he is translated, invited to pass through Lobo Antunes’s “open window.” And fifty-four years after he seized his parents’ and grandparents’ books, he’s still at it, a literary kleptomaniac. Only two months ago, in my office in New York, he stared with those wide, goo-goo eyes at the books on my bookshelf, and then stuffed a huge suitcase, which he and his wife, Maria, had lugged to New York, with dozens of heavy American volumes. They proceeded – and I don’t want to know how –to lug them to Boston, Washington, and then back to New York, before returning (I can only imagine the overweight charges!) on the night flight back to Lisbon. Since Antonio’s brief American visit, I have felt bereft. You see, in a very short time, Antonio has become not only a dear friend but also a soul mate. I yearn, as his American editor, to embrace more of his novels, for I want to hear the melodies, the delusional songs, the piercing meditations on the vagaries and permutations of the human condition. Unashamedly, I admit that I wish to read more of his stories, stories of madness and consumption, of growing old, and, yes, of loving no matter what. I want to thank the organizers of the Guadalajara Fair for inviting me and asking me to say these words. It is indeed a great honor to introduce Antonio Lobo Antunes . . . my friend . . . and, a writer of the very first rank.

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