Splendor in Portugal
Splendor of Portugal is the tenth book by Antonio Lobo Antunes to appear in English translation, and the seventh that I’ve reviewed. Which, in some ways, makes this difficult to write. Not to mention, I just wrote an epically long piece on Antunes for a forthcoming issue of Quarterly Conversation. It was one of those articles that I poured all my thoughts and ideas into.
But flipping through my marked up copy of Splendor of Portugal, which first came out in Portugal in 1997 and is coming out in Rhett McNeil’s caustic, accomplished English translation later this month, it’s pretty easy to get all excited and want to share the brilliance that is Antunes’s writing.
Of his more recent novels (and yes, I know that 1997 isn’t all that recent), Splendor of Portugal is one of the most accomplished and well-constructed. It’s got all components of a traditional Antunes book: vitriol against Portugal stemming from the Portuguese Colonial War, a solitary man too damaged to connect with his family and wife, a family that’s totally broken, all told in a polyvocal fashion that jumps around all over in time and place.
There are two primary plot lines grounding this novel. The first takes place on December 24, 1995 in Portugal, where Carlos—the oldest son of a once well-off family—waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner. Of course, he hasn’t spoken to either them in fifteen years after having sent Rui, his emotionally challenged younger brother off to live in a home, and having chastising his sister for her taking of wealthy lover after wealthy lover. But, with his relationship with his wife all but dead, and a stash of unopened letters from his mom (the kids left her behind in Angola when they came back to Portugal), he decides to reach out to them.
Here’s a bit setting that up that also highlights the sort of “all at once” style Antunes uses throughout the book. Carlos is “talking” to his wife:
until the smoke dissipated, Lena reappeared little by little with her fingers outstretched toward the breadbasket
“You haven’t seen your siblings in fifteen years”
so that all of a sudden I was aware of the time that had passed since we arrived here from Africa, of the letters from my mother, first from the plantation and later from Marimba, four little huts on a hillside of mango trees
(I remember the regional administrator’s house, the store, the ruins of the barracks shipwrecked and sinking in the tall grass)
the envelopes that I kept in a drawer without showing anyone, without opening them, without reading them, dozens and dozens of dirty envelopes, covered with stamps and seals, telling me about things I didn’t want to hear, the plantation, Angola, her life [. . .]
His mother’s letters reflect the other main narrative thread, which recounts Isilda’s story in Angola after the kids leave, covering the period from July 24, 1978 through December 1995, when things go from bad to worse to even worse.
If this novel is about one thing, it’s about the complete falling apart of society, a family, one’s life. It is entropy written novel sized. It is bleak, occasionally funny in a sick way, and very poetic. As you can see in the quote above (or in the long excerpt at Read This Next) the punctuation is pretty damn unique, and the book just simply flows, pulling you into the heads of its various characters and throwing events from various points in time at you, along with phrases from other characters, minor forays into the consciousness of yet other characters, etc.
This sounds daunting, but as Rhett says in this week’s interview, it is a book that teaches you how to read it as you go along. Part of the fun of reading Antunes is being swept into his world, and puzzling things out as you go (like, who is Carlos’s real mom?).
The one drawback to this book—the same drawback to most of Antunes’s books—is that once he establishes his technique, it remains pretty much unchanged throughout the novel. Part of the brilliant of The Sound and the Fury is the range in tone and style between Benjy’s part and Jason’s. It’s like four completely different consciousnesses expressed on the page. In Antunes’s works, he frequently uses that general technique of having each character speak their piece, but they all do so in very similar ways. The content, the individual tragedies, are all unique, but the style of presentation doesn’t change from Carlos to Rui to Isilda to Clarisse. It’s an effective strategy, one that poetically paints the portrait of these four people, but it can come off as a limitation in a 500+ page book.
That all said, you should read this. And Fado Alexandrino, The Land at the End of the World, Act of the Damned, and The Inquisitors’ Manual. Antunes is one of the greatest living writers and it’s a fantastic situation that so many of his works are available in English.