9 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.


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