Starting next week, we’ll be posting all of the content for our Read This Next title on Thursday. You’ll get the extended preview, the translator interview, and the review all at once, giving you plenty of material to read over the weekend . . .
We were planning on implementing this change this week, but, well, since I was responsible for most of it, we’re a day behind. (So typical, I know.)
Anyway, this week’s book is The Splendor of Portugal by Antonio Lobo Antunes, one of my personal favorite authors. Rhett McNeil translated this from the Portuguese, and Dalkey Archive Press is publishing it on September 20th.
This novel is one of Antunes’s best, and features four narrators: Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse, and their mom, Isilda. A once wealthy, prestigious family, everything fell apart for them in Angola during the War of Independence, and the three kids ended up returning to Portugal and leaving their mother behind. Most of the book takes place on Christmas Eve in 1995, as Carlos waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner.
Click here to read an extended preview, which is from the middle of the book, and focuses on Rui, the challenged youngest son of this once well-to-do family. It’s a great section, and one that does a great job in illustrating Antunes’s unique style.
Also available is an interview with Rhett McNeil:
RM: I expected that the process of translating this book would be frustrating at times, given the complexity of the language, the constant repetitions with variation, the abrupt changes in narrative voice and story line, etc., but it was surprising to me how emotionally exhausting it was. As you say, this is an extremely dark book, in which hatred and regret and resentment permeate nearly every aspect of the characters’ lives, from the macro-level of the post-colonial political situation in war-torn Angola to the micro-level of the family and the individual psyche. For some reason, the act of bringing this stuff over into English, of saying these often hauntingly sad things for the first time in English, really took it out of me emotionally, even more than it had when I read the book. Perhaps grappling with the meaning and rhythm of each phrase (there aren’t really sentences in any proper sense in this book) and giving it some sort of tangible existence in English made me something of a co-conspirator with Antunes, giving linguistic reality to things that normally have only a vaguely defined, purposefully hidden existence in the dark recesses of consciousness. Certain phrases or images would stick with me for a few days as linguistic puzzles or experiments in literary form, as I tried to find the best way to express them in English; by the time I decided on a final form, the full import of the phrase, the aesthetic or emotional impact of a given image or line would hit home. The image of a child shot dead, collapsing into a “crumpled heap” on the ground, “like an overcoat slipping off the hook of a coat-stand,” for instance.
And finally, here is a link to a full review of the novel.
As I mention in the review, I actually just wrote a really long piece about Antunes for Quarterly Conversation—one that does a better job of discussion what’s most interesting about Antunes’s work. I’ll definitely post about that as soon as it’s published.
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.
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