Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.
Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).
This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.
The novel is grounded in the present, as the narrator sits in a Lisbon bar late at night, talking to a woman he plans later to take back to his seedy apartment for early morning sex. His means of seduction: a graphic, unvarnished recollection of his service in a back-lands army base in Angola ten years or so earlier. Three-quarters of the actual novel consists of these recollections, although by the conclusion the action has moved more into the present. Each short chapter contains paragraphs of long associational sentences. At its heart the effect is of past and present, inner and outer not collapsing together as much as mutually relating, informing.
I woke in the morning to the thunderous sky over the River Cuando and the thought It’s Christmas Day today, and saw in those same weary gestures the usual eternal Monday morning, the heat was running down my back in large, sticky, sweaty drops, and I said to myself, This can’t be right, there’s something wrong about all this, my oversize pajamas appeared to contain neither bones nor flesh and I felt that I no longer existed, my trunk, my limbs, my feet didn’t exist apart from a pair of blinking eyes staring, in surprise, at the plain and then, beyond the plain, at the accumulation of trees to the north, the direction from which the airplane always came, bringing fresh food and mail, I was just those two astonished, staring eyes, which I rediscover today in the bathroom mirror, looking older and duller after the initial shudder of my first pee, and shouting a silent plea at their own reflection, a plea that goes unanswered.
The past—childhood waits for Christmas morning in oversized pajamas (we know that the narrator sleeps naked in the African heat)—tied to the future by the same disembodied eyes. The narrator ties the political to the personal, segueing by naming the idealists of the world—the Che Guevaras and Allendes—in the same sentence and train of thought to the sex that he will soon have with his listener, one without illusions: to commit oneself to even the shadow of love will be to give into the futility of the idealist who scares the world to the point of martyrdom. He draws repeated analogies to the waste of the doomed war to the masturbatory routine that he shares with the other officers each night in their compound huts. His one connection to a native woman ends when the secret security force takes her away to a prison after gang-raping her.
The African woman becomes the country devastated by the colonialists. The newly-arrived narrator reacts to his first fatality by taking the body into his own hut, his own couch, and claiming to the curious orderly that the man is not dead, just napping; soon that corpse metaphorically expands as it putrefies to overtake the whole country. The woman in the bar—sweet talked into bed by graphic memories of fatal wounds, blood, viscera—becomes the face of a society which had condoned this war, and now lives in an enervated state. The narrator fails in his first attempt at coitus, only to have a “successful” second outcome after begging to try again, with his partner faking it. She will now put on make-up and the same clothes and go to work, exhausted by no sleep, the constant flow of alcohol, and the words: an the ordeal she has kept through the night. The woman reflects the country, the society, and the night her history.
But I make it all sound so cookie-cutter, when it is not. Antunes the psychoanalyst understands how metaphors grounded in the inner psyche (mostly id here, certainly no super-ego), and in the particulars of life—a man, a woman, personal histories and the specifics of reality—also weave in the culture, history, and traumas of society.
I’m not sure I can hear the news of an African—or Latin American or Middle Eastern—country dealing with the paroxysms of colonialist histories without flashing on this novel. Antunes in engaging the personal also does so with the political, in effective language which must have been both a challenge and satisfaction for Costa to have translated.
Addendum: I’d like to hear from translators—Costa, Wimmer, Grossman, all women—how they cope with engaging so intensely with texts that have such graphic and violent images of violence against women. It seems to me one thing to pick up a novel I’m interested in, which I can set back down or not continue; it is another to engage so deeply with a work, to get not just the word’s meaning, but also tone, nuance. I suspect it causes nightmares.
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