Antonio Lobo Antunes’s books contain many of the things that are fantastic about contemporary literature; at the same time, these books exemplify a lot of the traits that scare people off from literature in translation.
This may sound stupid, but even his name is a problem. Where to shelve it in the bookstore—under “Lobo”? under “Antunes”? (Antunes is correct, although I’ve found his titles in both places in a countless number of stores.) But it’s the text itself that poses the most problems to American readers:
The sea of the Algarve is made of cardboard like theater scenery, and the English don’t realize it: they conscientiously spread their towels on the sawdust sand, protect themselves with dark glasses from the paper sun, stroll enthralled on the stage of Albufeira where public employees disguised as carnival barkers, squatting on the ground, inflict on them Moroccan necklaces secretly manufactured by the tourism board, and end the afternoon by anchoring in artificial esplanades, where they’re served make-believe drinks in nonexistent glasses that leave in the mouth the flavorless taste of the whiskey furnished the actors on television dramas. After the Alentejo [. . .]
The opening sentence is almost baiting . . . not only is it a pointed critique of English tourist constructed out of a seemingly endless series of clauses, on a more basic level the references to Algarve, Albufeira and Alentejo are immediately disorienting to most American (at least) readers. But place names are just the first layer of obstacles an average reader is faced with—next up are the references to the Angolan war. This war plays a huge role in many of Antunes’s books, due in part to the fact that Antunes himself was a veteran of this war, which really was a mess. After one gets their historical bearings (the Angola War of Independence lasted from 1961-74 ending after a leftist military coup took place in Lisbon) a reader still has to figure out what’s going on, since Antunes’s narrator (named Antonio Lobo Antunes) mashes together events from the Angolan war with his work as a psychiatrist at a Lisbon mental institution with the present moment of his drive back from the southern coast to Portugal’s capital city with very few linguistic indicators (at least at the beginning) as to where you are.
In other words, this isn’t the easiest of books to approach. Yet, a bit of patience and outside research opens up Antunes’s labyrinthine, carefully wrought sentences, which draw the reader into the shattered world of a man recovering from a broken marriage who has journeyed through “hell” (aka the mental institution) and is trying to get his shit together. For me, in the second chapter when all of this clicked into place, I immediately fell in love with the book, with its complicated structure and feverish rhythms.
Aside from Fado Alexandrino, I’ve read all the Antunes books translated into English, gotten readers reports on the rest, and helped acquire this while I was at Dalkey. (Although Clifford Landers’s exquisite translation didn’t arrive until after I’d left, so this is the first time I’ve read the book.) So to be honest, I’m predisposed to appreciate this novel.
This was Antunes’s third novel, part of an ill-defined psychiatric trilogy that also includes Memória de Elefante and Os Cus de Judas. It was originally written in 1980 (though most reviews are citing 1983—not sure where that came from) and is very raw. There’s a moment around page 100 where we get a glimpse of the books Antunes will come to write.
It’s during a flashback to the mental hospital times, when a young groom arrives begging to be admitted as insane. See, he’s run away from his wedding because he’s already married with children and terrified of the consequences from all various parties. Of course, the family of the bride figures this all out—his former marriage, his escape to the asylum—and the bride’s mother goes into a six-page monologue describing the situation in a wildly energetic, often hilarious fashion that’s almost impossible to excerpt seeing how tied into itself every line is.
“This is a disgrace, doctor. We’ve been waiting at the Sao Jorge castle since eleven o’clock, the bride’s family came all the way from Torres Novas for it, you know, even a major, even a judge are there, people of position, people of influence, and him calling every half hour from one place and another, Don’t worry, I’m on my way, I’ve been looking for the best man, the best man forgot his ID at home, the man at the Registry has diarrhea, he stopped for a beer and I’m here waiting, it’ll just be a minute, and us believing it in good faith, don’t you worry I’m on my way, and us in our innocence swallowing it all, some photographs were taken with the peacocks, you could see the river, people chatted [. . .] the bride’s brothers went looking for him, one of them was even going to be a priest and owns an appliance store and he went too in spite of his ulcer, he’s very sensitive and can’t get upset, any little thing and he starts spewing blood, they searched his room, found out he was married and living with a trollop and three children behind the slaughterhouse, an old building with kitchen access, the poor bride fainted, if she doesn’t go off her rocker from grief it’ll be a miracle ’cause I’ve seen it happen over less [. . .]
There are a group of writers Antunes is frequently compared to: Celine, Dos Passos, and most obvious (to me), Faulkner. But he’s all of these writers and then something else. He’s Faulkner secure in his humor. A jangly, frenetic Faulkner. A Celine who cares even more about people. And it is care that’s at the center of this novel. It is Antunes’s questioning of psychiatric practices that drives the “plot” and hallucinatory descriptions.
This burning, questioning hatred of psychiatry fuels this book, but is also one of the reasons that, unfortunately, this novel is second-tier Antunes. The fire is too consuming, too all-encompassing, and it’s as if the section quote above is the only time that Antunes took a breath. (That and the bits addressed to the narrator’s daughter Joanna.) This is a worthwhile book—it’s intense, it’s captivating, and very cinematic—but if you’ve never read Antunes, I’d recommend starting with Act of the Damned and circling around to this later.
Knowledge of Hell
by Antonio Lobo Antunes
298 pages, $13.95
Dalkey Archive Press
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