A Portuguese novelist dissects his country.
by Peter Conrad
The Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes discovered his literary vocation while delivering babies, performing amputations, and carving up corpses. Lobo Antunes trained as a doctor, and in the early nineteen-seventies, during military service, he was dispatched to Angola, near the end of a futile war in which the faltering Portuguese empire grappled to retain its African colony. In a makeshift infirmary, he lopped off limbs while a queasy quartermaster—disqualified from operating because the sight of blood made him sick—turned away and recited instructions from a textbook. Lobo Antunes also assisted a witch doctor who presided over births. As he recalls in a new volume of essays and short stories, “The Fat Man and Infinity” (translated by Margaret Jull Costa; Norton; $26.95), he spent hours struggling “to pull living babies from half-dead mothers” and sometimes emerged into the daylight “holding in my hands a small tremulous life,” while mango trees rustled overhead and mandrills looked on. At such moments, he came “closest to what is commonly known as happiness.” The experience brought about a novelist’s epiphany. There was another way, Lobo Antunes saw, to fill the world with extra existences: characters could emerge fully formed from their creator’s brain, rather than making their blood-smeared escape from the womb.
With luck, a novelist can beget new lives, but he is also obliged to commemorate lives that cannot be saved. Back in Lisbon, after the war, Lobo Antunes worked at a hospital that treated children with cancer. The experience provoked a metaphysical rage; he found himself railing against a God who permitted such agony. He watched as a five-year-old boy with leukemia screamed for morphine. When the child died, two orderlies arrived with a stretcher, but the wasted body was so small that they chose to bundle it in a sheet. A foot slumped free of the shroud and dangled ineffectually in the air. Lobo Antunes decided, he said in a recent interview, “to write for that foot.”
Lobo Antunes published his first two novels in 1979. Since then, there have been twenty-one others, earning him a succession of European prizes. He is less well known to American readers, although nearly half of his novels have appeared in English—most recently “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” (translated by Gregory Rabassa; Norton; $19.95)—and Dalkey Archive has begun to publish earlier, previously untranslated Lobo Antunes works, starting with the 1980 novel “Knowledge of Hell” (translated by Clifford E. Landers; $13.95). Internationally, Lobo Antunes is overshadowed by his older colleague José Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998. At home, the two writers, like rival political parties or sports teams, have noisy partisans, and those who cheer for Lobo Antunes claim that the wrong man won the Nobel. Lobo Antunes himself apparently agrees: when the Times called for a comment on Saramago’s victory he grumbled that the phone was out of order and abruptly hung up.
Their cramped country may not be big enough for both men, but from a distance the internecine feud hardly matters. Good novelists are unique, which makes them incomparable. Saramago is a benign magus whose fictions smilingly suspend reality; Lobo Antunes is more like an exorcist, frantically battling to cast out evil and to heal the body politic. Saramago’s secular parables, set mostly in unnamed or imaginary countries, easily float off into universality. Lobo Antunes remains obsessively local, worrying over the inherited ailments of Portuguese history and the debilities of its culture. He aims, like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus taking upon himself the woes of Ireland, to be a national conscience, reminding his newly Europeanized, sleekly prosperous compatriots of their shaming past—a legacy of guilt left by the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled the country from 1932 to 1968, and by the brutality of his colonial regime in Africa. The Portuguese have officially chosen to forget this era of suffocating oppression, when the Catholic Church unctuously sanctified the strictures of a Fascist state. Lobo Antunes assails the moral cowardice of those who tolerated persecution or quietly collaborated with Salazar’s secret police, and is disgusted by Portugal’s recent veneer of affluence and spendthrift hedonism. A novel always reveals to us the world inside someone else’s head. In the case of Lobo Antunes, that world is the size of a country—small and marginal, perhaps, but teeming with villainy and vice, and as crammed with wounds and festering sores as an overcrowded hospital ward.
Lobo Antunes was born in Lisbon in 1942 and claims that he decided to be a novelist at the age of seven. When he was sixteen, however, his father sent him to medical school, where he trained as a psychiatrist. His medical and literary careers progressed in parallel, and he is still the director of a Lisbon geriatric clinic. Brooding over the Nobel Prize, Lobo Antunes once said, “My medical career would terminate the moment I cash that check.” But his day job has been the making of him, and it isn’t easy to dissociate his artistry from his clinical skills. During his medical training, he attended what he calls “the lesson at the morgue,” and what he learned there shaped his methods as a writer. In one novel, a character narrates a nightmare with a postmortem examination of himself, and Lobo Antunes makes clear that this is an elementary and unavoidable part of literary activity. “You’re a writer and never thought of this?” the character asks the book’s narrator, a journalist. “You never imagine yourself naked, smelling of formaldehyde, flat on your back in a marble tub, waiting for them to cut open your ribs with a huge pair of scissors?” Few of us are brave enough to entertain that thought; lacking volunteers, Lobo Antunes serves as his own specimen. In 2007, he underwent surgery for intestinal cancer, and, knowing how his body would look cut open, recorded the experience in a series of articles. Writing, as he practices it, can be creepily close to vivisection, and his novels conduct an autopsy that is both personal and political.
Some of Lobo Antunes’s earlier books seem too laceratingly confessional to be called fiction at all. In “Knowledge of Hell,” a narrator, whose name happens to be António Lobo Antunes, agonizes during a long drive over the failure of his marriage and the futility of his work in psychiatry. Lobo Antunes the narrator admits that his patients serve as a novelist’s exploited, manipulated playthings: a psychiatrist is able to “live among distorted men” and fish in “the agitated, rancorous aquarium of their brains.” This dabbling in neurosis is second nature to writers, who are, in his opinion, “adult people torturing themselves to create school compositions, imaginary intrigues, useless imbroglios.”
The novels that followed “Knowledge of Hell” extend beyond this self-purgation. Lobo Antunes, who admires Faulkner, shares his partiality for overlapping monologues, which gives the impression that an entire society is incautiously confiding in an analyst or a confessor. “Fado Alexandrino,” published in 1983, uses this polyphonic technique to investigate the failed hopes of Portugal’s recent history. The “fado” of the title is the music of helpless resignation: the word means “fate,” and it refers to the ululating laments declaimed by singers—wrapped in funereal black shawls, their faces set in a rictus of misery—in Lisbon’s night clubs. Here the vocalists are four soldiers who return disillusioned, like Lobo Antunes himself, from a colonial war, this one in Mozambique. They become disgruntled witnesses to the 1974 revolution, in which the army bloodlessly toppled the moribund Fascist regime. That uprising occurred on April 25th, which made it a rite of spring—a carnival of renewal, celebrated by soldiers with carnations in the muzzles of their guns. The rejoicing, as the novel demonstrates, did not last long. Leftist hardliners took over and, for a while, it seemed that Portugal would be captured by Communism. The ideology that prevailed, however, was consumerism. Lobo Antunes’s cohorts helplessly watch their nation’s collapse from idealism into self-indulgence, and even surrender to it themselves during a boozy reunion that takes them on a long crawl through bars and brothels. Their night of carousing ends in a death: one member of the gang is murdered, and the rest share blame for inciting the crime. The novel pessimistically concludes that there is no way of salvaging a society so embedded in the past: revolution seems “so absurd in a country that was worm-eaten,” and the flag-waving and chanting of the ideologues amount to little more than “a ridiculous piece of fiction, a puppet show, a complete farce.”
Lobo Antunes’s contrapuntal narrative functions as a rejoinder to the Fascist cult of corporatism, in which Salazar’s state assumed that its citizens, equalized by conformity, became indistinguishable from one another. The discordant monologues of the novels allow individuals to tell their stories, though in doing so they erode the bonds of family and community and end in a kind of solitary confinement. Lobo Antunes transcribes the complaints of Portugal’s “little people,” who once—as a slumdweller in “Fado Alexandrino” says—relied on Heaven to look after them; now their advocate is a novelist. Making this his mission, Lobo Antunes has progressively extended the bandwidth of his monologues. In “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” he intertwines the fractured soliloquies of transvestites in a Lisbon night club, their nervily anonymous clients, a hospital orderly, and a solicitous journalist investigating this dim underworld. An epigraph taken from the fourth-century Christian scholar Epiphanius hints at the purpose behind this ghostly babble: “I am you and you are me; where you are, I am, and in all things I find myself dispersed.” Dispersal is our dusty fate, but our ashes and our drifting atoms can mingle. Although his venal characters pursue selfish agendas, Lobo Antunes’s technique emphasizes their interrelation and appeals to our commiseration. He is still writing for the foot that he saw hanging from that improvised shroud.
One Faulkner novel in particular serves as a prototype for Lobo Antunes: in “As I Lay Dying,” a dead matriarch, as though still conscious inside her coffin, muses on her life while her family makes tragicomic efforts to get her body buried. Lobo Antunes’s macabre narratives often deal with an impatient deathwatch, or trace the muddled disposal of a corpse. In “Act of the Damned,” a stricken paterfamilias listens while his heirs—a motley brood of “sluts and spineless cuckolds”—squabble over his estate. In “The Inquisitors’ Manual,” a former official in Salazar’s government, bedridden after a stroke like the one that disabled Salazar himself, is slowly driven mad as his progeny wrangle and plan to make off with his spoils.
Another funeral, malodorously postponed, comes at the start of Lobo Antunes’s larkiest, most engagingly inventive book, “The Return of the Caravels.” The poet Luís de Camões—who, in 1572, in “The Lusiads,” celebrated Vasco da Gama’s maritime discoveries and supplied Portugal with a national epic intended to match Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid—comes home from Africa four centuries later with a coffin containing his father. Bureaucratic delays hold up the interment, and the long-dead body starts to bubble, seething with “a fervor of worms.” (According to Portuguese law, the dead are entitled to spend only a few years underground, after which, because space is so scarce, their bones must be exhumed and pummelled to powder.) History, Lobo Antunes suggests, is a corpse that will not remain in its grave.
The caravels, cockleshell boats that took Portuguese seafarers off to new worlds, return carrying the shabby detritus of empire. Vasco da Gama and other explorers with heroic pedigrees are jumbled among the fractious, indiscriminate rabble of retornados, who retreated to Portugal in the nineteen-seventies, after the loss of the country’s African empire. The retornados—most of them petty merchants, shopkeepers, and civil servants—spent years grousing and venting their grievances on street corners while their possessions moldered in dockside warehouses. “The Return of the Caravels” makes epochs collide in a brawling comic chaos. Renaissance Portugal, still viewed as a golden age of achievement, collapses into the grubby present. Lisbon, reconstructed on a stern neoclassical grid after it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755, is now a shapeless Third World midden; a floating populace of refugees, ruffians, smugglers, and Gypsies, swarms in shantytowns, feeding on roasted cats.
At one point, Vasco is summoned to an audience with King Manuel I:
Forty-two years had passed since Vasco da Gama had last spoken to the monarch, and after uncounted months in the antechamber, reading doctor’s office magazines, mingling with executives in vests, astrologers in star-speckled capes, representatives of majority, minority, and nonexistent political parties, an Italian journalist, and a delegation from the bakers’ union, encased in the powder of their morning flour, he found an aged prince shooing away flies with his scepter, a tin crown with glass rubies on his head, and the applesauce halitosis of a diabetic huddled on the seat of a Gothic window that opened out onto the galleons of his squadron, which he was contemplating without interest in the melancholy of his flu.
That bulging sentence contains many of Lobo Antunes’s distinctive qualities: the profusion of detail that delights in mess; the word games that flirt with the nullity of language; the professional acumen that diagnoses the king’s disease and finds a poetic simile to catch the precise odor of his sickly breath. The mania for noticing things detains us, but as readers we spend the decelerated time more pleasurably than Vasco da Gama, who cools his heels impatiently in the waiting room; when we finally reach the end of the sentence, Lobo Antunes, having boisterously enlivened this listless interval, defies us to share the king’s boredom. Manuel and Vasco walk out into the evening, and the king asks the explorer for a deck of cards: “I want to see if you still know how to cheat.” In no time, the beached voyager gains control of Lisbon, thanks to a series of dodgy card tricks—a neat parody of the supposedly ennobling but ultimately squalid business of colonial acquisition.
Lobo Antunes’s implosion of Portuguese history works so well because revenants from the country’s grandiose past can be seen all over Lisbon, stiff with rigor mortis. Statues of navigators, of the kings who prompted their expeditions, and of the bards who obsequiously sang their praises scan the horizon from the pedestals. Camões has a monumental column of his own; the nineteenth-century novelist Eça de Queirós embraces a lissome marble muse in a garden; and a bronze effigy of the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa sits at a table outside a café that he once frequented, looking as if he had metallized while waiting for a refill. (As yet, there is no statue of Lobo Antunes, but a street has been named after him in the northern town of Nelas.) The Portuguese are proud of these venerable ancestors, but they can’t help feeling belittled by them. How did a country that once counted Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Goa, and Macao as outlying provinces forfeit its empire and retract to the cramped edge of the Iberian Peninsula? If the poem of nationhood is a proud, ceremonious epic like “The Lusiads,” which ends with a prophecy of Portugal’s abiding glory, the writers who come later are bound to describe a lapse into mean, mediocre mock epic. To make matters worse, Lisbon itself claims mythical origins: in early sources it is called Olissipo, in homage to Ulysses, who allegedly founded the city during his long, digressive journey home from Troy. Joyce’s Dubliners in “Ulysses” don’t know that they are recapitulating Homer’s epic, so they suffer from no sense of shrunken inadequacy. But the Portuguese—who still salute themselves as maritime heroes when they sing their national anthem, even though their seagoing exploits are now confined to trawling for cod—can’t avoid invidious comparisons between past and present.
The lofty statues in Lisbon’s squares represent the judgment of history. Lobo Antunes pities their “heroic cramps,” and fancies that they might be shamming immobility; his revenge is to move them around like figures on a chessboard, asserting the right of the present to rearrange the past. The statue of the Marquês de Pombal, an enlightened autocrat who rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake, migrates all over the city. In one novel, he leaves his plinth and tipsily reels down the hill toward the river; in another, he takes a break in a restaurant, where “his rusty imposing presence” is seen “sipping lemon tea with broad, bronze historic gestures.” Statues that brag about exploration and conquest are cleverly reoriented, or mocked for their inability to stride through space. Magellan, who found a way to the Spice Islands in the Pacific, points down an avenue to a shopping district that might be “a lost island of his own discovery, an island of discount stores selling wooden knickknacks.” In a vast, vacant square by the river, King José I straddles a transfixed horse that “trotted motionless toward India in search of eight-armed concubines.”
Lobo Antunes views Portugal’s discoveries as feats of conjuring, deceptive tricks like those performed by a literary fantasist. Prince Henry the Navigator sends Vasco da Gama off to find Brazil and tow it home; Vasco obliges, tugging the “stupidly enormous” landmass in his wake, though he is unable to control the flocks of raucous imported parrots that fly away shrieking across Lisbon “like a waving of colorful bath towels.” Because the accumulated colonies are too bulky to fit into tiny Portugal, superfluous realms are sneakily stuffed into municipal garbage cans: tropical rivers are discarded as waste, jumbled with “leftover grains of rice and packages of cough drops.”
Saramago beguilingly contradicts this dead end in his “Tale of the Unknown Island,” when a nameless king declares that there are no new worlds left to discover. One of his subjects stubbornly insists that there must still be an unknown island and volunteers to find it. But only a cleaning woman will sign on for his quixotic voyage, so he gets nowhere. Then, in the story’s sudden, miraculous conclusion, the deserted boat becomes the imaginary island itself: the deck burgeons and blooms, as plants twine around the masts, and the fertilized caravel continues travelling in search of itself. Saramago transfers the geographic adventure to the imagination, which will never accept that reality runs out at the horizon. Lobo Antunes is less optimistic: he reduces the process of decolonization to rubbish-dumping, deriding the revolutionaries who so hastily withdrew from Africa. This bungling anticlimax suits the national mood of saudade—a nostalgia for some remote, unremembered epoch during which the Portuguese were happy and their country ruled the waves. Saramago gratifies his readers by making the explorer’s dream come true; Lobo Antunes, always the physician charged with imparting bad news, diagnoses the wistful longing for paradise as a neurosis.
Lobo Antunes maps Portugal as if he were anatomizing a patient on an operating table. In “Knowledge of Hell,” he describes its narrow territory, squeezed between Spain and the Atlantic, as “emaciated.” The equinoctial east wind along the coast sounds like a wheezing “asthmatic child”; the lisping of waves hints that the ocean suffers from a speech defect; and, in stormier weather, the breakers howl as if tormented by “toothache and heartburn.” The tortuous alleys of Lisbon’s medieval districts remind Lobo Antunes of aneurisms or distended arteries, and the Manueline decoration of its monuments—a style dating from the reign of King Manuel I, featuring replicas of ropes, anchors, seaweed, and tropical plants as mementos of his explorers—afflict columns with varicose veins.
As such hypochondriac metaphors suggest, Lobo Antunes invests words with the vividness of live, dying things. He also has a canine capacity for deciphering scents. A Gypsy’s body odor seems to combine the stench of a mule and the aroma of thistle soup; a disgruntled wife creeps into bed with a “grave-ready” husband whose personal aroma is that of “dead sheep.” Any intimacy risks an encounter with someone else’s olfactory halo. A kiss, chemically analyzed by Lobo Antunes, turns out to be redolent of “bleach and stew.” Meals are predictably unpalatable, like a stomach-turning dish of squid, which is a tangled mess of legs and suckers, with “pallid and fibrous meat” afloat in an inky sauce.
Sharing the morbid exhilaration of Lobo Antunes, the characters in his novels can’t help wondering at the creativity of their bodies—so keen to spawn diseases, so foully fruitful. A woman in “The Natural Order of Things,” graced with the glorious name of Dona Orquidea, is dismayed when her doctor announces that her kidney stones have dissolved. She wills herself to produce more, hoping to deposit a sliver of mica or a granite chip in her chamber pot. The geological substance of Portugal hardens inside her as she vows “to make cliffs grow in my belly, cliffs like those in Viana, covered with tenacious grass, cliffs like those along the Douro River, with terraced vineyards and the streambed glistening below.” Those terraces along the Douro, east of Oporto, are where the grapes crushed for port wine grow, but Lobo Antunes has no interest in Portugal’s delicious produce. Dona Orquidea plods patriotically home to transform herself “into a mountain range of schist, into stratified slate, into basaltic formations.”
Intent on tabulating symptoms and issuing doleful prognoses, Lobo Antunes hardly ministers to the reader’s sense of physical well-being. Satirists, like doctors, investigate our distempers, but they would rather kill than cure. Lobo Antunes ruefully acknowledges his failures as a healer. In “The Fat Man and Infinity,” he allows a patient to tell him, “You’d better make an appointment with yourself then, doctor”; he takes the advice, but the waiting list is so long that it will be many months before he finds the time to treat himself. Another Lobo Antunes protagonist equates doctors with morticians or taxidermists. “To many doctors there is something comforting in death, something of validation,” he says. They “enjoy death’s immobility, its dignified quietness.” Art too, fussing over pictorial appearances or fancy verbal replicas, is the connoisseurship of cadavers.
“I wish someone could explain to me why nothing in this country ever changes,” a character in “The Inquisitors’ Manual” moans. Fado singers paraphrase this complaint when they air lovelorn grievances; the same choral lament can be heard everywhere in Portugal, as people wonder why their new freedoms and the shiny electronic gadgets they can now afford haven’t made them any happier. But if this were the whole truth, Lobo Antunes would remain a local, even a provincial, writer. Luckily, he has a remedy for the national malaise; true, nothing changes, but everything metamorphoses when described by Lobo Antunes, whose style triumphantly flouts the stagnation of his society. His most gleefully outrageous inventions waive physical laws and challenge the dreary natural order of things, and it is this quality that gives his work an appeal that extends beyond the borders of his country. A widowed engineer falls in love with a mannequin he sees in a shopwindow and pays a prostitute to sleep with it. A genial lunatic flaps his arms and takes flight, like the storks that used to nest on chimneys in Portuguese villages. On another occasion, Lisbon commits suicide, its “slit veins bleeding bronze generals, pigeons and dairy bars into the Tagus.” Death, as always for Lobo Antunes, is life arrested and arranged into a picture, and postmortem decay produces poetry as delicate as lace or cobwebs. A shop selling woollen goods is taken over by moths, which multiply into white-winged angels and litter the counters with wriggling larvae; these gluttonous seraphs reduce synthetic fabrics to “a skeleton of threads, a ribwork of filaments, fringes of veins.”
“Hatred is vital to good health,” a character declares in “Act of the Damned.” As a medical diagnosis, this seems questionable, but in Lobo Antunes’s case it is a prescription for fine, furious, often spectacularly excessive writing. Hatred, in his attitude toward Portugal, may be a synonym for a rankling, incurable love. The tottering country is Lobo Antunes’s subject, and as a physician he considers it to be his personal responsibility. How can a doctor give up on a patient who has been ill—tantalizingly near death, though never quite ready to die—for the past four hundred years? ♦