Sunday, 21 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: Fado Alexandrino




Fado Alexandrino. The fado is a Portuguese type of music named after the Latin word fatum, or fate. Supposedly it appeared in the seedy bars next to the Tagus river, where sailors and prostitutes converged, has a pessimistic and resigned outlook and usually deals with tragic love. Morbid shenanigans. An alexandrine verse is a verse with 12 syllables. In the novel a military unit gets together in a restaurant to celebrate tem years since returning from the war in Africa. They returned from Mozambique in 1972 and it’s now 1982. The action progresses from night till morning, as five soldiers chat during dinner, then escape the restaurant to visit a striptease bar and finally end their celebrations at home of one of them, accompanied by some prostitutes. Of the five four narrate their lives before and after the 1974 military coup that overthrew the dictatorship and restored freedom. The novel is composed of three books (Before the Revolution, During The Revolution and After The Revolution); each book contains 12 chapters; each soldier has 3 chapters per book… well, sort of; Lobo Antunes throws a curve at the reader near the end. The protagonists are: soldier Abílio; lieutenant colonel Artur; communications officer Celestino; second lieutenant Jorge. The fifth member, called simply the “captain,” sometimes intervenes, in an oblique way. Giving this fleeting presence the rank of captain may not be gratuitous; the military coup is also called The Captains’ Revolution since the main masterminds shared that rank. The reader is lead to entertain the hypothesis that this shadowy captain may have been one of them, which would make it ironic since the coup is a sacred cow the novel doesn’t mind butchering and grilling for juicy material. But the novel belongs to the other four, who narrate in the author’s usual style of meshed voices and timelines: sometimes there are up to 4 different narratives going on in the same endless paragraph and the reader has to pay attention not to lease the thread. In terms of sheer virtuosity, narrative construction and control, this 700-page novel is Lobo Antunes’ most ambitious and perfect yet.

Fado Alexandrino is a tapestry about Portugal in the 1970s and forms part of a 4-novel cycle. There are connections to An Explanation of the Birds, Act of the Damned and The Return of the Caravels: colonial war, dictatorship, the April 25 Revolution, decolonization, the flight of fortunes abroad, disillusionment with democracy. The protagonists come from or interact with different social backgrounds, allowing a complete panorama of society. The rage and the ugliness that make the author famous persist; there’s no love, kindness or happiness here, just unfulfilled desires, weakness and failure. It’s a world of predators and the adjectives are the usual: dirty, rotten, filthy. And there’s an order of nouns that refers to states of uncertainty, instability and deformity: puree, jelly, gelatine, paste. This is how the communications officer describes coming home: “A rotten aroma of piss impregnated the mats, and the old ladies floated like divers inside that smell, releasing through their mouths bubbles of the rice powder they breathed.” In a novel with such a complex structure perhaps the best solution is to isolate each narrative:

SOLDIER

Through the soldier we come across some of the main themes: the unease of the return; the difficulty adjusting to civilian life; the feeling that the fatherland has abandoned the soldiers. Wherever they look, at any moment, unexpectedly, they see Lisbon transforming into Africa: they’re always on the lookout for bushes, barbed wire, shelters, silhouettes, trapped between these two worlds. And this is how Abílio describes the dispersing crowd that came pick up the soldiers: “The octopus behind the gates diminished little by little, clusters of people moved away, surrounding a soldier, out the Encarnação Square, where traffic patiently circulated like a big exhausted ox, manuring with smoke turds the rotunda’s slim trees, which impressed on the walls’ wax plaques the delicate, bronchi-like, footprints of the branches.” Abílio heads to his sister, Otília, who didn’t write during his 27 months in Africa, save once to tell him that father was dead and that she needed whatever money he had to help pay the funeral. But Otília won’t offer him a room to live in. “What distance now separates us, he thought: you talk with me as if I were a stranger, without a kiss, without a pat, without a shadow of tenderness: he closed his eyes and the octopus of faces, gestures, exclamations, anxious laughter convulsed again in his head, by the headquarters’ gate, on that misty morning in Encarnação.” Hapless he’s taken in by Uncle Idílio, owner of a moving company, who lives with his wife, Dona Isaura, and stepdaughter, Odete, with whom the soldier falls in love. But a cultural abyss makes her unreachable to him: she studies, is sophisticated, follows politics, likes vanguard arts and has a secret political life that will have tragic consequences in the novel’s climax. As for Abílio, he lives cowboy novels, comic books and horror movies. He started working at the age of 12, as it was normal then, and never studied, not to mention he lived his childhood in his grandmother’s brothel. To woo Odete he puts with “incomprehensible, highly complicated French, Italian or Polish flicks (…).” His travails to seduce Odete allow Lobo Antunes to satirise Portuguese machismo. Like most men at the time, Abílio thought physique was enough to attract women. This doesn’t work with her so he tries to educate himself, without success. In this sexually-repressive culture women were second-class citizens, men were above them. But the irrationality of love doesn’t care about social niceties and he ends up prostituting himself to a rich homosexual in order to have money, since he believes that’s the other way, besides looks, of getting women. Ironically Odete never shows any love for him, even after they marry.

His life tragedies progress without resistance: Dona Isaura has a thrombosis and slowly withers away in a back room; Uncle Idíio loses his love for life and the company starts losing business. Otília reappears, married and full of kids, to beg money. Later, after Uncle Idílio has passed away, she returns to take her share of the small inheritance. One day Abílio reads the newspaper and finds out that the man she lived with has stabbed her to death. This echoes another violent death: the rich homosexual is also murdered by his Senegalese lover. Amidst all this misery Abílio thinks he’s seen a gleam of happiness when Odete accepts to marry him, but this is an illusion: they have a child but it dies. Shortly after she dumps him. He even loses the house because of a mixture of fraud and bureaucracy. Not even his child’s bones are sparred: in Portugal, due to its small size, it’s custom for graves to be dug up after a few years and emptied out into a common grave; Abílio doesn’t have the money to rent a personal grave so the bones just go the way of thousands more. Odete’s separation leaves his sex life in disarray; he loses heart to commit himself again, although he shacks up with a superintendent who pesters him to divorce in order to marry her.

In spite of his braggadocio and machismo, Odete freezes him into inaction. Although he keeps dreaming about visiting her at the Ministry of the Army, where she works, “Not angry, you see, not spiteful, not in a daze, not to hit her, just sad, confused, perplexed, just to chat with her, just with the bitter, melancholy necessity of understanding,” although he has this burning desire he cowers every time because “I saw her always so cheerful, so strong-headed, so happy, moving her hands with energy (…).” So much pusillanimity sends the superintendent into fits of rage, who urges him to give Odete the divorce papers. “And the voice in my head ordering me You get there, you give a couple of slaps, a kick in the balls, you give them eight days to deliver the divorce papers in court, another slap or two so they’ll remember what you want, you turn your back on them, you leave.” Of course he doesn’t have the guts to confront Odete and Osvaldo, the man she lives with.

The soldier is a coward but also a victim of laziness. He tells the others he had intended to stay in Africa, marry an African and open a shop; it’s doubtful he would have gone ahead. But in any event he’s happy he didn’t because of the catastrophic decolonization process that took place after 1974 (a theme parodied in The Return of the Caravels). Of course he’s happy, that way he can blame his failure on external circumstances. The soldier is incapable of doing anything to turn his fate around. On the morning of the coup the soldier is working with Uncle Idílio and ignores the event. Then the moving business was doing alright, without any input from him. “It prospered out of inertia, not out of work, like when they cut off the water, what’s left in the pipes drips away, withered, from the faucets, and we know soon, after two or three burps, pffffffff.” In 1982 all he can do is complain “The moving business doesn’t matter to me: if I put myself into it for real I’d be a millionaire by now, I’d be driving in a Mercedes, all fat, full of arrogance, I’d preside over recreational associations, I’d set up a lover in Restelo. Now I work the least I can, I drink my beers on Sundays, play dominos with this or that friend who shows up: the usual pain in the ass, always the same, the fucking forties, the spine bending, the quitting, the captain knows how it is.”

LIEUTENANT CORONEL

The lieutenant coronel has ambitions and problems of his own. He arrives from Africa and immediately drives to the hospital, where his wife has recently died from cancer. In a Lobo Antunes novel that means things will only get worse. Hours later he’s already drunk and is being wakened up by his daughter, Maria João, who tries to take care of him and gets a superintendent (the same the soldier sleeps with) to manage the house. But not long after they’re having sex and the daughter catches them in the act. Embarrassments aside, he also has professional problems: he’s appointed a headquarters and gets dragged into the revolutionary vortex; he has meetings with members of the underground movement who want to know which side his loyalty is on, but he doesn’t have a side, he wants to remain neutral to protect what little he has achieved. “I was afraid of losing all the shit I had won all those years, you see, the command, the headquarters, the promotions, the certain of dying of starvation, the typical ordinary life, the one I got used to, without complications, without a dick, without troubles.” When the revolution he joins the winning party and is responsible for writing reports to get rid of army officers loyal to the old regime, finding any little thing that can be used to destroy their careers; effectively he has to get rid of people to open vacancies for new promotions in the new regime, which is full of arrivistes, “the voracious cancerous microbes who feed on it and around which they moved, political parties, games of influence, personal hatreds, the insatiable little ambitions of the frustrated: I want to be field marshall, I want to be rich, I want to be minister, I want a boat, a house with a pool, a colour television, an expensive mistress, I want twenty thousand creatures applauding me, excitedly agitating banners and flags, I want to fuck others over, I want to crush others, I want to ass fuck others, I want to stay alone, heroic and bronze-like, at the vertiginous top of a pedestal.” After a counter-revolution that curbs the communist influence of the April 25 Revolution, he receives orders to start finding motives to get rid of all communist officers. And he does so without complaining because he just wants to survive.

As for his sex life, it’s all screwy: first of all he lives in the castrating shadow of his mother, and sometimes talks to himself as if he were his mother. Later on he marries Edite, who also domineers him. Their first attempt at sex ends with a vexing case of impotence. But things get better when he meets a young shop-girl at a boutique: they’re doing it like almost every night; well until her mom finds out and blackmails Artur into setting up a house for her and her family. And of course he acquiesces, until everything is found out and he’s put on reserve in the ensuing scandal. Finally he tries his hand at private enterprising, with predictable disastrous consequences. Meanwhile Edite starts having an affair with the communications officer.

COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER

The communications officer lives with his godmother, her dog and Esmeralda, an old maid. The godmother passes away in 1975, “worn out from the PIDE going over in the morning, fetching me for interrogations, for threats, for jail.” The most militant and politically committed of the four, he works for a communist clandestine group that wants to overthrow the regime. An idealist, he believed the revolutionaries were “capable of turning the universe into something undefined but obviously stupendous.” The leader is Osvaldo, who gets him a secretarial job in the Ministry of the Army to spy and collate data. His contact is Dália, with whom he falls in love. Before the revolution he’s arrested and tortured in the infamous Caxias Prison for political prisoners. After he’s released, amidst a euphoria he doesn’t share, he rejoins the network, a tiny group of no importance within the cluster of communist, Marxist, Leninist and Maoist groups that emerged, each claiming to represent the true values of the revolution. As the revolution lost steam and people returned to their ordinary problems, these groups prepared for internecine battles in what was to be known as the Hot Summer of 1975, when the country was on the brink of a civil war, one of the murkiest periods in Portuguese history because no one quite agrees on what happened: the left and the right were at war and even different hues of the same political colour were devouring each other; the communists controlled half the country, bent on building a Soviet Republic, although the Soviets weren’t too keen on that, and lurking from the margins were Henry Kissinger and Frank Carlucci, US Ambassador and CIA coordinator in the country. Whether Portugal was saved from communism or the Americans backed a conservative counter-revolution greatly depends on the observer’s political sympathies. Whatever the case, the communications officer takes part in this unrest and is even dragged into a ridiculous attempt at making a new revolution that will protect the real interests of the oppressed proletariat. Some of the novel’s most hilarious and deranged pages satirise the group’s meetings, rhetoric, delusions and idiotic strategies. When they get ready for their coup, instead of real weapons they receive water pistols and toy machine guns: “Here are your weapons, we actually had real rifles buried in Alentejo, and even a drawing showing their location, but no matter how much we dug we couldn’t find them, I spent all night shovelling, here and there without results, comrade Nunes and comrade Pinto are still there, going at it with a pickaxe, covered in dirt, under cork oaks (…).”

In the end he’s disillusioned and bitter, and comes up with socio-psychological explanations for the dictatorship’s longevity: “If it weren’t this way, listen to me, with us rolling in joy at being treated badly, stepped on, hurt, the communications officer argued, drilling my ribs with his finger, how do you think, captain sir, the dictatorship managed to stand on its feet?” This is basically a variation of Miguel de Unamuno’s infamous suicide thesis.

SECOND LIEUTENANT

The second lieutenant also has trouble adjusting to civilian life. “I looked at people, captain, at secretaries, colleagues, waiters, janitors, I sent files, perused proposals, signed reports, and thought Of course I was here yesterday, what the fuck did I drink to have so many dreams last night?” The son of a typographer, he meets Inês, the daughter of a rich family, they date during what he remembers as the happiest period of his life, but then he impregnates her shortly before leaving to fight in Africa. In a hurry he’s introduced to her parents and he’s forced to marry her. Her parents are despicable people, especially the mother-in-law, full of disdain for him and poor people in general.

After he returns from Africa his father-in-law gives him a job at his bank. He quickly grows tired of that life and of going to dinners and parties with Inês’ parents. The marriage isn’t as idyllic as the dating; ouot of boredom he gets into an affair with Idla, a colleague from work, although he dumps her when he finds out she’s pregnant. Ilda decides not to have an abortion but he never finds out what happens to her: shortly after the revolution Inês’ family, terrified of communist violence against rich people, flees to Brazil. Five years later he returns, divorced and wondering what has happened to Ilda’s baby.

From Inês he had a daughter called Mariana. Their marriage wasn’t doing well since his return from Africa, and in a melodramatic twist he discovers that his wife is a lesbian (this would have been very shocking in Portugal in 1983, I’m sure): shortly before they abandon Portugal he intrudes upon Inês rolling around in bed with one of her mother’s friends. In Brazil they finally split. But although he’s poor he accepts the humiliating terms of the divorce she proposes him, like giving away half his earnings in alimony, because she sent a couple of thugs to beat up his lawyer. Like the soldier, he constantly imagines a plan of action to regain his lost honour. “I’m going up there, I torn the furniture apart and kick the shit out of you until you’re apologizing on your knees (…).” Of course it never crosses the threshold of imagination. One thing is constant in the novel: all the men are weaklings. In the end he’s living with a midget woman and asking the soldier for a job in the moving company.

There four narratives are stories of conformity and humiliation. Their lives interweave and mirror each other in order to reinforce these themes and show how nothing changes; the men may change, the circumstances also, if modestly, but the fates are identical. Lobo Antunes also demands considerable attention from the reader in order to notice certain details. A blink or jumping over a word and you may never learn the name of a character. I laboured under the assumption that the communications officer was called Eduardo until Maria Alzira Seixo’s book corrected me. Her essay on this novel also elucidated some ways their lives interconnect that I hadn’t noticed since Lobo Antunes is deliberately dense and opaque. The communications officer, for instance, has an affair with Edite, the lieutenant coronel’s wife. Inês, after her return to Portugal, is living with Maria João, his daughter. The soldier shacks up with the superintendent that was sleeping around with the lieutenant coronel.

The novel tackles many themes. The most forceful is that nothing ever changes. This is ironic because Abílio works in a moving company. In Portuguese that’s called empresa de mudanças, from the verb mudar, which means exactly to change. He may change boxes around from one house to another but he and the others are all screwed. What changes, however, is time and a sense of social values. They grow old and get that bitterness that comes with reflecting on misspent lives; but the novel is also a document of subtle changes in terms of customs and habits. When Inês finds out she’s pregnant, “she bought, with great embarrassment, the test kit at the pharmacy.” (My italics). In the 1970s Portugal was an isolated, puritanical and deeply Catholic country. But with this novel Lobo Antunes kind of wants to say that the modern world, for better and for worse, has marched in through Portugal and there’s no going back. And I suspect that he comes up with shocking theme after shocking theme with glee: paedophilia and child rape (the second lieutenant buys a young girl in Africa to have sex with), homosexuality, lesbianism, male and female prostitution, divorce, urban violence, adolescent pregnancy (the second lieutenant’s 14-year-old daughter asks him money for an abortion), drug use, racism, transvestites. Perhaps, however, nothing is as offensive as his satire of the revolution.

Another question, albeit implicit, floats around the narrative: when did Portugal fuck itself up? This question has a lot to do with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral. The matter of Lobo Antunes’ debt to it is unavoidable: the Peruvian novel is divided into 4 books; it takes place during a dictatorship and a few years beyond; it’s about two old acquaintances who meet out of the blue and have a long conversation about the past in a bar; there are abrupt temporal shifts, although Lobo Antunes is more extreme. Even Ambrosio’s homosexual relationship with Fermín Zavala seems like a prototype for the soldier’s prostitution. In answering this question, Lobo Antunes sort of implies that Portugal has always been fucked. It’s not so much the revolution, which some of the characters blame for their misfortunes, that fucked them; it’s more of a miasma, a deep-rooted mentality, a cultural sense of fatalism which perhaps achieves its greatest expression in the music known as fado. Nothing changes because the Portuguese are impervious to spiritual change. And this leads to a need for scapegoats. “I thought the revolution was giving people a better life, the soldier was startled, I didn’t know that what mattered was for everything to remain the same (…).” They hope the revolution will spare them being accountable for their personal failures: as if the revolution by itself could have the power to change anything, as if it weren’t just the collective will of people but a sentient being. “The same landscape, ladies and gentlemen, the same faces, ladies and gentlemen, I bet not even an earthquake, not even twenty earthquakes can one day, ladies and gentlemen, modify this shit (…),” they argue with a pretentious philosophical wisdom. And they even discuss what went wrong: for the soldier “there weren’t executions, captain, there wasn’t blood, there wasn’t a real uprising, those who ruled are back again, after a few years of exile, after a few weeks in jail, so that we continue in the same land of shit, so much happiness, so much work, so much fuss for what (…)”. But in spite of that fatalism the truth is they didn’t have the strength to change themselves. “If we look at things the truth is I’ve never done anything right in my life, captain, said the soldier.” This is a theme that runs through Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa; Lobo Antunes is just reworking it for a new era.

The failure of these men takes us to a new theme: Lobo Antunes is interesting in dissembling the Portuguese macho men. The protagonists are always discussing strength and violence, always about bragging of knowing how to put women in their place. They’re constantly making claims for an extraordinary sense of self-dignity. “And no matter how crap we are we always have our pride, don’t we?” asks the soldier. But in fact they’re dominated by women: the soldier by Odete; the second lieutenant by Inês and his mother-in-law; the lieutenant coronel by his mother and wife; the communications officer by Dália. When the second lieutenant reveals that he found his wife sleeping with another woman, the soldier indignantly asks, “And you put up with that crap without giving her a slap, a beating at least?” Of course his performance regarding Odete wasn’t any better. Even the prostitutes hanging around the soldiers complain about johns: one wants to be treated like a baby; another one can’t have sex unless they’re being watched by his pet mannequin. Lobo Antunes isn’t terribly kind to men in this novel…

Finally I can only say that Fado Alexandrino is one of António Lobo Antunes’ best novels and it demonstrates all his qualities. His metaphors and smiles are at their best and his long sentences have never been more incantatory. Its delicate and complex structure is carefully orchestrated and executed, down to the abrupt rupture when he gives voice to an unexpected character. If I had to define him I’d say he’s a hyper-naturalist, he’s fascinated by amounts of minute trivia: this is when the soldier takes Dona Isaura, during her thrombosis, to the hospital: “Odete released one of her mother’s arms (fingers like chorizo, violet fingernails, a tiny wedding ring compressing the flesh).” Why so much detail? Why zoom in on the arm in such na intense way? What does it add to the narrative? The thing with Lobo Antunes is that he’s not an introspective writer, he’s a highly descriptive writer, he wants to secure reality on a purely sensorial level, that’s why we goes overboard with gorgeous metaphors. His characters don’t act they talk or remember, they have more memories than inner lives and thoughts. They don’t reflect, they don’t think about their lives, they talk about them to others. They describe everything minutely, with exaction, capturing the whole world of sounds, smells, colours and tastes. His characters don’t stop to wonder about the essence of time, love, good, evil, death, the spirit, the meaning of life, there aren’t pithy definitions of abstract concepts in his books, just matter-of-fact statements, just people laying bare the accumulated stuff of their minds. When they’re not talking, someone else is, usually a super-omniscient narrator. But in spite of this hyper-realism he sneaks enormous doses of surreal humour into his novels. Thinking about the differences between him and his arch-enemy, José Saramago, I’d say that Lobo Antunes writes about what’s ordinary and suddenly turns it into the absurd; whereas Saramago starts with an impossible premise and makes it convincing. As for his trademarks – long sentences, dialogues inside brackets, non-linearity, the accretion of points of view – the more I think about them the more I like them. It’s funny, only recently did I realize this: he’s like an improved version of a mediocre but bizarrely overrated Hungarian novelist called László Krasznahorkai. A year ago, ignoring my usual suspicion of old, unknown novels that suddenly set the world on fire, I read a book called Satantango, coming out of the ordeal with my suspicion vindicated and reinforced. Everything he does: the dialogues in brackets, the longueurs nobody shuts up about, the doom and gloom of whatever, it was all in Lobo Antunes years from the start. I don’t presume to understand the volatile and mysterious mechanisms through which the Anglo-American market (and let’s not fool ourselves: no other matters in book business) “creates” “great writers,” but Krasznahorkai’s meteoric rise to fame is beyond comprehension to me; the accolades he’s been receiving for a couple of years are the accolades Lobo Antunes should have received a decade ago, and yet he lingers in nigh-obscurity as if he were a novice at this, but anyone who reads Fado Alexandrino won’t have any doubts that he’s one of the greatest living novelists.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: An Explanation of the Birds




My António Lobo Antunes itinerary is recent and short enough for me to remember all of it: in 2007 I read A Morte de Carlos Gardel (1994); in 2012 I read Knowledge of Hell (1980), Memória de Elefante and The Land at the End of the World (1979); and last July, in a frenzy of boldness, I read in a row The Return of the Caravels (1988), Fado Alexandrino (1983), Act of the Damned (1985) and An Explanation of the Birds (1981). The five-year intermission between the first and second book results from a poor impression that did not leave me impatient for more: sure, I immediately recognized his dexterity in syntax, metaphors, similes and surrealistic imagery, but the plot didn’t enthral me. That was my mistake: recently I discovered that Lobo Antunes doesn’t care about plot at all. He’s one of those writers. And I find that very disappointing: I don’t understand why a writer who’s so good at writing can have such a vulgar imagination for inventing situations. His novels, with few exceptions, tend to take place in naturalistic settings and concern themselves with typical middle class affairs: men and women, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, drug addiction, adultery, family members tearing each other apart, class prejudice – the fascination banality exerts upon him disturbs me. The second book, however, overwhelmed me so strongly it was one of the first books I wrote about. Reading it was fundamental because without it to reassure me of the author’s genius and humour, the next two would have put me off him forever. Two years later the nigh-transparent vestige of pleasure that remained in my brain after detesting them got me to cautiously read another one, and another, and another, and another, and before I knew it I had read his first seven novels.

I’m a very unruly reader: I can’t read the same writer for long, I’m always rushing to discover new voices, new ideas, new places; I like to move through literature like someone lost in a labyrinth with no hurry to get out: going one way, going back, going another way, without panic. But specialized knowledge is also beneficial when I want to appreciate a writer’s evolution over time. And Lobo Antunes has shown great evolutions. I’m going to spend a couple of weeks writing about the four novels I read this year, but first I need to clear away his first three novels. Now I like to call them “The Rant Trilogy” because that’s what they constitute: they’re all endless rants from a narrator/protagonist complaining about everything. In fact the complaints jump from novel to novel and become repetitive. Just how repetitive? Well, let’s turn to an expert for help. Lately I’ve been reading bits and pieces from Os Romances de António Lobo Antunes, by Maria Alzira Seixo, responsible for organizing his complete works. This mammoth book, besides devoting one essay to each novel he wrote up to 2001, comes with plot summaries. This is how she describes the first novel: “A day in the life of a psychiatrist who returned from Angola and is separated from his wife and daughters, narrated in the third person (by the author-narrator), but with many interferences in the first person (the doctor’s dialogue or the delivery of his thoughts).” In other words, this is an autobiographical novel about António Lobo Antunes. She forgot to add that the author, like the protagonist, used to live in Monte Estoril, went to the casino every night and picked up women there to bring home. I didn’t spend two weeks writing about his personal life for the reader’s amusement, although I hope you had some, but to make the connections between his life and work clearer. Now the second novel: “A night of conversation in a bar in Lisbon, between a former soldier in Angola’s colonial war (who takes over the narrator’s role) and a random woman (who listens to him without intervening, or whose interventions emerge only through the narrator’s speech, who integrates them in his discourse.)” This novel, like the first one, ends with the protagonist taking a woman home for sex and seeing her off in the morning. The third novel is just barely different: “A psychiatrist travels by car, on his own, during an afternoon and part of the night, from Algarve to Lisbon; in the morning he arrives at his parent’s house, in the Maçãs Beach, where he takes a nap; during the journey he remarks on the landscape he observes, and on thoughts of several kinds, but especially two, which entangle in an inextricable way: his clinical activity in the Miguel Bombarda Hospital and his stay in African combat zones.” The narrator, incidentally, is called António Lobo Antunes, like a celebrated Portuguese novelist who was in an African war, used to practice psychiatry in the Miguel Bombarda Hospital and has a daughter called Joana, to whom he constantly addresses himself. It’s like he said to himself, “Ah, what the hell, everyone knows I’m just writing about myself, why keep pretending otherwise?” And so he’s joined the honourable ranks of novelists who insert themselves in novels, like Philip Roth and Curzio Malaparte, with the usual self-deprecation, vulnerability and black humour that makes this sub-genre palatable. I can’t explain why but I loved this novel: it’s not different than the others; it’s the same diatribes, the same thoughts, the same memories, the same nitpicking, the same relationships, the same war, sometimes even identical episodes are evoked: a soldier’s suicide, the difficulty of adapting to civilian life, the idiocy of psychiatry. But it’s like a culmination of everything he had in his system, a depuration: it’s funnier, more inventive, more laboured too. There’s a noticeable growth in narrative complexity. And it’s almost a total exorcism: everything he has to say is said with intensity and resolution, as if he wanted to put an end to it. And although the themes reappear, they’re now at the service of a new vision of fiction.

In An Explanation of the Birds we follow the suicide of one Rui S. It’s 1980: in 1974 a military coup had overthrown a long dictatorship; a free parliament had replaced the Revolutionary Council in 1975; a left-wing coup had been averted; the ignominious past was something people avoided talking about – like Eduardo Lourenço once joked, “fascism never existed” here – and post-revolutionary euphoria had given way to general disappointment and a feeling that democracy had brought no solutions. Rui, a History assistant professor, visits his mom in the hospital: she’s in the final stages of a terminal illness; then he goes home to drive to Tomar for a congress on the 19th century; but instead he convinces his wife, Marília, to stay with him in an inn in Aveiro over the weekend. There he hopes to gain courage to tell her that he’s fed up with her and wants a separation. But he dallies, after discovering that perhaps he still loves her after all, and it’s her that surprises him by demanding a divorce. Distraught, he leaves their room in the dead of night, ambles about and finally jumps into the water to die amidst the birds.

I’m not revealing anything. The suicide is announced by the narrative in the earliest pages, even before he knows he’s going to kill himself. Lobo Antunes doesn’t write novels the traditional way. Structurally speaking, this book does not differ from the previous ones; his novels usually revolve around limited time spans and locations: 24 hours in the day of someone; a night; a car journey. In this novel’s case it’s split in four big chapters: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Many of his stylistic traits resurface: abrupt shifts from first to third person, abrupt linear and temporal shifts, parallel actions, a constant recreation of the world through unexpected metaphors and similes. Regardless of these similarities, however, I did not have to read Alzira Seixo’s book to realize that “here the fiction of António Lobo Antunes truly begins,” that’s so obvious. With this novel the author gives up his monologues for dialectical actions: he invents characters, they interact, there are decisions, conflict, climaxes.

I don’t think I ever read a novel quite like this. It’s an ordinary but bewildering novel: ordinary because the plot is frugal and made of everyday situations, and yet I’ve never read a life dissected in such a merciless, cold, distant, even sadistic way. It’s not that it’s impossible to sympathise with the protagonist, on the contrary, he’s a nice fellow anyone can easily pity; no, it’s that the omniscient third person narrator is so ruthless and mean-spirited he shows absolutely no concern over Rui’s plight, it’s a totally unsentimental book. And for a suicide book that’s remarkable. In fact the novel is structured like a grotesque circus show where his death is the main event put on stage for a vile audience that ridicules and sneers at his death. Some 250 pages before he even dies, there are already fleeting voices that make all sort of crude, uncaring remarks as if he were not alive anymore. The book is composed of parallel narratives: on one level we have the journey to Aveiro, confrontation with Marília and fallout; on another one we have testimonies, depositions, opinions, snarky gossip about him. The best way to explain it is by showing it:

   - The doctor gave her one week tops, baby.
   - The stroke caught almost the whole heart – elucidated the Indian [doctor] in the middle of the ring, turned to the family that cheered, enthused, from the seats.
   He removed from the pocket a red, round, bleeding volume, and showed it slowly around him:
   - The illustrious audience may please have a look.

The first dialogue is uttered by Rui’s cousin when he visits his mother at the hospital. The second one is clearly fantasy. The Indian doctor reappears as the person who conducts his autopsy. Or how about this scene on the way to Aveiro, where he’s simultaneously alive and dead.

   - For a work day there sure is a lot of traffic on the road – Marília said searching for a bubble gum in her purse.
   - His problem is that he never truly believed in anything, he was never visited by the Holy Faith – assured his godfather, dressed as a priest, blessing his coffin. A group of midget clowns, masked as mourning women, hiccupped a chant of screeches, brandishing huge red scarves. – Whoever doesn’t believe in anything, my dearly beloved Christians, ends up like this – he concluded with his arms open, in a clamour of orchestra cymbals.

We know we’re reading a Lobo Antunes novel when the protagonist fantasises about his own death: that happens right in the first pages; in fact the opening sentence prefigures his watery demise. The author has often declared that he harbours suicidal thoughts, and his characters tend to share that self-destructive urge. Alzira Seixo uses a word that I think best sums up the atmosphere of his work: dysphemism, which an online dictionary defines as “the substitution of a harsh, disparaging, or unpleasant expression for a more neutral one.” That’s it: every time he has the chance to say something nice, he does the opposite. Everything in his books is dirty, ugly, filthy, rotten, disgusting, bad, dusty, rusty, smelly. I’m just listing the most frequently used adjectives. In this particular book that resource is quite effective. In some book Milan Kundera talks about the suicide of Anna Karenina: he explains that before she kills herself there’s a death of beauty around her. He lists several examples of how Anna observes a world from which beauty is receding, turned degraded and distorted. In order for her to kill herself, he concludes, first she must lose her sense of beauty. I find that a remarkable thesis and is quite similar to what Lobo Antunes proposes here: Rui’s journey also charts his growing inability to see anything good, positive or hopeful about the world, it’s as if every thought he concocts in his depressed brain excites him onwards towards death. This distortion of the world is visible in the smallest descriptions. For instance when he visits his dying mother without great displays of feelings, inner or outward:

   - Good morning mother – he said
   And thought right away How you’ve grown thinner damn it, looking at the tendons in the neck, the too pale forehead, the salient veins in the arms, the green irises fixated on the pillow, round, spying him, the nose’s viscous sweat.

Viscous sweat. That’s vintage Lobo Antunes. Rui can’t see her pain, he can’t see past her physical outlook, he can’t even think about her in terms other than body and appearance, the spiritual side is of no importance to him. Later on, when he’s already in Aveiro, he thinks whether or not to call to know how she’s doing, but decides not to. He’s stopped caring, if he doesn’t quite realize it. The rest of the novel is just more of this. Usually the author’s novels are limited in time and setting but the character’s memories can encompass decades, entire lives. That’s the case here: the narrator puts Rui’s life under the microscope and shows every humiliation, inadequacy, fear and trauma that has emotionally stunted him.

What do we know about him? He’s written a manual that is to be published and leaves behind an incomplete doctorate thesis. His father, a Sub-secretary of State during the dictatorship, was a seldom seen figure in his childhood, never at home, always away in business, leaving Rui’s mother alone. He had lovers, for every rich patriarch had them, which everyone knew about but ignored because that’s what you did back then. As the novel progresses they’re separated and his father has bought a house for his new lover, which sends Rui, a poorly-paid teacher, into fits of rage and envy because he lives in a crummy rented apartment. He obviously disappointed him for choosing not to be rich, not to follow him in the family businesses. “And he guessed his dark eyes, behind the glasses, wondering without believing: I had to lie to you, I always had to lie to you, you couldn’t stand that I was different than you, that I composed bad verses, that I preferred to be a teacher in a lousy suburban high school, on a miserable monthly wage, to working in the company, dressed up, wearing a tie, like the other tribesmen.” His father wanted him to show interest in economy, management, money. Rui, just to spite him, got involved with communists and started taking part in their seditious activities, until the secret police pinched him. To his shame his father used his influence to release him, embarrassed to see his son mixed with those reprobates. Rui learned his lesson for a while, but the resentment never left him. “You never even let me revolt, go all the way in my anger: your huge, tutelary and authoritarian shadow castratingly protected me, and that’s when I decided to go to Letters, to be a teacher, to reject the company, to stop wearing a tie, to teach structuralism, theory of literature, French poetry or other equivalent and aberrant useless things. Perhaps he liked to work in the union, but the Left mistrusted him, the Right hated him like a class traitor, and both were right in their reservations, in their fears, in their criticisms. He thinks What am I anyway, what do I want to be anyway, a bourgeois wife, a communist wife, a strange combination of conservative and frustrated, pathetic, weak adventurer.”

His bourgeois wife was Tucha, a woman from the same social background. He had two children with her and he genuinely loved her. But one day, out of the blue, they’re watching TV and she turns to him and decides to divorce him. Now he gets to see his kids on weekends. His communist wife is Marília: he’s not sure why he hook up with her. Perhaps because he was lonely and needed company; perhaps because he needed to marry a proletarian girl to appease his aristocratic conscience. Or did he use her to get back into the Communist Party after the revolution? He’s not sure. He meets her at the university where he teaches, she’s a Semiotics teacher. Marília is a caricature of a ‘70s liberated woman: she likes the vanguards, you know, Andy Warhol, boring European cinema, Godard of course; she’s a fierce feminist and an acritical purveyor of communist slogans and doctrine. She’s also often described as ugly, as practically masculine and no one understand what Rui sees in her; she dresses badly, she’s tacky, she has no manners and is rude to people. His parents hated her, she reciprocated. She had heated arguments with his father over the colonies, politics, and the country’s social conditions. By the time he met her, his parents had returned from Brazil, to where they had fled after the revolution, and regained their power, fortune and property. “My mother refused to have you over and you answered back with a haughty grimace: I don’t need those fucking fascists for anything, but when I went home on Christmas and Birthdays on the way back you threw me sibylline jokes: You’re just a goofy bourgeois, an intractable conservative, I’m complaining to the party. One night she shut herself in the toilet crying, I spied through the keyhole and there she was cleaning with toilet paper her suddenly thick eyebrows: I wanted to hard to hug you, I like you I like you I like you, make love just like this, standing up, against the tiles, discussing the complication, which he did not understand, of life.” He impregnated her, she wanted an abortion and he didn’t stop her, only to regret it later. At first his love for her was genuine and beautiful too, like Tucha’s, but it also turned unbearable like everything else in his life, so that “he started believing that he’d never seriously love anyone, that he’d never be seriously interested in anything whatsoever.”

He clings to only one good memory, a childhood memory spent on a farm, when he and his father were watching birds: “The wings fluttered in a noise of wind-agitated leaves, tiny leaves, very thin, multiple, like a dictionary’s, I was holding your hand and suddenly I asked you Explain me the birds. Just like that, Explain me the birds, an embarrassing request to a businessman. But you smiled and said that their bones were made of beach spume, that they fed on wind crumbs and that when they died they floated belly up in the air, eyes shut like old ladies in communion.” But this precious memory is not enough; it’s just more fuel for the degradation that his existence is subjected to by the many voices that discuss and comment and criticise him: “The fact is, he was a strange person with funny interests, with absurd fancies: Look, right before he died, for instance, he came ask me to explain the birds for him, as if the birds, you know, could be explained: I never understand what he meant by that: the birds, hey look, do you understand?” Is this real? It’s clear several of the post-mortem asides are fantastic: although it’s stated that his mother died without being told of his suicide, she belongs to the people who rummage through his personal life. As I write this I wonder if all these cruel asides aren’t fantasies he’s imagining himself, as part of self-flagellation. The truth is he’s a character who’s constantly punishing himself, who constantly wallows in uncertainty and fear. “I’m leaving, goodbye, or I stay, what’s the alternative, go where, will I be happier alone, can I ever be happy with this perennial disquiet in my bowels, this sort of colitis of the soul, this distress of the guts (…).” Or. “I want everything to go screw itself save this aroma of rotten water following me, these willow trees, this grass, these nameless trees.” Or: “And what if I don’t want Eternal Life? What if I’m fed up with all that shit?” Or: “Five years ago I was an idealist, an enthusiast, a bit dumb, I walked out a bit hurt from Tucha’s marriage and I believed in the Revolution (…).” There’s nothing to enthuse about, there are no more ideals to live for. He only has himself and that’s not much: he’s a cowardly, passive, fat, unattractive man with a crappy job, terrified of living and given to staging events and conversations in his head that he can never turn into reality. “I bring you to Tomar to tell you that I don’t like you anymore. They immediately think that there’s another woman: There’s no woman at all, I want to be left alone a few months, thinking, then we’ll see, try to understand.” This is just one of his many ghost dialogues. In fact when the time comes to have a frontal talk with Marília he chickens out, convincing himself that he still loves her, but perhaps that’s only a defence mechanism to hide the fact he’s afraid of living alone, that he needs someone to look after him.

There’s a police report on the second chapter, but in a way the whole book is a report on his soul; it’s as if some omnipresent, omniscient entity went about interviewing people all over the world (Tucha and his kids now live abroad) to know more about him. But the picture formed from these depositions is wholly negative, petty, critical, loveless. Mother, father, sister, cousins, brother-in-laws, godfather, wives, sons, college friends, former girlfriends, former teachers, everyone remembers him in a negative or anodyne way, without emotion or fondness. Even a psychologist, for Lobo Antunes can’t help himself mocking head doctors, chips in. This is after a spat with Tucha:

   - But who argues in this house? – I disputed. – I never raise my voice. I lost my head a bit a while ago, I’m sorry, it’s over.
   - Aggressiveness-submission, aggressiveness-submission, aggressiveness- submission – articulated the shrink moving his index like a metronome. Women detest men who are too predictable, they love a coefficient of surprise and what surprise can a temperament like this offer us? None.

And also:

   - People who no matter how much they search never find a meaning for life – lectured the shrink drawing careful circles with on a sheet of paper with a pencil – always constitute potential suicides. Sooner or later the emptiness of their quotidian hurls them into an angst of claustrophobic lab rat, and then we have the pills, the gas, the bullet, the sulphuric acid, the eight floors, the knife, the electricity, the catwalk, the pesticide, the oil, the sea: their imagination, ladies and gentlemen, literally does not have limits.

And so we’re subjected to an endless procession of failures, for instance at school:

   - Get him a Physics tutor if necessary – commanded the tiny voice. – I don’t want to son to walk around like a bum.
   - He never understood the Second Law of Thermodynamics – revealed an old man with his sixth grade notebook open in front of him, and a bottled ship on the book shelf. – It may be that he was better at Letters, I won’t argue that, but at exact sciences he was always a disaster.

Tucha accuses him of sexual impotence. His mother criticises him for having a divorce, that kind of thing didn’t happen in her time. I could go on. Even Marília admits she probably never cared for him:

   - In the beginning – said Marília – I thought he was a bourgeois that could be saved, a potential socialist apt to be converted, through reading, through mingling and through example, to the glorious ideology of the working class. Living with him was for me part of my militant work, until the comrades, in a meeting, scientifically demonstrated otherwise to me, that is, his hardened capitalist mentality, his atrocious elitism, his absolute egotism. Of course I’ve already performed my self-criticism within the Party.

This portrait of him is totally adverse to what we see through his eyes: he’s a passive, harmless, with a generic dose of compassion, decency and politeness. He has a moral consciousness. His only problem is an unexplainable unrest that puts him at odds with everyone: his family, women, the Communist Party he wants to be a member of. To escape all these failures, but especially this unrest that will continue to make him fail again and again, there’s suicide. The final chapter, which takes up some sixty pages, is the long preparation and execution of the circus act that his life has become, with an eager audience and even ads that promote the most absurd products.  All the preceding abrupt asides served to deflate all the dignity and solemnity of this moment. He’s so pathetic, or so cosmically despised by some unknown force, that not even his death is freed from the mediocrity and spitefulness that hounded him in life. For a careful man who did things in moderation, this death could at least have the value of something unpredictable and bold, but by being announced before even he decides to carry it out it’s reduced to a mere show put on for the pleasure of an audience of spectres. Even his brother-in-law mocks it: “My intimate conviction, ladies and gentlemen (…) is that he’ll fail, without honour or glory, his stunt, or, rather, his project of a stunt, the same way so far he’s failed, so to say, everything in life.”

I don’t know a more unkind book towards its protagonist than this one. It’s ingrained in the actual fabric of the text. But I think it’d be interesting to see more books where the omniscient narrator clearly hates the character’s guts. For those readers who need to like their protagonists, rest assured that it’s easy to ignore the evil background noise and appreciate his qualities. What I’m curious about is why Lobo Antunes goes to such lengths to totally lampoon his suicide and to filter his existence through the testimonies of such a collection of resentful, rancorous people. This novel is almost like assisted euthanasia, as if every line were there to help Rui make his decision. What is the point? What is he trying to say, if he’s trying to say anything at all? Or is this a mere formalist exercise? Whatever may be the case, An Explanation of the Birds is one of the best, funniest and most original novels I’ve read in a long time.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Lobo Antunes is so good no one can keep up with him




I reserve this final post on António Lobo Antunes for… I’m not really sure what; I guess something about his perception of his place in the world, how he measures his success, his egotism, the exact age when writers’ brains start rotting, etc. I’ve tried to build each post around a theme, but this one suffers from disjointedness since I just have a hodgepodge of loose quotes left that, like Pound’s Cantos, can’t cohere. So just go with the flow: if the previous posts prove anything, is that there’s never a dull moment in his interviews.

Although Lobo Antunes pegged as a difficult writer (for the record, he doesn’t share that impression) he’s been a bestselling author in Portugal since his first novel, Memória de Elefante (1979). It was an overnight success. “I think it had a big impact in Portugal because it was the first to talk about things that weren’t talked about: the war, relations with women…” Yes, well, the women relations bit is quite a stretch, we’re not all castratos here, but the war part is probably true: the war had only ended in 1974 and was something of a taboo; then along comes this war veteran who spills out all its traumas and horrors. I can imagine the appeal. It was of course a rather new way of writing, he introduced certain influences that hadn’t been explored yet, like Faulkner, Dos Passos, Thomas Bernhard and Céline: never forget that Portugal has always been a Francophile country that tends to shun most things English. This new way of writing novels, which he calls polyphonic novel (nothing to do with the sense Mikhail Bakhtine and Milan Kundera give it), is still pretty unusual around here. In spite of that he claims that young readers tend to understand him better than old readers. His parents sort of confirm that. “I can’t read António’s books, I lack the patience for it,” confesses his father. “I read his books, but I don’t enjoy them because it’s all very sad,” his mother adds, it’s just tragedies… These characters don’t belong to our society. It’s not people we mingled with. I don’t understand it because, in his childhood, António was very happy.”

Fame was all a bit unreal for Lobo Antunes. He used to go to bookstores at night to watch the books in the shop windows. Sales pleased him but he insists they were never his objective, and considering the manuscripts had to be pried from his fingers that’s probably true. “You can’t write thinking about success, I don’t do it, but I’m afraid of writing a bad novel.” And he also dislikes bad novels. “I get sent many manuscripts to give my opinion about, and I’m astonished because these kids want to be read on Monday, published on Tuesday, have an amazing hit on Wednesday and be translated all over the world on Thursday. They’re not writers because they have an appetite for immediate success and that attitude stops them from growing literarily. If they want success so badly they should devote themselves to other things. I think nowadays too many books are published and with too scarce a literary ambition, they don’t even have pages, they’re too short. On the other hand, critics get frequently drunk very easily and the writer, since he was successful with a formula, uses it again like an automaton. He always repeats the same for fear of losing his success.”

I fully subscribe to this diatribe, but ironically he was describing his own meteoric rise to world fame in a couple of years. When The Land at the End of the World came out months after the first novel it seemed unlikely that he could ever write one of those bad books he fears; the Nobel Prize even seemed already in the bag: the secretary of the Swedish Academy, according to Lobo Antunes, declared that, “Finally an extraordinary writer has arrived.” Unfortunately the rest of the Academy has continued to disagree. The reader of these interviews must have a high level of tolerance for smugness. Lobo Antunes also wants to make it clear that the critics weren’t keen on his way of writing in spite of his success. “My way of writing, of making novels, was a very new way which people weren’t used to, I can’t explain it better, but here you didn’t write like this.” Well, there were precursors like Vergílio Ferreira and Maria Gabriela Llansol, but let’s not turn this into a comparative literature class.

Lobo Antunes cultivated from an early age a bad boy attitude. To Blanco he says that, “It’d be very difficult for me to talk about literature in Portugal,” but that’s because he had said everything, mostly negative, before meeting her. In his early interviews, which I happen to own in book form, he enjoyed disparaging his peers and to ridicule the quality of Portuguese literature. The dead, the living, they were all valid targets: Eça de Queiroz, Raul Brandão, Fernando Pessoa, Agustina Bessa-Luís, Vergílio Ferreira, José Saramago of course. “I didn’t like what was being written in Portugal when I started publishing and I said it, but it was very badly received. I was very naïve in those first interviews.” The apotheosis arrived in 1996 when he declared that Portugal didn’t deserve a Nobel Prize because it didn’t have worthy writers. Two years later Saramago received it. He continues to insist on this point (2001) but at least he opens an exception for poets. At the time of Blanco’s interviews, however, he had mellowed out a bit: “There are no bad books for me, a book deserves respect. There’s so much hope, sometimes suffering and even the author’s health…” This is quite considerate, as is: “Maybe people make books that we think are bad, but they worked so hard and did the best they could. But I don’t judge novels publicly anymore, I can talk about it with a friend, but in public I’m more and more reserved. Precisely because I know it hurts.” Alas such lines take on a whole new sense of irony after you read him abusing several writers in the exact same interview.

One of his favourite victims is José Saramago. In a 2008 interview Lobo Antunes feigned surprise at the fact that their names are so often paired up, like Tom and Jerry. The following lines help explain how that came to be: “Saramago is the big reference [in the intellectual wing of the Portuguese Communist Party] and he chose the party’s hard line, he violently criticised his comrades who argued for openness. But he only showed this side recently. Because he was always very careful with his statements. In Spanish newspapers he says he’s a political expat, a political expat of nothing, because here we live in a democracy. Before the Revolution he was never in prison and those who were never forgave him for that.” He forgot to mention that Saramago’s arrest was scheduled for a few days after the revolution, which happened in the meantime impeding him from adding prison time to his freedom fighter CV. Which is still more impressive than Lobo Antunes’, whose writings were never censored during the regime like his nemesis’. But I only add this in the interest of those who like these petty squabbles. The funny thing about the mutual hatred between these two men is that Lobo Antunes tries to pretend it doesn’t exist when everything he says about Saramago screams otherwise. “Literarily for me he’s not competition. He has more presence in Spain and in Brazil, but not in the rest of the world.” This was said after the Nobel Prize. Lobo Antunes likes to pretend that Saramago is a regional phenomenon whereas he’s a world-renowned name. I fear he doesn’t hang around in the same book forums I do where no one ever heard of him.

But there’s no doubt that his success was unique and sudden. “The first translation showed up in the USA in 1981.” As I’ve explained before, US literary agent Tom Colchie got in touch with him bent on representing him. This was quite unusual for a Portuguese author, being translated into English. Lobo Antunes doesn’t ignore the importance this event had. “When you have a good review in Europe, it’s relatively important, but if it’s in the United States and if we show up in the big newspapers, what happens has nothing to do with what happens in Europe, we’re literally overwhelmed. You get requests from all places.” That meant France, Germany, the rest of Europe and the whole world in general. But although he got rave reviews he didn’t seem to sell as well as in Portugal. His real triumph, however, according to him finally comes with Fado Alexandrino (1983), his best novel, in my opinion one of the best novels of the 20th century. Suddenly everyone wanted to publish him. Except Spain. In 2001 he’s still a bit resentful that Spain took so long to understand this world genius that had conquered the interest of book lovers with a penchant for obscure books. Publisher Siruela was the first one to take a chance on him. “They said that I was very bad, that there were more important writers. I didn’t understand, I thought that attitude was weird, especially in Spain.” He never explains why, it’s like he just took for granted his genius and everyone had to do the same. “They didn’t want me in France either, because they said my novels were very complicated, very strange. A novel isn’t like that, the editors said, they’re too difficult, they won’t sell.” Now that’s a bizarre thing for editors to say in the country of Derrida and Baudrillard.

But now he’s super-famous, a condition that astonishes him. “A poet friend of mine, Eugénio de Andrade, told me that he didn’t understand my success, because in order to read my books you have to know about literature and it’s not normal to sell so much. I think he’s right, but the last book I published in October [2001] had been on the top ten for four weeks now.” Still he’s wisely careful to consider himself a best-selling author. “In any event, I don’t think I can be a best-seller because what I do is very hard. My literature is not easily digestible. It’s normal for me that García Márquez sell so much, because his writing is very tasty, very pleasant.” But he doesn’t want to be tasty or pleasant, he just doesn’t want to write bad novels, and he’s certain he hasn’t because no one writes bad reviews of him anymore. “I don’t have them, I no longer have bad reviews and that is very distressing. Because if what I do is so good, then I’m ahead of my time and not everybody can keep up with me.” Holy cow, this is the most smug, pretentious, arrogant crap I’ve ever read in a literary interview! Of course he has bad reviews. What Can I do When Everything's on Fire? received mixed reviews when it came out in English. And he receives his share of bad reviews in Portugal, he just pretends they don’t exist. A few years ago there was a small ruckus when he was interview over a bad review, and Lobo Antunes just claimed not to know the reviewer, in the sense that he was too insignificant to be noticed; the reviewer, who is rather famous and popular, wrote back an angry post in his blog making a convincing case that Lobo Antunes had personally known him and autographed his poetry books. So the man’s a liar and touchy; aren’t we all?

Well, the problem is that Lobo Antunes just keeps rising the bar. Blanco asks him if now that he’s famous people write like him in Portugal. “Now? Lots of people.” She doesn’t dare contest him. For what my opinion as a Portuguese citizen familiar with the book market is worth, this is absolutely delusional: no one even tries to write novels like him. But let’s not interrupt his fantasy. “Everywhere people write like António Lobo Antunes.” Wait, everywhere? In America, the UK, France, Australia, Germany, India, Russia, China, everywhere everywhere? “Lots of people do it, I think it’s even a fad to write like this. It’s incredible the number of disciples who showed up. Here and in other countries. Lots of people try to do the same I do… That makes me feel old.” Of course he doesn’t mention the names of those non-existing disciples. Lobo Antunes has a perception of his role in world literature that quite simply doesn’t align with reality. “For instance, in America, when you show up in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Washington Post, you have everything. In those newspapers I always get the first pages.” I beg you pardon?

With a temperament like this, it’s no wonder he considers himself the world’s best living writer. “Of course I like reviews and, above all, the love of readers and people I respect. And don’t you think they sometimes exaggerate with all those hyperboles and comparisons to great writers. I’m one of them.” Alright, this isn’t too bad, the man has a realistic view of his worth. But then he comes out with this: “I’m not insecure because I know nobody writes like me, I can seem vain but I say it because I feel it, I’m honest. Now that doesn’t fulfil me because I have to work hard to get it. Each page is a conquest and I always have a horrible fear of doing a bad job, especially now – he jokes – when I’m a star in Europe and in America, if I make a bad book, what will I do next?” The interviewer assumes he’s joking, but I’m pretty sure he’s being serious about his stardom.

He has everything: readers, translations, good reviews, lots of prizes, money. He just doesn’t have the Nobel Prize. A loss that in 2001 didn’t bother him anymore (of course not): “Now it’s indifferent to me that I didn’t get it, but yes, I wanted to have it for my first wife, the mother of my daughters. She was already dying, I lived with her all these months, the novel I’m writing now I started writing it by her bedside and she was happy, she had so much hope, so much faith in me, that it was a big disappointment. It was the only time I saw her crying.” Somewhere else he updated this story to say that he wished he had won the Nobel Prize while his father was still alive. Hopefully he’ll never run out of relatives who’ll keep him sad for not winning it for their sake. At peace with the duplicitous Swedes who gave him so many false hopes after his second novel, Lobo Antunes wrestles with one fear only: losing his skills. He was pushing sixties at the time and he decided to conjure this theory that good novelists don’t write anything good after they’re sixty. Blanco counter-argues with Victor Hugo. “Yes, of course, he wrote La Légende des Siècles at the age of 70, but it's an exception, you can't find anyone else. Poor Saramago... Torrente Ballester... you can't find one. Besides, most writers died before that. I think imagination starts atrophying and the mental processes too. I think I can write two or three more novels, no more. In the best case scenario it'll happen to me the same that happened to Thomas Hardy, a writer I like very, very much, who left the novel and started writing poetry and wrote 'till the age of 80, until his death. He never got the Nobel, Conrad didn't get it either.” Between 2001 and 2013 Lobo Antunes published a new novel every year, excepting 2002 and 2005. He’s currently 72. Hm, I wonder what he thinks of his last decade of work?

And that’s that. I hope you had a good time travelling inside António Lobo Antunes’ mind. And don’t forget: just because he’s incorrigibly full of himself doesn’t mean he’s not one of the world’s best living writers.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Work Ethics of António Lobo Antunes




“I think to the question of why write each person can give fifteen or twenty true answers, although none is certainly sincere, because the truth is that no one knows why. It's as if we asked an apple tree why it gives apples. We do not know the profound reason for writing, what we know is that writing is a necessity.” António Lobo Antunes likes natural metaphors to explain his obsession with writing: he doesn’t know why, he just knows he has to. Failure to obey the inner commands of his vocation results in dire consequences. “If I live a day without writing I feel as if I had put my clothes on without taking a shower. If I don't write I'm invaded by a sensation of absence and profound emptiness. If I don't write I'm assaulted by a feeling of enormous guilt that I've never stopped feeling.” As he admits to María Luisa Blanco, he hardly exists as a citizen: he doesn’t have an opinion on anything, he doesn’t give many interviews, he’s seldom seen on television. He has kept this posture since an early age: when he enrolled in Medicine, Portuguese universities were ablaze with violent student protests that usually ended with the police invading campuses. By his own admission, he never cared about fighting the regime. It’s not fear or conformity that inhibits him; I’m coming to the opinion that he’s a literary organism in its purest and most evolved form: he cares only about reading and writing, like a Borges, a Pessoa or a Nabokov.

This subjection to writing shows itself in tiny little details he shares with Blanco: he writes 12 hours per day; when he travels to promote books he writes at night; he can wherever he wants, so long as he has pen and paper. Fortunately he doesn’t have rituals that hide procrastination. Now fans of Lobo Antunes know that his work is divided into two sets of texts: his novels and his newspaper writings; he’s been writing a biweekly article for Visão magazine for decades now, so far totalling five thick collections. For all that he doesn’t take them seriously, considers them more of an entertainment and the simpler form of writing that the masses like to read. “I don’t consider literature.” This by itself doesn’t mean anything since he doesn’t consider most literature literature. He’s also prejudiced against trying the short-story. “It’s a problem of inspiration, when inspiration is too big it’s not possible to fit in such a small tale. After reading Chekov, Cortázar, Katherine Mansfield, what can one write after reading that? They have a concision I don’t have.” Lobo Antunes is especially complimentary of Chekov, “That man who said everything, you find everything in his tales.”

What he’s obviously known for is novels. And today we’re taking some time to learn more about his relentless pursuit of perfect novels. Lobo Antunes likes to talk about writing novels, and he likes to read about writing novels. In fact he laments there aren’t more books about it. “I miss books on writers and literature, books that help me understand an author. I think there are too many novels, too much poetry, they should make more books like that.” Well, in that case I’ll write a few lines that might help understand some things about particular Lobo Antunes novels: in Portugal The Return of the Caravels is called As Naus (The Ships) because the title was copyrighted already, although translations were allowed to use it; The Natural Order of Things, which talks about the death of his father’s sister, an aunt he loved very much, receives its title from the answer his parents gave little António when he asked questions; Fado Alexandrino, a novel divided in three books, each section subdivided into twelve chapters, takes its name from one of four types of fado music, well, that’s what he says, there is more than four types and I don’t know any called alexandrino, but I do know the alexandrine verse composed of twelve syllables. Still apropos of Fado Alexandrino, Lobo Antunes defines himself as a puritan who doesn’t write sex scenes, I think he forgot two from this novel. Blanco comments that his novels are always sad, a perception the author doesn’t share. “I couldn’t live so long with a novel if it were sad. Cardoso Pires also told me he didn’t understand why they say my novels are sad, because for him they were full of joy and humour, and I also think that, I don’t understand why that feeling lingers.” What else does this book teach us about his novels? What about his characters? “I don’t describe characters, just with a bit of detail, hair, hands, something like that, because description constrains me. The reader has to imagine the characters. I don’t even like to give them names because from a literary and narrative point of view it seems constraining to me too. What happens is that I have to give them names otherwise the reader mistakes them, and me too; I don’t know which one I’m working with.” Apropos of control he’s learned to relax: “In my first books, in order to protect myself, I worked with a plan wherein each chapter was predetermined. Not anymore, but at the time I didn’t understand yet that a good novel is like an organism that lives under its own laws.” Given his propensity for autobiography, Blanco asks him if he writes for catharsis; he replies that “writing protects one from suffering,” which is a marvellous answer. But the rest of it helps us segue into the next part of this post: “With my first books it was like that, no doubt about it, but progressively I grew more interested in style, the depuration of form and words. Each word is achieved like a stone I remove from a well.”

So let’s move away from the concrete to the abstract. Reading the man talk about the creative process is fascinating, frustrating and sometimes just plain bizarre. He says things that make sense and yet you don’t think they apply to himself; he castigates writers you’d expect him to uphold; he defends practices he doesn’t practice. We can start with his admiration of poetry. The same way he admires the concision of short-story writers, he admires what poets do with a single verse. “And sometimes I ask myself why write 500 pages if some manage such a moving result in a sentence. The problem is how to structure emotions, a poem is like an orgasm, but it's impossible for a reader to have an orgasm during 400 pages, because the orgasm after a certain while starts being painful and the pleasure is lost.” Later he states that “the best verse is the unexpected one, including for the poet. The problem is to do that in a novel.” Lobo Antunes presents himself as a hardworking novelist who is always in control. “I’m very conscious of Bach’s music, I have to be implacably efficient, of an almost mathematical precision.” But that control and hard work can’t transpire into the act of reading: the writing must seem natural to the reader. “The problem is to achieve that efficiency with maximum simplicity. I’m very worried when I’m told my books are hard to read.”

Perhaps like all budding writers, Lobo Antunes started thinking writing was about making up stories. When he was a boy he wrote about boxers and pirates, but “the feeling of the text’s importance, the concern over words, understanding that what mattered was the way of writing and not the story being told, that came later, to me it especially came much, much later.” Nowadays he’s capable of getting a bit upset when an interviewer asks him about his novels’ stories and plots. That’s irrelevant to him. “The writer works with language and this is naturally the most important thing, but you have to structure language, it has to be at the service of what you want to tell.” I think it’s more the reverse in his case: the shadow of a plot is just there for him to pile up lots of words into brilliant sentences and similes and metaphors. Bizarrely Lobo Antunes in recent novels has sort of forsaken his gift for metaphors. “I just want my writing to be efficient in the sense Tolstoy said, for whom a good writer was the one who didn't sacrifice the implacability of his narrative to the temptation of a pirouette, of a metaphor or of an adjective.” In English the only novel that I think shows the style he’s been practicing for over a decade now is What Can I do When Everything's on Fire? I confess I don’t know his style after 1994.

His position on the craft results in his butting heads with several great novelists. It’s not every novelists who has the courage to lambast Ulysses:

Yesterday I was reading Joyce's Ulysses and I consider it a fantastic novel from the perspective of its verbal richness, but at the same time I was bothered a bit because I didn't understand what that extraordinary verbal ostentation was in the service of. The pirouette for pirouette's sake, the fantastic showcase of an immense capacity of verbal invention, it stays a bit in the void because it doesn't help the story in the sense of narrative efficiency.

On the one hand, it’s important to master language, words, but I’d be restless if it were just that because, in the end, you realize that’s not the most important thing.

What’s important is for the book to write itself, that it have its own existence and that it can stand on its own, and not that someone wrote it. With Joyce we’re always feeling his craftsmanship, his expertise as a writer is imposed on us and we’re noticing all the time that it’s him, Joyce himself, who’s behind everything. That reminds me whenever I talk with some Frenchmen. I always have the impression they’re telling me: ‘Look how clever I am.’

You don’t have to be clever, it’s the book that has to be.

And yet I don’t know any case of a dictionary spontaneously turning into a novel without the help of one of those clever writes. This reminds me of a Theory of Literature class I once had on the Russian Formalists. I don’t who said it, but one of them argued that if Alexander Pushkin had never existed, someone else would have written Eugene Onegin. The actual consciousness behind the novel is irrelevant to the process of its creation. But the problem with this view is that we had to wait for Pushkin’s particular consciousness to exist for Eugene Onegin to be written. I never really understood this providential view of writing, as if an independent spirit acted through writers. It’s almost like a form of low self-esteem that renders the figure of the author totally insignificant. For my part I side with Northanger Abbey’s view of the novel as a vehicle for “greatest powers of the mind are displayed.” I think everyone knows I detest Ulysses, but if Joyce likes pirouettes and verbal ostentation, why shouldn’t he displayed his talent to the best of his capabilities? Well, because “efficiency lies especially on not giving in to the temptation of a beautiful metaphor. A beautiful image, a beautiful verbal pirouette can damage a novel.” But that’s everything I like in your novels!

So an author should abstain from metaphors and verbal pirouettes? Well, Lobo Antunes wouldn’t forbid you, since he’s a nice man, but he vehemently advises you not to. “It’s not the writer that has to show his technical capability, his craftsmanship or his challenges and difficulties. In a good book the author isn’t in it, he’s not noticed. When we’re reading like readers we feel that the writing is telling us: ‘Look how I do this, look how hard it is to solve this and how I solve it well.” Not only doesn’t the book work, but I believe you fall into a problem of poor taste. Those books can’t be good.” I think, however, that we can reply that if the writer put himself in such a hard situation perhaps he doesn’t think it’s hard at all. After all a writer can choose not to raise challenges and problems to himself; if he does perhaps it’s because he likes them. The problem with this type of mentality is that it can be applied to any writer we don’t like: pigeonholing an author as uppity clever just to make ourselves feel good with our inability to understand them is common behaviour. I do that all the time with Joyce, but the truth is I wish I were smart enough to understand Ulysses. This kind of behaviour can be applied to just about any good writer who demands a bit more from the reader: Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, his beloved Faulkner, Saramago, Gass, Gaddis, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes. In fact I think it’s amazing Lobo Antunes fails to realize this is precisely what the average reader thinks of his writing: “Why does he write all those long sentences full of temporal distortions and abrupt shifts in perspective in a single line? Does he think he’s being clever? The big show-off!”

Lobo Antunes’ solution for this authorial interference with abiogenetic texts is to remove the author’s name from books. In order for writers not to be the books’ protagonists, books should be published anonymously. Let’s put aside the fact he hasn’t put into practice his own suggestion: anonymous books would continue to be books written by someone, you’d just be failing to give credit where credit is due. Someone always writes the book. Ulysses without James Joyce on the cover continues to contain the same defects of design he complains about. But he’s not convinced and continues to insist in what to me resembles medieval mystical mumbo-jumbo: “It’s the text that builds itself independently of me.” How? Does Muse or the Holy Spirit inhabit you or something? “I had a teacher at the Faculty of Medicine who used to say: ‘Patients get better in spite of the doctor.’ And that happens many times with the book. Because you don’t have concrete plans; you start in one direction and it’s the book that takes us wherever it decides.” It’s no wonder Lobo Antunes could never consider Nabokov a great novelist, they’re absolute opposites. Nabokov is all about control and likens writing to running a galley-ship. Of course new ideas come to us when we’re writing, but in the end it’s always the writer who decides if he wants to go wherever the novel wants to take him. Still the medical analogy is utterly nonsensical in light of a cancer he had a few years ago that nearly killed him; he got better, not in spite of doctors, but thanks to the surgeon who operated him.

But notwithstanding these opinions that could get lots of ink running, what emerges is a writer fully committed to his craft and determined to change the way we understand novels. For all his spontaneous texts gibberish, the word he most often repeats is work, work, work. He’s never satisfied with what he writes and is aware that his ultimate goal may be unreachable. “I will never achieve the novel I want because, first of all, if I did why continue writing?” Nevertheless this acceptance of his failure does not preclude his search a perfection he knows does not exist: novels do not have beginnings and endings, you can never know when a novel is finished; you just stop when the text expels you from itself. “I never read proofs. Because if I read it again I know I’ll regret it, you can always change a novel.” The novels he publishes are just concessions he has made to his will to write the greatest novel ever. “What I intend is to change the art of the novel, the story is the least important, it’s a vehicle I use, what matters is transforming that art, and there are a thousand ways of doing it, but each one has to find his.” He’s not sure he’s found it yet and so toils on. “The bigger the experience and literary maturity, the more one understands the path one still has to walk. I’m never certain, doubts are always terrible, they grew evermore because I’m sure that my books could have been better if I had laboured more.” In fact he doesn’t forgive lazy writers. “I think writers in general don’t work on their books a lot, they don’t correct them. That’s a shame because sometimes it’s just one single word, but a single word that can be fundamental.” As it turns out, sometimes he begins reading a novel only to find himself correcting his peers. That could be great: an imprint devoted to famous novels rewritten by him.

António Lobo Antunes’s view of his own worth as a novelist fluctuates between modesty, insecurity and arrogance, sometimes he displays all three characteristics in a single quote. “Speaking with friendship and total honesty, I can tell you that I don’t think anyone writes like me when I’m writing well, when I work a lot. But that doesn’t give me any sensation of superiority, on the contrary, it fills me with dread. Because I know I pull it off because I work more than others.” It follows that if others worked harder, if they were less lazy, they’d surpass him. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I read pages by him and get stuck in a remarkable simile, an unexpected description of a feeling, an outstanding moment of absurdist humour, and I think to myself, “He’s the greatest living novelist.” Why can’t that be possible?

Next: how he conquered the world!