Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gustav Meyrink: Der Kardinal Napellus

As you all know, Jorge Luis Borges, or Georgie as he was called then, spent his youth in Europe, travelling. The timing wasn’t good since the trip coincided with World War I, and the Borges decided to stay in neutral Switzerland waiting for the conflict to end. Georgie decided to make the most of his time by learning German, a hobby he attributes to reading Thomas Carlyle. Better informed readers will know the relationship between Carlyle and the German language. Anyway, in 1916, Georgie, living in Geneva, bought an English-German dictionary and tried to read Goethe, Kanta, Heine’s poetry, readings that would remain with him forever. Around that time one baroness Helene von Stummer introduced him to Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, thanks to which he discovered the Kabala, and he was hooked on the author’s work, which so strongly appealed to his taste for wonder, mysticism and horror. “Contrary to his contemporary, the young Wells, who sought in science the possibility of the fantastic, Gustav Meyrink sought it in magic and overcoming of any and every mechanical artifice.” In 1929, back in Argentina, he translated some of his short-stories into Spanish and sent a copy to Meyrink; he wrote back a letter wherein, “perhaps because he didn’t know our language well, praised my translation.” Always humble, Georgie.

Der Kardinal Napellus is one of the volumes composing Borges’ legendary Library of Babel collection. As I state from time to time, one of my life objectives is to read every volume. The list has many virtues: first of all, if you happen to find the actual volumes, they come included with short prologues by Borges himself. But the selections also have the value of directing us to strange, interesting but time-forgotten writers, and they tell us so much about Borges’ tastes and influences. Some are extraordinary discoveries, but I’ve also tended to meet one or two disappointments; Meyrink, I fear gravitates more towards the latter.

Perhaps reading him in the 21st century is not as exciting as it was in 1916, perhaps the novelty doesn’t seem that novel anymore; for me his mixture of weirdness, mystical nonsense, suspicion of science, and raptures of insanity just tend to blend into the stuff produced by other fantasy writers of the time. His prose, to make matters worse, isn’t particularly interesting, it’s bland and straightforward in the style Borges favoured and incredibly made look so enticing. None of this would be problematic if the stories were strong, but for me they weren’t. The volume contains three short-stories, each one wackier than the other.

In the first one, which gives the volume its title, one lonely, sulky Hieronymus Radspieller spends his days on a lake working on a probe to reach its depths. The people in the region consider him an oddball and harbour stories about him. One day he meets them in an inn, excited and sad because his probe has reached the bottom of the lake, the greatest depth known to man, and now he doesn’t know what he’ll do next; his life has lost its meaning. Down-beaten, he starts telling them his past. In his youth he belonged to a religious sect, the Blue Friars, whose emblem is the aconitum napellus flower. The friars water these blue flowers with the blood from their own flagellation and also feed doses of its venom to their sectarians. Radspieller explains the many rituals and his growing fear that the flowers are vampire-like creatures sucking away his vitality, leaving him empty. The more he thinks about it, the more doubts he gets about staying with the friars, so he runs away and devotes his life to science. Then at the end something happens that turns him insane.

In another story, someone called J.H. relates a story to a young man about a religious order he belonged to with his grandfather. Meyrink loves sects and cults and religious orders. The narrator finds out this Johann Hermann who has discovered immortality; the method has to do with living in abnegation of worldly things, in order to counteract the “vipers of hope” which he also calls the “Blood Leeches.” Hope, desires, waiting, for him these are the things stopping men from attaining immortal life; they age people, sap away their life force (again the life force). If man stops wanting things, he goes on living forever, for “what we call life is just death’s waiting room. Suddenly I realized in that precise moment what time is; we ourselves are forms generated by time, bodies that seem matter, but are nothing but coagulated time.” Impressed the narrator tries to follow his austerity, but realizes he can’t be like him, immortality is out of his grasp.

In the last story, a bastard is hired by a nobleman as his gardener. But strange things are going on in the mansion. He narrates a meeting between his employer and other men; it turns out they’re members of some secret cult that is fighting to save Mankind’s soul from the 20th’s plunge into mechanization, at least that’s what I think their goal is. “In this last quarter of a century, the mechanical principle swiftly conquered a consistent supremacy, we can declare it with all tranquillity; however if things turn out as we expect, in this 20th century mankind almost won’t have time to see sunlight, it’ll be too busy cleaning, oiling, keeping intact and repairing the machines’ pieces, which don’t stop increasing.” All of this worries them because Man might have the power to conquer and civilize the cosmos, and that’s a bad idea. “How do you think the moon would look like after two weeks? In each crater there would be a race track, and, all around it, areas for draining off sewage.” And that’s not the worse part. “Would you peradventure like the planets to be telephonically connected according to the Stock’s working hours, and that the Milky Way’s double stars be forced to display official marriage certificates?” This’s like crazy talk, man! Well, the Moon Brothers, as they are called, won’t go down without a fight. Too late the gardener discovers he’s there to be used in part of a ritual, whose purpose is not very clear. Or, as the final pages imply, maybe he’s insane. Maybe he’s insane tends to neatly explain away every incoherence in Meyrink, meaning they’re not incoherences after all.

I can’t completely dislike these stories because they’re filled with unexpected insanity. Meyrink perhaps was not a great writer but his mind clearly didn’t operate on any recognizable level, I’m not even sure it belonged to this dimension. I can certainly see why Borges fawned over Meyrink, although I can’t say I share his admiration for the Austrian author. Still, there was something seriously deranged about German-language literature around this time: Meyrink, Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, Franz Kafka. What was wrong with these people?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

José Saramago: some pictures

I've been too busy, not lazy, to write more often this month; but in an effort to keep some activity around here, I found just the short, quick and easy thing to post. Today I returned home with a new book from a second-hand bookshop. It's called Ler Saramago: o romance, by Beatriz Berrini, a Brazilian literary scholar, and it's a collection of essays on the great novelist; it was published in August 1998, just months before his receiving the Nobel Prize. Strangely enough the book is now out of print, which only makes me more excited for owning a copy.

One of the coolest bits about it is a series of photographs at the end of him hanging around with other writers; I thought you'd like to have a look at them. The first one shows Saramago with Israeli novelist Amos Oz and their Brazilian editor, Luiz Schwarcz. Oz is the short one:

This is him with Italian playwright and Nobel Prizer recipient Dario Fo. When Fo received it in 1997, the next day he phone Saramago to apologize for "stealing" his prize. That's the kind of good humour and generosity I always associate with Fo:

Here he's with two of his pet dogs, Camões and Pepe, stray dogs he adopted on the Lanzarote island. Saramago is a huge dog lover, and they show up in several of his novels:

This one shows him with Portuguese poet Eugénio de Andrade and Spanish poet Rafael Alberti:

This one everyone knows who he is; that's Gabriel García Márquez with his wife, Mercedes:

The following picture was taken in England, when Saramago accepted an honoris causa from Manchester University. This picture, for reasons I can't easily explain, is the most moving to me. The man next to him is the heroic Giovanni Pontiero, his long-time British translator, who kept on translating Blindness even as he himself was dying from an illness which was causing him blindness. Said death occurred February 10, 1996, his birthday:

And these are Josefa da Conceição and Jerónimo Melrinho, his grandparents and the most important people in his life. Saramago's Nobel Prize acceptance speech was about Jerónimo, whom he described as the wisest man he ever knew, even though he was an illiterate pig farmer:

And here's Saramago with the great, but too internationally unknown, Spanish novelist Gonzalo Torrente Ballester:

And Saramago with famous Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado:

Here's Amado and Torrente Ballester again, talking to Brazilian novelist Nélida Piñon, whereas Saramago is entertaining Salman Rushdie:

And finally Saramago with Susan Sontag, who's doing well after her adventure with Fantomas:

Nope, there was no point to any of this.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Julio Cortázar: Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires

So you want Argentine literature? You want literature of doom? Well, I have just the thing for you.

In 1911 Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre performed a feat of simultaneity: in one fell swoop they wrote one of the worst novels in history and created one of fiction’s most important characters. Certainly, both claims are debatable, the second one more than the first one anyway. Even for the penny dreadful standards of the time, Fantômas is a horrible work of popular fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Gaston Leroux would be ashamed of sitting in a table with those two. But Fantômas the character was born for the nascent era of bad taste: just a few years later he was being turned by film pioneer Louis Feuillade into a serial that appealed to the illiterate masses that couldn’t even read bad novels. And in the twenties the surrealists, eager to champion any crude, talentless piece of garbage just to upset the bourgeois, turned him into a sort of patron saint. Even Apollinaire and Joyce joined the fantowagon. If you ever read the novel, I recommend the Penguin Classics edition, just for the superb John Ashberry introduction: at the same time he mercilessly explains what’s wrong with it, he demonstrates the reach of the character’s influence across 20th century Modernism. 

As a comic book fan, however, I first noticed Fantômas’ importance via other comics. In 1962, Italian sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani created Diabolik, a super-villain who is one of Italy’s longest-living characters, still published today. Legend has it that Angela got the inspiration from a paperback Fantômas novel abandoned in a train. Diabolik would inspire a whole sub-genre of Italian comics, the fummetto nero, or dark comics, devoted to crime, horror, fantasy stories involving villains and anti-heroes as protagonists. But Diabolik also influenced a Mexican super-villain called Fantômas: in spite of the name, he borrowed Diabolik’s skin-tight mask and a penchant for super-scientific crimes. This Mexican Fantômas had a secret HQ, 12 female assistants named after the zodiac signs, was a millionaire, used his fortune to make the world a better place, went about the world having James Bond-like adventures and hanged around with all the cool people: once he brought Jane Fonda to his lair to watch Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. No, really:

And that’s how Fantômas crossed Julio Cortázar’s path. In February 1975 Fantômas #201 found our anti-hero investigating and neutralizing a conspiracy to burn all the libraries in the world and intimate writers into never writing again. This forced him to get in touch with some writers like Octavio Paz, Alberto Moravia, Susan Sontag and Cortázar in order to prevent literature’s doomsday. “For your love of art, do something, Fantômas!” begs a shocked Octavio Paz. “I will, you can count on me!” declares the masked anti-hero. Around this time, the real Cortázar was in Brussels, participating in the Russell Tribunal, which had convened for the second time to investigate crimes by US-backed Latin American dictatorships. Somehow he got wind of the comic book and decided to write a hybrid book mixing his text with its panels, using its plot but taking it in a decidedly more political direction.

I’m not sure when I read Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires; it must have been around 2002-2004. I think it was my first Cortázar. I’m almost certain I had read Borges and García Márquez by then, and still believed that South American writers were all geniuses. I’m relatively sure that’s why I read him, although I was also taken by the comic book pictures. It didn’t take me long to learn that most South American writers were as mediocre as most non-South American writers, but I didn’t get that conviction from reading this book. Marie-Alexandra Barataud, in an essay on it, calls it the “prototype of a new genre whose definition and nomenclature are yet to be created and determined.” In 2014 we celebrate two Julio Cortázar dates: 100 years since his birth (1914) and 30 years since his death (1984). Semiotext(e) has recently translated this curiosity into English. Thanks to internet hubbub over it, I figured it was time to re-read it. For me there are two main aspects to focus on here: there’s the meta-textual, inter-textual aspect; and there’s the political aspect. If this book will survive it’ll be because of the first one, although I suspect the innovative structure and reference games were just the means to get the second one out. In any event at the time I was too young to appreciate the importance of both.

The third-person narrative starts with “our narrator” (that’s how Cortázar is called throughout the book) coming out of the Russell Tribunal and heading to the train station. Because of the tribunal, “Brussels seemed to have been colonized by the Latin American continent, a detail which to the narrator seemed strange and beautiful at the same time.” Well, hardly beautiful: they were there to give eye-witness accounts of the atrocities carried out by the dictatorships on civilian populations. Stopping in a kiosk to buy a newspaper he’s astonished to find the stands covered only with Mexican periodicals; the newsvendor can’t explain this and he ends up buying a Fantômas comic book, which causes him embarrassment when he finds his co-travellers reading French periodicals. The comic book is of course the episode wherein Fantômas foils a plot to destroy the world’s libraries. The actual cover says, “An exceptional adventure… the world’s culture is burning… Watch Fantomas in trouble, getting in touch with the greatest contemporary writers!” “Who are they?” wonders Cortázar. As it turns out he’s one of them. In the compartment he starts talking to the other passengers, including a blonde reading a celebrity magazine and a priest, who’s horrified at the fact that all the Bibles have disappeared.

Meanwhile Fantomas is alerted to the problem and interrupts a dinner with real-life actress Ira Von Furstenberg. Before he can do anything, though, more libraries burn: in Rome, in France, in Tokyo, in Moscow, in Buenos Aires. “A good thing Borges is retired,” says the narrator. When he arrives in Paris, he gets a phone call from Sontag, giving him a “diastole of joy” since she’s not known for phoning much. Unfortunately she’s calling on serious business: she’s been hospitalized, her legs broken. “You’re up to date, of course,” she says. He’s not. “Hang up and keep reading, stupid.” She means the comic book; he hasn’t reached that part in the story yet. As he turns the page he sees Fantomas telling Libra, one of his assistants, to call a series of writers: Cortázar is on the list. The “real” amusingly remarks the irony of calling him to Barcelona, in the comic book, when he’s actually in Paris, marvelled at his newfound powers of ubiquity. After getting up to date he calls back Susan; she tells him that the comic book’s finale is a false happy ending: Fantomas thinks he’s unmasked and brought down the conspiracy, but he’s barely scratched the surface of the threat. It’s not hard to see where this is going: the book is a criticism of hero narratives about extraordinary individuals who single-handedly make the world a better place. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

All the meta-textual, genre-hybridization stuff is what makes this book so cool, but there’s no denying this was all a means for Cortázar to make a political statement. At the same time Fantomas was easily saving the world from a wacky plot against books, Cortázar was in Brussels investigating real crimes, real murders, real rapes, real tortures. And no one was paying much attention to that. The passengers he travels with are a microcosmos of that indifference. There’s the sexy but dumb blonde who’s more interested in Claudia Cardinale’s divorce, Alain Delon and Aristotle Onassis’ financial problems. There’s the priest who admonishes a child for playing with marbles, representing the societal forces that exert people not to think outside the box, to behave in public, to obey their masters, , to accept the natural order of things. The narrator himself reflects grimly on the uselessness of spending eight days in the tribunal, “tired ad nauseam of accounts of assassinations, torture, persecutions, prisons in Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay (…),” a job perhaps he only took on to placate the “cramp of guilt, of not doing enough, eight days of work for what, for a paper conviction that no immediate power could put in motion (…).” And the people who should take notice of what the Russell Tribunal are doing, i.e. American citizens, probably won’t even know it because the media won’t tell them, so they don’t have to panic about their government being in the business of funding dictatorships and masterminding the overthrow of democracies. As Sontag puts it, “You’d do a lot better if you told the whole world about the tribunal’s composition, because over here, not to say in almost the entire Latin America, no one’s aware of it.” So what better vehicle than fiction to tell the truth and reach out the masses? Moving away from the popular but false lone hero narratives, Cortázar fights on three different fronts. One, he criticises the notion that one single man can solve the world’s problems; the problems are global and it takes everyone’s involvement in them to make a difference. Secondly, he criticises the idealism of defending books. “What are books compared to who reads them, Julio? What good are all those libraries if they’re only available to a few? That too is a trap for intellectuals. The loss of a single book moves us more than hunger in Ethiopia, that’s logic and understandable and monstrous at the same time,” says Sontag. It’s worth noticing that she gets all the smart lines; Julio sounds like a moron being lectured by her: this too is part of the appeal of the book, the narrator’s self-deprecating nature. And three, he ridicules the silliness of comic book plots (really, laser technology that destroys books?) that keep us entertained but oblivious to the interconnections of governments and multinationals. This book serves as an indictment of the CIA, Henry Kissinger, presidents Nixon and Ford, but also of the capitalist system that needs puppet dictators like Pinochet to boost their profits. As the book progresses, the comic book panels give way to actual documents showing the complicity of multinationals in overthrowing South American democracies. Was Cortázar successful in conveying his message? Considering the book was only published in American this year, the country that more urgently needed to read it, the answer is No; as always, he’s just preaching to the converted. But if literature has to be didactic, and I think it can be, this is the way to do it. Aesthetics and ethics all in a neat package.

One is tempted to conclude with one of those “best ever” hyperbolic statements, but I don’t really know what this is best ever of: it’s not the best novel ever written because it’s not a novel; it’s not the best novella ever written because it’s not a novella; it’s not the best comic book ever written because it’s not a comic book. There isn’t a name for what it is, and in that case it can’t be the best ever of anything because there’s nothing else quite like it. Presuming there’s ever anything like it, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires raised the bar really high for the next writer.

The Spanish version, complete with pictures, can be read here. This book was read for Richard's Caravana de Recuerdos' 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: The Return of the Caravels

Portuguese cover (1)


Did you go, to bygone beaches, watch a ship sail?
You’ll watch it return, throbbing, at airports.
It now has the triumphant profile of a bird,
But in its entrails brings five dead centuries!

Overseas it left a rag of plagues,
The memory of hatred, the whirlwind of flights.
It brings hidden, from twenty five wounds bleeding,
A pavilion of fear and embarrassed wrinkles.

It was expected by dust, fetid detritus,
The crime of indifference and children’s hunger.
Rather everything end in an explosion of screams
Than in this tripping on revenge’s sharp edge!

Did you go, to bygone beaches, watch a ship sail?
You’ll watch it return, without glory, to airports.
Rather it had gone empty and returned empty.
But in its entrails it brings five dead centuries!

This 1976 poem by António Manuel Couto Viana, a right-wing poet, gives an indication of to what fits of apoplexy the dissembling of the Portuguese Empire sent some people incapable of moving on with the times. In 1974, when a military coup overthrew the dictatorship, Portugal was Europe’s remaining empire and had been waging a war in Africa, across multiple fronts, since 1961, in order to preserve it from several independent movements. Initiated in the 15th century, when seamen started exploring and occupying territories along the uncharted African shore, its ruin began almost immediately, but it lingered on until the 20th. The Portuguese have never dealt with their colonial past; post-colonialist theory is not as widespread here as in other countries, and we never had a motivation to engage in a dialogue about our past. Even today many consider the empire one of the fatherland’s glories and believe that it was stolen from it, since it had a historical claim to them, as part of a geopolitical game between Russia and the EUA. There’s still a sense of ownership and a sentiment that these territories were Portugal too and that the nation was reduced to a smaller and poorer reflection of itself. And yet this propaganda and the mentality it produced are relatively recent, having started during the dictatorship, when Salazar, isolating the country from the rest of the world, boosted his peoples’ morale by convincing them that Portugal, with its colonies, was larger than Europe. Nowadays people, dangerous, influential people like politicians, still think Portugal goes from “Minho to Timor,” as the old motto used to preach. 

I can never show this map too often; I adore it.
Before Salazar the empire was really an emporium, with few infra-structures or cities, a small population, no colonization policy, and used especially to house criminals. Before Salazar nobody had any money to invest in the colonies and they just existed, rotting away far from the metropolis, occasionally wielding some diamonds and crops. Plans existed to monetize it, but funds were always scarce. For this reason once in a while someone proposed buying or selling them. Most people probably don’t know this, but in 1912, Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorial Organization got in touch with the republican government to buy land in Angola to build a Jewish state there, and they gave it serious consideration. In 1903, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, had contacted the monarchy in order to achieve the same goal in Angola, but his proposal was rejected because of the country’s wide anti-Semitism. In 1905, after Herzl’s death, the Zionist Congress decided once and for all that no state outside Palestine would be acceptable. But Zangwill disagreed and created his own organization to find suitable territories. By 1912 the monarchy had fallen and a religiously tolerant republic was open to negotiations. The question raised some objections, of course, but also drew support fro many deputies, for two reasons: first, it was believed the Jews had the money to monetize the colonies in a way the bankrupt republic didn’t; secondly, the liberal republic believed it had to atone for Portugal’s crimes against Jews. Allowing them to build their state in Angola was like an historical reparation. However, a mixture of problems made all parties abandon the project, not least because the JTO considered the geological and climate conditions too adverse. Then in the 1930s Salazar’s propaganda machine set in motion the myth that Portugal was indissociable from its colonies, that each inch of them were sacred. This insane conviction justified and sustained a war that raged for thirteen years and ultimately destroyed the same regime that had started it.

But in 1975 the colonies gained their independence, the empire officially died and Portugal had to harbour thousands of male and female colonists who suddenly returned to the metropolis, an event in recent history that is still so controversial it’s hardly addressed in fiction and non-fiction: although the revolution was on the side of the colonies’ aspirations to independence, it is today argued that the decolonization process was too rushed, chaotic and poorly conceived. The plight of these people, the retornados, their confusion in abandoning what was for them their homes and unexpectedly finding themselves in a strange and uncaring motherland, and the impression that the cycle of the discoveries was finally over, is what animates António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels. What this novel attempts to do is mix both these ideas to confront his readers with this past that is half-fabled and half-forgotten. For that end Lobo Antunes created an atypical novel for him, something closer to magical realism, via surrealism: he imagines a fabulous, anachronistic Lisbon composed of bits and pieces from different eras. To understand what I mean here’s how a character returning from Africa describes the city in the first chapter:

“After three months journeying a little peach-coloured sun showed up amidst the granite clouds and a moment later they sighted Lixbon’s continuous Syrian market hubbub jumping in the distance, the castle walls, Jewish bonfires, flagellant processions, a simultaneous traffic of slave wagons, cruisers and bicycles.” In a single sentence we have allusions to the Inquisition, the slave trade and modern times. What the character finds beyond the peer is no less amazing. “Then we dropped our luggage in the yard, above the agapanthuses the mechanic hoses sprinkled in circular bursts, near the workers working in the sewers of the avenue that led to the football stadium and Restelo’s tall buildings, in a way that the Cape Verdean’s tractors crossed with wheels carting princes’ tombs and piles of altar arabesques. Going through a plaque that designated the incomplete building and said Jerónimos we hit the Tower at the end, mid-river, surrounded by Iraqi oil tankers, defending the fatherland from Castellan invasions, and closer, in the bank’s wrinkled waves, waiting for the colonists, bound to the water’s limes by iron roots, with frill-cuffed admirals standing next to the deck’s handrail and first mates up in the masts preparing the sails to set out into the sea smelling of canoe nightmare and gardenias, we found, waiting for us, amidst rowboats and canoes, the ship of discoveries.” Lisbon is a mantelpiece made of many historical rags, a synthesis of periods. In fact the spelling alludes to this reality, instead of Lisbon Lobo Antunes writes Lixboa, as it used to be written; other words also show up with old spellings: reyno (kingdom), physico (physican), King D. Manoel instead of Manuel.

The man describing this Lisbon is Pedro Álvares Cabral, the sailor who discovered Brazil in 1500, but here he’s a retornado with a woman and child. After walking through a bureaucratic nightmare to apply for state aid, he’s sent to an inn called Apostle to the Far East, owned by one Francisco Xavier, in real-life co-founder of the Society of Jesus and Catholic saint, but here an Indian pimp who sold his wife in return for a ticket to run away from Mozambique to Portugal. As if that weren’t enough we also cross paths with Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea path to India, D. Manuel, the king of the discoveries, Fernão Mendes Pintos, one of the first Europeans to visit Japan, Diogo Cão, “who three, or four, or five hundred years ago led the Infante’s ships down the Africa coast,” Manoel de Sousa Sepúlveda, famous figure of a shipwreck account (2), Garcia de Orta, pioneering botanist and pharmacologist and first European to study cholera, and Father António Vieira, a celebrated Jesuit priest. Miguel de Cervantes, Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel have cameos.

What Lobo Antunes does is pick up these historical figures and pervert them with his usual sordidness. Miguel de Cervantes is a one-armed man who sells lottery tickets. Diogo Cão is an old sailor who gets drunk in bars. Vasco da Gama goes visit D. Manoel and both of them got paint the town red, get in trouble with the authorities and the king is put in a mental hospital for insisting he’s a king and owner of everything. Francisco Xavier, “a fat Indian in sandals,” Miguel de Sousa Sepúlveda e Fernão Mendes Pinto, who “sold bibles, erotic pictures and gramophones door to door” in Africa, keep a prostitution business. Pedro Álvares Cabral is put in the saint’s inn and his wife is forced to prostitute herself in order to pay their ever-growing bill. Stuff like that. There’s also a man simply called Luís, who arrives with his dead father in a coffin, is confused with a smuggler and retained in customs, and after a bureaucratic impasse gives the corpse a furtive burial. When that’s taken care of he started writing an epic poem called The Lusiads.

I’m not sure this amounts to anything successful. I don’t think Lobo Antunes has the talent or the inclination for this kind of fantasy and caprice; his strangeness works well when grounded by his hyper-realism, but here everything’s too incoherent: I’m still trying to figure out what Buñuel is doing in the book; too much of it is too gratuitous. It’s funny, this was the novel that got me reading Lobo Antunes again; without it I wouldn’t have read Fado Alexandrino, An Explanation of the Birds and Act of the Damned, but now I realise it was my least favourite. It has everything I enjoy: the richness of vocabulary, the unexpected similes and metaphors, the absurdist humour. But it seems too silly and puerile even. For once there are no visible autobiographical marks, but perhaps that’s a problem, perhaps the author needs that connection to his person life to write well, his unfettered imagination produces strange monsters.

But there are interesting themes. One is the decadence of Lisbon, the metropolis. This is Pedro Álvares Cabral searching for the inn: “He asked the address to a secretive-eyed mestizo, to kids going through waste with sticks and to an alcoholic survivor of the distant seas hugging a rusty anchor, tripping on scaffolding planks, burnt walls, twisted concrete, wall leftovers and stairs to empty apartments, through which at night navigation lights slid, in the windows’ intervals.” As always, Lobo Antunes has a dysphemistic worldview: the city is simultaneously in construction – “scaffolding planks” – and ruination – “burnt walls.” What is being built is already rotten, old, dirty and without future. Amidst this unreal Lisbon we see signs of a deceptive progress but also symbols of its decline, like D. Sebastião’s procession before sailing to die in Africa. In this city without a future, poverty rules and forces its citizens to emigrate, with Europe as their destination. No longer explorers, they’re now exploited. “The people abandoned the castles and moved to Luxemburg or Germany, looking for job in car and plastic mould factories. The dukes managed bank branches in Venezuela.” Amongst the emigrants are the tágides, the nymphs of the river Tejo, invented by Luiz de Camões in his famous epic poem, here degraded to hookers in Amsterdam’s red light district. The present has been cancelled thanks to a past that didn’t do anything useful save generate material for poetry.

Another theme is the instability in the former colonies after the independence and the widespread fear or reprisals. The whites live in panic, afraid of being killed by the revolutionaries who’ve taken over power. “A neighbourhood with gold on her caries, divorced from a land surveyor who measured in palms, on his knees, rivers and hills, fooled in his calculations by the mineral stillness of crocodiles, narrated in detail that there would be revenge, executions, shooting, searches,” says Pedro Álvares Cabral. Like many other colonists, he abandons Africa with the same nothing they arrived with, and with a feeling of uprootedness. “We don’t even belong to ourselves, this country has eaten our fat and flesh without mercy or profit since they were as poor as when they had arrived.” In this situation they can only think that they don’t belong anywhere anymore. “We’re from no place now,” laments a character. There’s a general feeling that the motherland does not exist to help them.

Finally we have the inversion of roles. Pedro’s wife is turned into a hooker by an Indian from the former colonies. There’s a sinister symmetry to this: the Francisco Xavier of history is known for having converted many souls in the East; now one of those souls returns to make money converting helpless colonists into modern slaves. The empire strikes back: the explorer becomes the exploited. And in Lobo Antunes’ delirious mind the empire strikes back in unusual ways: Luís takes shelter in the apartment of a man called Garcia de Orta, who grows tropical plants inside, only for them to see the plants slowly devour his family members, take over the apartment and forcing them to flee. Ah, none of the past glories matter now; Garcia de Orta may have been one of the great botanists of his era, but in the end everything the Portuguese were proud of just comes back to destroy them. This is one of the best chapters, by the way, it’s The Day of the Triffids on crack.

Although this short novel is too silly for me, Lobo Antunes can’t help showing genuine moments of compassion over the ordeal of the retornados, ordinary people whose lives were torn asunder by a political mess between two continents, and I wish he had focused on such moments more often, especially because the retornados are a theme seldom brought up in fiction and non-fiction, that needs to be discussed, and whose omission leads to a cultural amnesia that from time to time still creates the feelings expressed in another António Manuel Couto Viana poem:


This beggar, once upon a time, was a golden boy,
He had an empire of his own, but he let others steal it.
Nowadays he doesn’t know if he’s Castellan or Moor
And goes to the beaches see if there’s any sea left!

1 I hope I'm not the only one who thinks the American covers are fucking ugly. They tend to be inventive and appealing, but Lobo Antunes was saddled with some really awful ones. The Portuguese cover, by contrast, is perfect in its design since it explains the novel's main themes in a single image: instead of ships we have a shopping cart, which ties the idea of the discoveries to the drive to make money; at the same time the cart is empty, which alludes to our post-imperial poverty; the cart is standing before the Tejo river, from where the ships used to sail to Brazil and India; and if you squint you can see a bridge in the distance, the Vasco da Gama Bridge: that's what Portuguese history has been reduced to - material for naming avenues, schools, streets and bridges; it also shows how this glorious past is ever present in our consciousnesses, stopping us from forging a future. It's all there in one cover. 

2 Manoel de Sousa Sepúlveda shows up in a 1735 book called História Trágico-Marítima, one of Portugal’s many bizarre literary works. We never had a history of great poets, novelists or playwrights, but we had a rich literature of travels: the Portuguese of yore loved to travel, by sea and by land, and usually wrote down their experiences. This book is a compilation one Bernardo Gomes de Brito made of “relations” of 16th century shipwrecks of ships returning from the Indies. I just love the idea of a book about real-life shipwrecks.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: Act of the Damned

In Act of the Damned, like in so many other António Lobo Antunes novels, the reader reaches the last page with the impression that nothing truly happened. Portugal, September, 1975. It’s been less than a year and a half since the fall of the dictatorship; the country suffers many political convulsions; the democratic process progresses slowly: several factions control or vie for the control of specific regions, extremist parties carry out bank robberies to finance their activities, there is terrorism, and many signs point to civil war. The poor, who are of no concern here, live in a mixed state of euphoria, hope and caution; the rich think the world has ended and it’s just a matter of time before communist brigades line them up against walls and shoot them. Nuno, a dentist, wakes up, eats breakfast, chats with his wife, Ana, heads to his office, then at lunch meets his former lover, a junkie named Mafalda who needs an urgent prescription of drugs, then visits his mother say farewell, picks up Francisco, Ana’s eleven-year-old brother, picks her up, and the three drive off to Reguengos de Monsaraz, in Alentejo, where Ana’s family is meeting to wait for the death of the patriarch, Diogo, in order to inherit his fortune. The story is told in media res, and from several points of view temporally displaced in different future time periods, so early on we find out that the old man is going to die, that there is no money, and that the family is going to run away to Spain and then Brazil, to escape the dangerous communists (a real or imaginary threat, it’s only relevant in showing the state of the mind of the richest class at the time) who are consolidating their power in Alentejo (a place historically associated with big landowners, class conflicts and civil rights movements, and the setting of José Saramago’s majestic Raised from the Ground), while two family members remain in the mansion living together. And that would be all if Lobo Antunes didn’t have the habit of stuffing everything in his novels. The family meeting, the death of the patriarch, are only the epicentre of an earthquake whose aftershocks extend towards the past and the future, creating a vortex of memories, evocations, fantasies, desires, humiliations and secrets.

As usual with this author, the novel has a complex, careful structure, in this case divided into five chapters: the first one is narrated by Nuno along a day, beginning in Lisbon, during the morning, and ending at night on a road to Reguengos, after the police has stopped the car and he’s run away leaving Ana arguing with the officers; in the second chapter, already in the mansion, there are two parts: first a narrative by Lurdes, Ana’s mother, next one by her daughter. The third chapter is from the perspective of Francisco (narrated seven years after this event, when he’s a painter and a junkie, or as Nuno explains earlier, “he plays the clarinet and sells smidges in art galleries in Lisbon.”): he doesn’t suffer from an acute mental retardation like his father, Gonçalo, but is a troubled, restless, mute boy; when Nuno picks him up in Lisbon, he’s hiding in an apartment, living with an elderly governess, because his family fears the communists will arrest him. The fourth chapter is narrated by the dying Diogo, from his bed, still conscious and observing the anxiety of his relatives in getting hold of his fabled fortune once he kicks the bucket. The last chapter is split in five sections: first we have a nameless woman, Ana’s cousin, who lives ostracized in a nearby terrain the family owns because of a secret they try to keep hidden; then the village notary who reveals that there is no money anymore, just debts; then Gonçalo and Leonor, father and aunt of Ana’s, share their voices in the novel’s most inventive part, with its sudden perspective and time shifts; then a doctor who is called from the bullfight in the village to declare the Diogo’s death; and at last Rodrigo, Leonor’s husband, as the family prepares to cross the border with Spain. An auto is an old word for theatrical play. Gil Vicente (1465-1536), the father of Portuguese theatre, usually named his plays autos: Auto da Barca do Inferno, Auto da Índia, Auto da Fé, and so on. In fact his first work, Auto da Visitação (1502), is also called Monólogo do Vaqueiro. I bring this up because it could be said that this novel is a collection of monologues, each character goes under the spotlight once, declaims the text of his life, and then steps out to give somebody else his turn.

There’s another connection with Vicente: the critique of a changing ethos that comes with a change in the nation’s social-political situation. Vicente wrote his plays in a time of transition: Portugal had just discovered the sea route to India, was establishing an empire, and money was flowing in from the spice trade; suddenly Portugal was known throughout Europe for its discoveries and contributions to nautical, astronomic, cartographic and geographical sciences, and for countless new products unknown to most Europeans; the discoveries brought opulence but also mass exodus to India, in pursuit of dreams of quick and easy enrichment, and a neglect for the country, whose domestic industry and agriculture floundered; this greed brought with it habits of luxury, laziness, and a looseness of morals. The critique of this new world would be one of the dominant themes of Renaissance Portuguese literature from Vicente to Luiz de Camões. Lobo Antunes, in his own time, is also charting changes in post-1974 society. Changes is perhaps an inadequate word: what he’s doing is making full use of his freedom to show taboos that existed underneath a society repressed by censorship. Let’s not forget that something as innocuous as suicide was off-limits to the media: people did not commit suicide in Portugal, they suffered accidents, or so the usual euphemism went. Perhaps it’s because Portugal was euphemistic for so long that Lobo Antunes feels compelled to go the opposite direction in this novels, towards absolute dysphemism, the portrayal of an over-the-top ugly, sordid, vicious world: so the reader attends a procession of incest, metal illness, abortions, rapes, junkies and other signs of decadence that the Estado Novo tried to keep outside the fortress it erected around Portugal, and invisible wherever it manifested within walls. This is part of his literary project, to bring to the fore this change of mentalities, or rather, to bring into literature everything that was kept out of it. He brings everything to the page as if to say, “Nothing will ever be the same again.” The reader of Lobo Antunes must always expect this voyeuristic, sensationalist display of misery in all its splendour; we’ll get tired of it before he grows tired of trying to shock us with it.

The continuities from novel to novel persists. Once again we have the journey theme (better developed in Knowledge of Hell) at least in the chapter involving Nuno; and even his saying farewell to his mom before leaving to Reguengos evokes Rui saying goodbye to his dying mother before going to Aveiro (in An Explanation of the Birds). Once again we have a rich family in terror of the revolution and which runs abroad, like Rui’s family or Inês’s family (Fado Alexandrino). Once again the ghost of the revolution lurks in the background (every novel he’s written up to this point). However this time the family, which has been on the margin of the narrative in other novels, occupies centre stage, and it’s a more laboured family, more developed, more detailed, but also stretched to the limit of a parody of degradation and perversion, or as Nuno, an outsider observer, says, “a disgusting family of goats and tame oxen mutually devouring each other in the Guadiana mansion, hiding each other’s inheritances, hating each other, stealing each other, crushing each other, destroying each other, and all this under the cigar-holder and the grandfather’s caustic eyebrow, spilled in the living room’s rocking chair, watching in a formidable joy the agony of his lineage (…).” And what a family: Diogo was a brute who beat his wife, Adelina, and children and sicced the dogs on them, and even tried to rape his wife after finding out that she was cheating on him with his brother. After she leaves him he spreads the rumour that she died. As for his children: there’s Gonçalo, a mental retard who lives obsessed with toy trains and has built tiny rails all over the house, in several rooms, and walks around dressed in a uniform; another daughter with a mental disability (she never gets a proper name and is called only the mongoloid); and Leonor, a relatively normal woman but married to Rodrigo, a Lothario who seduces and sleeps with every woman in the family: when Ana arrives from Lisbon, after Nuno dumps her, she goes upstairs with her uncle, while her mother and aunt pretend they don’t know what they’re doing; later on we find out he also seduced Lurdes and even impregnated the mongoloid, who gives birth to Ana’s reviled (and nameless) cousin, who also gives birth to a daughter by Rodrigo. Mental problems are common and move down from generation to generation: although Ana is normal, Francisco suffers from mental disturbances that in his adult life lead to his drug addiction (in fact he narrates his part while on a rehab clinic). And Nuno refers to his children with Ana as “that pair of epileptic imbeciles.”

The absence of filial love is a constant theme. Nuno takes pleasure in imagining that his troublemaking and unruly children are bastards, preferring the shame of being cheated on by Ana than accepting that they’re part of him. And he’s even embarrassed by them: when someone asks him how many kids he has, he “hesitated before extracting the savages’ pictures from the wallet, blonde fringes, chubby features, perverse grimaces: They don’t look like me, I’d explain, they’re closer to their mother’s parts, and I put away the wallet, and changed subject, and talked about something else.” Lurdes also shows negative feelings about her children: when she remembers Ana’s birth, all she can say is “… and months later my bones broke at the Reguengos Hospital and they brought me Ana, amazingly red, and me looking without strengths at her and thinking Who is she, who can this be, why did they bring this horrible larva into the room.” And if that’s not cold enough, she describes an abortion she had before Francisco as “a painful black paste in a bucket.” Looming over these examples we have Diogo and his contempt for his children. This inexistence of filial love is simply the novel’s general lack of love taken to its extreme: nobody likes nobody here: Nuno no longer cares for Ana; Ana is tired of Nuno; Rodrigo doesn’t like anyone but beds every woman; the family despises the mongoloid’s daughter; the mongoloid’s daughter hates her family, etc. Instances of love are to be found only in Lurdes, the foreman’s daughter, unexpectedly married to Gonçalo, who truly loves the cruel Rodrigo and stays with him in the mansion taking care of whim when everybody else flees; and Francisco, whose messed up childhood results in a drug habit, narrates his story to Lídia, object of his love, whom he misses because he’s locked in a clinic. Save for these two cases, there’s only hatred, libido and greed.

All these feelings, ironically, are revealed at the same time a party is going on in the village, with its music and rockets whose explosions are heard inside the mansion’s walls. For the family members, the death of Diogo is also a party since they hope to inherit his fortune, and one gets the impression that inimical group of people is only together there because of that. Even the mongoloid’s daughter, an artist, shows up to claim part of the money. “The studio doesn’t profit anything, the clients don’t buy my blankets, I need my part of the inheritance. I’ve been having this idea for a local shop, an antiquarian, an art gallery: landscapes, oil portraits, regional cakes, clay figures, stuff like that.” Alas she gets too late at the party and misses the best part: there’s no fortune, or as a relative laments, they went there to “inherit poverty.” “You must be crazy!” a character tells the artist. “What inheritance? Your mother and your little train uncle have eaten up everything in clinics, your grandfather had the habit of putting them in expensive hospitals in Spain, and you have the nerve of thinking anything’s left? Inheritance? There’s even a mortgage on this building, how do you like that?” The fortune is replaced with obligations. “Debts. Debts. Debts. Debts and both of us responsible for them, the creature said, showing paragraphs upon paragraphs with the pinky’s indignant nail. You managed to turn us both into millionaires of mortgages.”

Act of the Damned has a hard narrative, the toughest of Lobo Antunes’ up to this point, since each chapter is narrated by a different person and he doesn’t offer many clues to understand who’s narrating, we have to go by the narrator’s relationships to the other family members, pay attention to whom he calls brother, son-in-law, uncle, etc. Ellipsis abound. Fortunately I had the good company of Maria Alzira Seixo’s essay. The narrative is also heavy because of its content, as I’ve made it clear. Lobo Antunes’ fictional worlds, although infinite in misery, are limited in feelings and seem to exist only on the crepuscular side of the emotional spectrum. There simply aren’t normal or happy or well-adjusted people in his books. Nuno, perhaps the sanest character, still hails from a father who profited from the war in Africa (“Sixty helicopters for Angola? Imagine the commission fee”) and a mother who was prostituted by her husband: she organised parties and dinners for that helped attract generals and secretaries of state, and was encouraged to seduce guests to help cinch a business. In a way their relationship mirrors all the power relations in the book, including the decision of Lurdes, from a working-class background, despised by Ana’s family, to stay in the mansion taking care of Rodrigo because that servile mentality has been forced into her from an early age. These power and sex relations run through the novel, and are present even in Nuno, who blackmails Mafalda, a former lover, into giving her drugs in return for sex. “We could try going upstairs,” she says, anxious for a fix, “but if she [the maid] is in and she complains to my mother they cut off my allowance.” He deliberately strips naked in order to be caught by the maid just to get her in trouble. Thinking about why, now that I re-read my notes, I presume it’s because he can; he knows he’s leaving Portugal, he can disrupt her life because he can afford to be irresponsible and petty like all the other characters. This mean pettiness is the burden and fate of the characters. According to Francisco, after splitting up with Nuno, Ana settles down in Brazil and finds another man. “I don’t know anything about her life since she fell in love, in Rio de Janeiro, with a swimming coach my age, she abandoned her husband and children and stayed with him in Brazil, where they say the athlete beats her up regularly, breaking successive surf boards on her back.”

I guess there’s not a lot more to say about this novel that plunges into the deeper reaches of moral dissolution. In spite of everything, that’s one of the pleasures of the book, isn’t it? As the dark as the book may be, it’s funny in a sadistic way. The author wrests in himself an instinct for voyeuristic squalor and a tendency to turn everything absurd. The balance is perfect. Like a character asks, as if the author were winking at the reader, “Who doesn’t get happy at other people’s misery?” Perhaps less than he imagines, after all there are so many readers who avoid reading depressing books. But few writers manage to write about pain, despair and suffering with the humoristic intensity of António Lobo Antunes.

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:


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.”


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.


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.


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.