Thursday, 17 July 2014

António Lobo Antunes: 10 books to understand him

A few days ago I finished reading António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels and to my surprise I ended up liking it very much (a review is in the works). Lobo Antunes excites ambivalent thoughts in me: he’s a writer of infinite talents who seldom writes anything that grabs me. He’s an ingenious manipulator of language, his longueurs are just as good and intricate as José Saramago’s, and the part of his brain that concocts metaphors and similes must be connected to a nuclear power plant because he just doesn’t run out of the spectacular sort. And yet he uses all that virtuosity to write, for the most part, boring novels about the mundane. I’m always on the verge of giving up on him; but The Return of the Caravels is something else and has renewed my stamina to keep reading him for the time being.

And it got me thinking: if I wanted to immerse myself in the study of António Lobo Antunes’ life and work, what books would complement his novels? So I poked around and came up with a list of essential literature about him:

Os Romances de António Lobo Antunes (Maria Alzira Seixo, 2002)

Maria Alzira Seixo is one of the foremost authorities on the author. She currently oversees the definitive editions of his complete works for the Dom Quixote publishing house and has an extensive knowledge of his oeuvre. This book, at over 600 pages, was the most meticulous analysis of his novels up to that point. Since then he’s published 9 more novels so it’s a bit out of date, and sadly it’s out of print.

Conversas com António Lobo Antunes (María Luisa Blanco, 2002)

María Luisa Blanco, a journalist for Babélia, the literary supplement of the Spanish newspaper El País, sat down with the novelist for a series of interviews. It also contains an interview with his parents. At the time, this was the most intimate look into his personal life. I have this one.

D'este viver aqui neste papel descripto: cartas de guerra (Maria José Lobo Antunes & Joana Lobo Antunes, 2005)

Between 1971 and 1973, Lobo Antunes served in Angola, as a medic in the Portuguese army. The African country was at war with Portugal for its independence, the medic was 28, freshly married to Maria José and not published anything yet. This book, edited by his daughter, collects the letters he sent to his wife, sharing his fears, his love for her, and his literary ambitions. A portrait of the author as not yet the messed up, bitter novelist who’d spend the following decades spewing the bitter traumas of this war into the pages of his books. I have this one too.

Entrevistas com António Lobo Antunes: 1979-2007 - As Confissões do Trapeiro (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2008)

Ana Paula Arnaut, another authority on him, put together a lengthy book of interviews Lobo Antunes gave to newspapers since the start of his career until the publication of this collection. This one provides a concise overview of his changing attitudes over the decades and is full of gossip. Of course I have it.

Uma Longa Viagem com António Lobo Antunes (João Céu e Silva, 2009)

This book is a mega-interview (400 pages) that took many sessions across months to complete. The author visited Lobo Antunes at the warehouse that he’s converted into a writing studio and talked with him on and off. It’s been labelled as the definitive look into his life, but I’m curious to compare it with María Luisa Blanco’s book. I should have bought it this year at Lisbon’s Book Fair but got the Saramago mega-interview instead. Priorities, my friends, priorities.

António Lobo Antunes (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2009)

I’m not sure what this is, but I suppose it’s a sort of primer. It’s included in a collection about writers so I guess it’s written for curious laymen. It may have some value. I don’t own it yet.

As Flores do Inferno e Jardins Suspensos (Maria Alzira Seixo, 2010)

Maria Alzira Seixo’s follow-up to her monumental study of Lobo Antunes’ novels. The second half of this book is devoted to his texts for periodicals. Lobo Antunes has kept a biweekly column at a magazine for decades now, which have been collected in four or five thick volumes. I don’t have this one either.

A Crítica na Imprensa 1980-2010 - Cada Um Voa Como Quer (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2011)

The scholar edits a companion piece to her anthology of interviews. This time she puts together reviews written about his novels. It’s certainly a valuable tool to appreciate how his novels were received at the time. I also need to get this one.

As Mulheres na Ficção de António Lobo Antunes (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2012)

I needed a volume to round out a list of 10 items. Ana Paula Arnaut is the winner. There are several books that study the novelist in a general way. But this book is specific about the way women are portrayed in Lobo Antunes’ fiction. Another lacuna in my book pile.

Os Escritores (Também) têm Coisas a Dizer (Carlos Vaz Marques, 2013)

This is not a book about Lobo Antunes; it’s a collection of interviews with several Portuguese novelists, including him. I actually bought it because Saramago is one of the interviewed and I obsessively collect his interviews. But reading both interviews in tandem is great because it sheds new light on the hilarious theme that is the mutual hatred Saramago and Lobo Antunes nurture for each other. In Lobo Antunes’ interview he explains why he fell out with the Nobel laureate, providing a flimsy, ridiculous reason. In Saramago’s interview he’s confronted with the charges and blows a fuse. It’s a he-did-no-I-didn’t-he’s-lying squabbling worthy of children. Obviously I own it and treasure it.

Meanwhile I’m trying to gather courage to read The Inquisitors’ Manual.


  1. Of the Lobo Antunes books I've read, I've also by far liked best The Return of the Caravels; I read it first, and since then the rest have disappointed. Next up for me too is The Inquisitor's Manual (the last book of his I possess); should hopefully get around to it sometime this year.

    1. Obooki, thanks for stopping by. Actually my personal favourite remains Knowledge of Hell, it's the culmination of an era in his writing, a turning point and sort of the apex of his first three novels which I like to call his "Rant Trilogy."

      But Caravels is rich in insanity; just the Garcia da Orta chapter with the house full of carnivorous plants that slowly devour his family... that one stayed with me. And the metaphors!

      What else have you read by him? Have you tackled his giant novel, Fado Alexandrino?.

    2. I've only read The Return of the Caravels, South of Nowhere (which may exist under other aliases) and Act of the Damned. Knowledge of Hell sounds very familiar, so maybe I have a copy of that too somewhere, but not read. I was thinking of ordering Fado Alexandrino today, since I started looking what further Lobo Antunes books there were in English (a surprisingly large number).

    3. South of Nowhere is a different translation of The Land at the End of the World, ALA's second novel; I've read it too and found it atrocious. Basically his first three novels, ending with Knowledge of Hell, are the same: a plotless rambling by a fucked up, traumatized war veteran spewing hatred about everything in long rants from start to finish. Many ingredients for great entertainment, but only KoH is worth reading.

      If you want to know what's available in English, just check my "Portuguese Literature in English" section, all the novels are listed there; he's the most popular writer after Saramago.

    4. damn, got off on the wrong end of the stick then ... OK, Caravels it is, or Fado Alexandrino.

    5. Nnyhav, I spent a furious week reading Fado Alexandrino compulsively; you barely notice the 700 pages, it's so enthralling, so darkly hilarious, and I've never read a book more engorged on metaphors and similes than that. Caravels and this have given ALA a new lease on life for me; I was halfway through FA and was buying two more novels, and today I started Acted of the Damned.

  2. Antunes looks like an author pretty difficult to translate. I think his writing has been compared to that of Faulkner. Is such a parallel justified?

    1. Difficult? Why, his work is vastly available in English (11 books) and in France (some 20 books). It's not like he uses wordplay (Joyce, Nabokov) or alliteration (Nabokov, Gass) that could get lost in translation; his prose is normal, it's only the architecture, the structure, that is complex, the way several voices, shifts from third to first person and temporal levels juxtapose in long sentence that run for dozens of pages, making making otherwise linear narratives into non-linear bouillabaisse of fragments, dialogues, thoughts, etc.

      I don't know if he's similar to Faulkner or not, I never read him.

  3. I tried to read the "Return of the Caravels" in English, and felt that there was something wrong with the translation somehow. But it was just a hunch.

    1. I hear Gregory Rabassa is one of the great English translators, so the translation must have been pretty good. It's a hard novel, deliberately disorientating and full of anachronisms. You didn't manage to finish it?

    2. No, I gave up in the middle. Despite Rabassa's reputation that particular translation seemed clunky. I guess I'll have to give it another chance. Learning to read Portuguese is another feasible option (I read Spanish, French and Italian).

    3. I'm sorry to hear that; perhaps you should try reading him in French then; or you should try another book in English, like Fado Alexandrino or The Inquisitors' Manual.