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.


  1. Fado Alexandrino should be my first by Lobo Antunes, Miguel? I don't mind the size or any of the depressing stuff that you mention about Act of the Damned here so long as it's good stuff. What happened, though? I thought you used to hate Lobo Antunes.

    1. Richard, I guess I just saw the light. Like I explained in another post, I read four novels in a row two months ago, loved them and my opinion has changed tremendously since then. Perhaps it'll change again if I read more novels and they turn to be crap, I hope not.

      Fado Alexandrino should most certainly be your first ALA. It's extraordinary writing, prose of the highest order, I'm convinced he's the 20th century's best creator of metaphors and similes, both in quantity and quality.