Monday, 1 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: child, doctor, soldier, gigolo

María Luisa Blanco is a Spanish journalist: she directed the newspaper ABC’s cultural supplement and then moved to El País. Between April 2000 and February 2001 she interviewed Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes. On weekends she drove to Lisbon, stayed there 3 days, met him 5 hours per day and then returned. She says that he never limited the interviews’ time but “he never wasted his time having lunch, dinner or even a beer with me.” But on the last day of the project he invited her for a meal with him and his daughters. The journalist met him between the writing of two novels: Não Entres Tão Depressa Nessa Noite Escura (2000) and What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? (2001), whose work in progress he alludes to all the time.

It was a difficult time in Lobo Antunes’ life. Maria José, his first wife, the great passion of his life, had passed away in February 1999, weighing 27 kilos. Although they separated in 1976, and he remarried, they remained friends and to like each other; one day she called him informing him that she had cancer and didn’t have a lot of time left He moved in with her, who still lived in the same house they shared when he came back from the war in Angola; they lived together during the five months she managed to remain alive. While taking care of her he started a new novel, Exortação aos Crocodilos (1999), he literally wrote it by her bedside. In spite of the sickness, he claims it was a period of great happiness for both of them. When Blanco met him, he was still living there, with his two oldest daughters, Joana and one also called Maria José.

Under these circumstances Lobo Antunes granted Blanco 12 interviews; she also interviewed his parents. These interviews constitute a treasure of information that should keep scholars, fans and enemies entertained for many years to come: he talks about his childhood, his family, his medical studies, his taste in books, the war, his novels, the writers he likes and doesn’t like, his working methods.

I’ve collated all the data that I considered essential and interesting, and also unknown to English readers who may be into his novels (he believes there are lots of them; I’m less optimistic), and tried to organize them into two articles: this post will focus on his personal life; the next one will be about his writing process and his thoughts on literature.

Lobo Antunes was born in 1942, in the Benfica neighbourhood of Lisbon, the first of 6 children. He grew up in an aristocratic and privileged milieu: both his grandparents had been generals; his father was a neuropathologist; his mother, this being Portugal, lived around her husband’s orbit. The son lived in a bubble isolated from the regime and never experienced any political repression. Although he enjoyed the name of an important family, his parents were not rich and lived in a regime of austerity. He claims he “liked to go eating at [his grandfather’s] house because there was soup… two dishes… At my parent’s home we dined one soup; the same soup from lunch.” His relationship with his parents was cold and distant; they were not tender people, he can’t remember his mother ever kissing him. But when interviewed, she claimed that he had been a happy child. They loved to read, loved culture and transmitted that love to their son: his father, an aficionado of Vermeer and Velázquez, made his children copy Gaugin paintings; although he found it boring, Lobo Antunes later considered this a useful way of instilling discipline in him. But the favourite person of his childhood was his grandfather, a conservative, a monarchist and a supporter of dictator Salazar. At the age of 7 he took the boy to Padua for his first communion; they travelled through Europe and visited museums. Although the grandfather spoiled him with the tenderness he craved at home, his father wanted him to grow up ready to stand on his own, to be his own man, independent and responsible. “That was my childhood. I had to be the best, the strongest. If I arrived home and they saw another kid had hit me, my father got angry because I hadn’t struck back. ‘He was older than me,’ I protested. ‘Bite his testicles,’ my father replied.”

He remembers that he decided to become a writer at the age of 7. His mother, who loved to read, had taught him to read and write at the age of 5. “My mother says that ever since she can remember I was always writing, not playing or doing sports, because I devoted all my time to it.” But although the adults enjoyed culture at home, they did not want their child becoming an artist and gave him his first negative reviews when he showed them his writings. “Like a good mother she encouraged me, she told me: ‘This is worthless, you study and become a doctor, because you’ll never amount to anything as a writer.’”

Undeterred he continued to read and write, in a environment of pragmatic people whose intelligence existed only for making money: when he was 13 his grandfather asked him if he was gay only because he liked writing. He read everything in the family library. His father introduced him to Céline at the age of 14. His mother gave him money for public transportation, but he preferred to walk and buy books. He also had an aunt who deposited money into an account every month for him; when he turned 18 he withdrew the sum and blew everything on books. I think we can all relate. Then there was also school. “It was in high school that I started reading the Portuguese writers of the 19th century. But at the time, more than novels, what I really wanted to write was poetry. At the age of fourteen or fifteen I had a poetry collection.” But he wasn’t very good at it and quit by the age of 19. My impression is that he’s a frustrated poet who resigned himself to writing novels. He started a novel in his twenties but left it unfinished.

Then came the day he enrolled in the University. He wanted to study at the Faculty of Letters, but his father put him in Medicine against his will. “I was angry with him, but then I became happy all my life for having a scientific education. Besides my education helped me a lot as a writer because if I had gone to the Faculty of Letters, I'd certainly be writing like Sartre or Camus, or maybe I'd be a literary critic.” He continued to write throughout the course; he was a bad student because he didn’t care about it and repeated the first year three times. He also stayed out of the student protests against the regime, which were quite violent at the time, with police invading the campus to beat the crap out of rioters. Lobo Antunes didn’t care about politics and has continued not to care. Eventually he finished the course and left to London, hoping to work in the hospital Somerset Maugham worked in.

Portugal had been at war with its African colonies since 1961 and military service was mandatory. His army life started around 1969 or 1970. Like thousands of young men at the time he was dragged into the war. “I remember in a special way that I cried a lot on the New Year's eve night of 1970. It was a terrible night for me because on January 6 I had to leave for the war and that night, yes, I cried through that night.” Although his family was important it didn’t use its influence to stop him from going. “The children of important people didn’t go to the war,” he says. He didn’t come back until April 1973. He thought about deserting but a friend, Captain Ernesto Melo Antunes, talked him out of it. Although he didn’t want to go, he doesn’t hate his father for standing idle and has tried to extract something positive from his war experiences. Although he claims he did and saw many horrible things, he also believes the war helped him to become a better person: it thought him to be disciplined, a quality he needs to write his novels, comradeship, to understand true pain and to learn that he wasn’t the centre of the world, that other people existed. It was in the war that he began to understand the world better. The negative aspects tend to disappear in the background of the happy moments there. “The human being has an enormous capacity for forgetting, otherwise life would be horrible, it’d be like Primo Levi and his constant concentration camp stories, at the fifth camp I’m sick of them and of Primo Levi.”

His sojourn in Africa was a long sentiment of boredom punctuated by moments of horror and danger. He and the others could spend five days in HQ without doing anything all day, rattled only by a few attacks at night, then they’d head into the bush for five days and return exhausted to rest five more. During all this time, of course, he read and write. He missed ordinary things like cups and curtains on the windows; they always dined at five o’clock in the afternoon because the army didn’t have money for lights. He liked to be with the natives and liked meeting the tribe leaders; he built a personal dictionary to understand them, but had it confiscated by the secret police. He hated PIDE agents, they showed up whenever there were prisoners to be taken by helicopter.

Before leaving Portugal he “wanted to have a child because I thought I was going to die.” His first daughter was born in 1971. He wrote daily aerograms to his wife; she kept them and Lobo Antunes tells Blanco that he hoped they’d be published after his death. In fact they were published in 2005. Maria José came to Africa to be with him; she got sick with malaria and nearly died. Their daughter was also there, to the soldiers’ delight, who sort of considered her a collective daughter and took turns taking her for walks. Sometimes mother and daughter were left alone when Lobo Antunes left for the bush.

One of the best recollections of the war is his friendship with Ernesto Melo Antunes (1933-1999), one of the architects of the 1974 revolution. An officer who publicly opposed the war, he nevertheless carried out his duties with rigour; Lobo Antunes says with pride that thanks to his sense of discipline his unit was the one that suffered less casualties. This was another important lesson: discipline saved lives. When they returned in 1973 Melo Antunes involved him in the revolutionary movement. This was the only period in his life when politics mattered to him: at first he was enthused and when the regime fell he lived the ideals and hope of the time, even joined the Communist Party. But then came the disappointment with the revolution and a growing suspicion of politics, especially of the authoritarianism inside the party. “They told me that, as a writer, I had to make social art and that kind of things. That type of discipline didn’t please me, naturally.” Since Lobo Antunes does not hide that his writing is autobiographical, it’s not a stretch to see that disillusionment portrayed in the characters of Fado Alexandrino. At the time of the interviews he claimed not to vote.

He shares with Blanco a frequent dream. Although he doesn’t dream about the war, he dreams of being called back. “It’s a horrible dream: the war rages on, I’m called again to fall in as lieutenant, I show resistance… Always the same dream. Yet the war never shows up, never does; they just call me. In the last dream a body-guard showed up who told me: ‘Well, I’m here too; I’ll go with you…’ I never dream with the war; just with this. It’s a dream of tremendous anguish.”

After the war he went to work at the Miguel Bombarda mental hospital. When he chose his specialization he chose psychiatry because it gave him more time to write. He had to work for a living and wrote at night, at home, after his wife quickly cleared the dining table away. Everything he wrote, however, he destroyed, showing no interest in publication. In 1976 he left Maria José. He was 25 and she was 17 when they met and he considers her the great love of his life, and a great friend who believed in his talent. “I owe her my perseverance in writing. If it hadn’t been for her, for the enormous faith in me, and which she kept until her death, maybe I’d have abandoned it. She was convinced since she was seventeen that I was going to win all the prizes in the world.” He still can’t explain why they split; he says it was what everyone was doing after the revolution. Portugal was a traditional, puritanical country, divorce was taboo. Suddenly everyone was free to do everything they wanted, the sexual revolution was starting, a bit later there than in the rest of the world. “After the revolution many people split up, certainly because, as I was saying, we didn’t know how to manage freedom.” This dissolution of traditional values is also shown in Fado Alexandrino (1983). He never blames her. “I suffered a lot, I didn’t feel happy, and in those situations a person starts acting in a self-destructive way, with a stupid and incoherent behaviour.”

Although we see traces of this separation in Fado Alexandrino, its influence is more visible in his first novel, Memória de Elefante (1979). “Yes, Memória de Elefante is the story of that breaking up and it’s a book where you can guess a great suffering.” He adds, with his typical melancholy humour: “My Swedish translator jokes that I broke up because I needed working material.” In any event, with his first novel autobiography became one of the marks of his oeuvre: it’s a one-day-in-the-life kind of novel about a doctor who leaves home in the morning, heads for the hospital where he works, then goes out at night to pick up a prostitute in a bar, all the while full of stream of consciousness segments about his childhood, the war, the dictatorship, lost love, etc. The title means elephant memory and refers to his prodigious memory, which earned him this nickname as a child. Rejected by several publishers, it was picked up by a small one. The reviews were mixed, in those post-revolutionary times who you were mattered more than your talent, he was still in good terms with the CP but states that some people didn’t like to see this young aristocrat writing novels. But it was a huge hit: it sold thousands of copies and almost overnight he was a best-seller. He gave interviews and even went on TV. Three months later he published (the already written) The Land at the End of the World (1979). If the first novel stemmed from his break-up, the second one was inspired by his career as a gigolo.

For a few years after 1976 his life was an out-of-control mess. The author himself identifies a tendency for obliteration. “There is in me a very self-destructive part, that's very clear and the idea of suicide chases me all the time. An idea I don't why it exists because I've never had depressions. I've been through situations of enormous despair, but I never fell in depressions or sadness. I don't know. It's a thought that has always been with me.” After he left Maria José he started serially sleeping around with women and gambling. He worked in the mental hospital, made good money, started going to a casino and became addicted to gambling; there he also picked up strangers for one-night stands. Lobo Antunes, before he got old and fat, was a very handsome man and he even got a clientele: he was so popular, women talked amongst themselves and some looked him up just to sleep with him. Allegedly some considered him the best fuck in Lisbon. It wasn’t as great as you might presume. “It was a difficult period, after the separation. And I didn’t ever meet them… Sometimes I see a woman and I think: ‘Did I sleep with her?’ I think so, but… what’s her name? All that time I didn’t write anything. I spent two years without writing. I couldn’t write.” As readers of The Land at the End of the World know, the novel is precisely about a war veteran-cum-doctor who picks up a woman in a bar and takes her home to screw her. Incidentally, I detest his first two novels and maintain that he didn’t become a good novelist until Knowledge of Hell. Anyway, he sought a doctor to treat his addiction and he got himself back on track, but not without some traumas. “I felt physical repugnance, not just of women, but also of myself.” He claims that thanks to his daughters, to watching them grow and growing closer to them, he’s started feeling a different sensibility towards women. It was after his cure that hospital friend and non-fiction writer Daniel Sampaio (my mom loves his books) convinced him to publish. This information was provided, not by Lobo Antunes, but by his father.

Not long after their publication, one of these books made its way into the hands of Tom Colchie, the literary agent and translator involved with Jorge Amado, Cabrera Infante, Ernesto Sabato and Guimarães Rosa at the time. “When I received a letter by him telling me that he wanted to be my agent I didn’t reply to him thinking it was a joke. He wrote me a second one and I told him yes because, his fame and his efficiency as an agent aside, I thought it was chic to have a New York agent.” Colchie turned him into a world writer, although it took a few years for him to become successful.

In 1985, when he started making enough money from his books, he semi-retired from medicine, although he continued going to the hospital to see patients. The man Blanco meets didn’t strike me as a particularly happy man. Deaf on one ear, a condition he inherited from his mother, and forced to wear a hearing device, he thinks it makes him look ugly and ridiculous. He considers himself helpless in the quotidian and needs his daughters to do the most ordinary things like going shopping, driving, or filing income tax returns, he has no mind for practical things. Regarding friendship, he declared himself a solitary man with few friends: Nelson de Matos, his editor, Tom Colchie, his agent, José Cardoso Pires, a fellow novelist, and the aforementioned Melo Antunes – the latter two were dead at the time of the interviews. And on that cheerful note we end the biographical post. 

Next time: the books he loves! The writers he hates! And the secrets to writing great novels!


  1. The "Next time" has me on the edge of my seat.

    I need to read another Lobo Antunes.

    1. Tom, I will try to live up to the expectations.

      It seems I was the only one who thought The Land at the End of the World was the kind of novel that would put a reader off the author for ever; if you have the stamina for more, there's no reason not to read his 700-page masterpiece, Fado Alexandrino.

    2. The only reason is logistical. Someday, I hope.

    3. It's a very, very good novel; after fleeing from him for years, two months ago I read four novels in a row in less than a month, and it was a reinvigorating experience. I'm just wary because I liked them so much I'm afraid I'll read something next that will break the spell.