Wednesday, 17 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: An Explanation of the Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I assumed that at some point after Os Cus de Judas Lobo Antunes must have written something closer to a real novel rather than an experiment in metaphorical prose writing. This novel really sounds outstanding.

    1. Tom, it's a great novel but it's still just an appetizer for Fado Alexandrino. The man was on fire during the '80s.