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:

SOLDIER

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.”

LIEUTENANT CORONEL

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.

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.

SECOND LIEUTENANT

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.

4 comments:

  1. I would say you overdid it with this post, but who else is writing about Lobo Antunes. You've got to not just make your case, but keep going. Obviously a great book.

    The answer to the Krasznahorkai question is that the author became famous for his books before any English-reader had read them through Bela Tarr's film versions. So the film buffs created the reputation before any of the books were even translated. I do not know of another example like this.

    Some avant gardish Portuguese director needs to start making a bunch of Lobo Antunes adaptations.

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    1. Tom, sadly no one is writing about him, or rather nobody that matters. But it's encouraging to know at least what I'm writing is being read.

      Re cinema: ha ha, what avant garde Portuguese directors?

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  2. I was wondering about that. Your most famous director is 105 years old, which is impressive in some ways but not in terms of making films.

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    1. Ugh, don't even get me started on Manoel de Oliveira. It is genetically and biologically impressive that he is so old and, I suppose, lucid still. But that doesn't contribute in anything to filmmaking skills, of which he is sorely lacking.

      Of course there will be a few, a loyal cadre of sycophants, who will declare that he's one of the greatest living filmmakers; why I've even heard him called the greatest. Because if he's so old he must have more experience than other directors, you see...

      ... The truth is he still makes movies as if the silent era hadn't ended; OK, I',m being mean, he uses sound; he's more of a pre-Orson Welles person really: the static camera, the scene as a stage, just lots of long boring conversations, it's the most uncinematic cinema ever made.

      When our "greatest" filmmaker is a relic who defends a relic form of cinema, we can hardly have room for vanguards.

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