Sunday, 28 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: The Return of the Caravels

Portuguese cover (1)


Did you go, to bygone beaches, watch a ship sail?
You’ll watch it return, throbbing, at airports.
It now has the triumphant profile of a bird,
But in its entrails brings five dead centuries!

Overseas it left a rag of plagues,
The memory of hatred, the whirlwind of flights.
It brings hidden, from twenty five wounds bleeding,
A pavilion of fear and embarrassed wrinkles.

It was expected by dust, fetid detritus,
The crime of indifference and children’s hunger.
Rather everything end in an explosion of screams
Than in this tripping on revenge’s sharp edge!

Did you go, to bygone beaches, watch a ship sail?
You’ll watch it return, without glory, to airports.
Rather it had gone empty and returned empty.
But in its entrails it brings five dead centuries!

This 1976 poem by António Manuel Couto Viana, a right-wing poet, gives an indication of to what fits of apoplexy the dissembling of the Portuguese Empire sent some people incapable of moving on with the times. In 1974, when a military coup overthrew the dictatorship, Portugal was Europe’s remaining empire and had been waging a war in Africa, across multiple fronts, since 1961, in order to preserve it from several independent movements. Initiated in the 15th century, when seamen started exploring and occupying territories along the uncharted African shore, its ruin began almost immediately, but it lingered on until the 20th. The Portuguese have never dealt with their colonial past; post-colonialist theory is not as widespread here as in other countries, and we never had a motivation to engage in a dialogue about our past. Even today many consider the empire one of the fatherland’s glories and believe that it was stolen from it, since it had a historical claim to them, as part of a geopolitical game between Russia and the EUA. There’s still a sense of ownership and a sentiment that these territories were Portugal too and that the nation was reduced to a smaller and poorer reflection of itself. And yet this propaganda and the mentality it produced are relatively recent, having started during the dictatorship, when Salazar, isolating the country from the rest of the world, boosted his peoples’ morale by convincing them that Portugal, with its colonies, was larger than Europe. Nowadays people, dangerous, influential people like politicians, still think Portugal goes from “Minho to Timor,” as the old motto used to preach. 

I can never show this map too often; I adore it.
Before Salazar the empire was really an emporium, with few infra-structures or cities, a small population, no colonization policy, and used especially to house criminals. Before Salazar nobody had any money to invest in the colonies and they just existed, rotting away far from the metropolis, occasionally wielding some diamonds and crops. Plans existed to monetize it, but funds were always scarce. For this reason once in a while someone proposed buying or selling them. Most people probably don’t know this, but in 1912, Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorial Organization got in touch with the republican government to buy land in Angola to build a Jewish state there, and they gave it serious consideration. In 1903, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, had contacted the monarchy in order to achieve the same goal in Angola, but his proposal was rejected because of the country’s wide anti-Semitism. In 1905, after Herzl’s death, the Zionist Congress decided once and for all that no state outside Palestine would be acceptable. But Zangwill disagreed and created his own organization to find suitable territories. By 1912 the monarchy had fallen and a religiously tolerant republic was open to negotiations. The question raised some objections, of course, but also drew support fro many deputies, for two reasons: first, it was believed the Jews had the money to monetize the colonies in a way the bankrupt republic didn’t; secondly, the liberal republic believed it had to atone for Portugal’s crimes against Jews. Allowing them to build their state in Angola was like an historical reparation. However, a mixture of problems made all parties abandon the project, not least because the JTO considered the geological and climate conditions too adverse. Then in the 1930s Salazar’s propaganda machine set in motion the myth that Portugal was indissociable from its colonies, that each inch of them were sacred. This insane conviction justified and sustained a war that raged for thirteen years and ultimately destroyed the same regime that had started it.

But in 1975 the colonies gained their independence, the empire officially died and Portugal had to harbour thousands of male and female colonists who suddenly returned to the metropolis, an event in recent history that is still so controversial it’s hardly addressed in fiction and non-fiction: although the revolution was on the side of the colonies’ aspirations to independence, it is today argued that the decolonization process was too rushed, chaotic and poorly conceived. The plight of these people, the retornados, their confusion in abandoning what was for them their homes and unexpectedly finding themselves in a strange and uncaring motherland, and the impression that the cycle of the discoveries was finally over, is what animates António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels. What this novel attempts to do is mix both these ideas to confront his readers with this past that is half-fabled and half-forgotten. For that end Lobo Antunes created an atypical novel for him, something closer to magical realism, via surrealism: he imagines a fabulous, anachronistic Lisbon composed of bits and pieces from different eras. To understand what I mean here’s how a character returning from Africa describes the city in the first chapter:

“After three months journeying a little peach-coloured sun showed up amidst the granite clouds and a moment later they sighted Lixbon’s continuous Syrian market hubbub jumping in the distance, the castle walls, Jewish bonfires, flagellant processions, a simultaneous traffic of slave wagons, cruisers and bicycles.” In a single sentence we have allusions to the Inquisition, the slave trade and modern times. What the character finds beyond the peer is no less amazing. “Then we dropped our luggage in the yard, above the agapanthuses the mechanic hoses sprinkled in circular bursts, near the workers working in the sewers of the avenue that led to the football stadium and Restelo’s tall buildings, in a way that the Cape Verdean’s tractors crossed with wheels carting princes’ tombs and piles of altar arabesques. Going through a plaque that designated the incomplete building and said Jerónimos we hit the Tower at the end, mid-river, surrounded by Iraqi oil tankers, defending the fatherland from Castellan invasions, and closer, in the bank’s wrinkled waves, waiting for the colonists, bound to the water’s limes by iron roots, with frill-cuffed admirals standing next to the deck’s handrail and first mates up in the masts preparing the sails to set out into the sea smelling of canoe nightmare and gardenias, we found, waiting for us, amidst rowboats and canoes, the ship of discoveries.” Lisbon is a mantelpiece made of many historical rags, a synthesis of periods. In fact the spelling alludes to this reality, instead of Lisbon Lobo Antunes writes Lixboa, as it used to be written; other words also show up with old spellings: reyno (kingdom), physico (physican), King D. Manoel instead of Manuel.

The man describing this Lisbon is Pedro Álvares Cabral, the sailor who discovered Brazil in 1500, but here he’s a retornado with a woman and child. After walking through a bureaucratic nightmare to apply for state aid, he’s sent to an inn called Apostle to the Far East, owned by one Francisco Xavier, in real-life co-founder of the Society of Jesus and Catholic saint, but here an Indian pimp who sold his wife in return for a ticket to run away from Mozambique to Portugal. As if that weren’t enough we also cross paths with Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea path to India, D. Manuel, the king of the discoveries, Fernão Mendes Pintos, one of the first Europeans to visit Japan, Diogo Cão, “who three, or four, or five hundred years ago led the Infante’s ships down the Africa coast,” Manoel de Sousa Sepúlveda, famous figure of a shipwreck account (2), Garcia de Orta, pioneering botanist and pharmacologist and first European to study cholera, and Father António Vieira, a celebrated Jesuit priest. Miguel de Cervantes, Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel have cameos.

What Lobo Antunes does is pick up these historical figures and pervert them with his usual sordidness. Miguel de Cervantes is a one-armed man who sells lottery tickets. Diogo Cão is an old sailor who gets drunk in bars. Vasco da Gama goes visit D. Manoel and both of them got paint the town red, get in trouble with the authorities and the king is put in a mental hospital for insisting he’s a king and owner of everything. Francisco Xavier, “a fat Indian in sandals,” Miguel de Sousa Sepúlveda e Fernão Mendes Pinto, who “sold bibles, erotic pictures and gramophones door to door” in Africa, keep a prostitution business. Pedro Álvares Cabral is put in the saint’s inn and his wife is forced to prostitute herself in order to pay their ever-growing bill. Stuff like that. There’s also a man simply called Luís, who arrives with his dead father in a coffin, is confused with a smuggler and retained in customs, and after a bureaucratic impasse gives the corpse a furtive burial. When that’s taken care of he started writing an epic poem called The Lusiads.

I’m not sure this amounts to anything successful. I don’t think Lobo Antunes has the talent or the inclination for this kind of fantasy and caprice; his strangeness works well when grounded by his hyper-realism, but here everything’s too incoherent: I’m still trying to figure out what Buñuel is doing in the book; too much of it is too gratuitous. It’s funny, this was the novel that got me reading Lobo Antunes again; without it I wouldn’t have read Fado Alexandrino, An Explanation of the Birds and Act of the Damned, but now I realise it was my least favourite. It has everything I enjoy: the richness of vocabulary, the unexpected similes and metaphors, the absurdist humour. But it seems too silly and puerile even. For once there are no visible autobiographical marks, but perhaps that’s a problem, perhaps the author needs that connection to his person life to write well, his unfettered imagination produces strange monsters.

But there are interesting themes. One is the decadence of Lisbon, the metropolis. This is Pedro Álvares Cabral searching for the inn: “He asked the address to a secretive-eyed mestizo, to kids going through waste with sticks and to an alcoholic survivor of the distant seas hugging a rusty anchor, tripping on scaffolding planks, burnt walls, twisted concrete, wall leftovers and stairs to empty apartments, through which at night navigation lights slid, in the windows’ intervals.” As always, Lobo Antunes has a dysphemistic worldview: the city is simultaneously in construction – “scaffolding planks” – and ruination – “burnt walls.” What is being built is already rotten, old, dirty and without future. Amidst this unreal Lisbon we see signs of a deceptive progress but also symbols of its decline, like D. Sebastião’s procession before sailing to die in Africa. In this city without a future, poverty rules and forces its citizens to emigrate, with Europe as their destination. No longer explorers, they’re now exploited. “The people abandoned the castles and moved to Luxemburg or Germany, looking for job in car and plastic mould factories. The dukes managed bank branches in Venezuela.” Amongst the emigrants are the tágides, the nymphs of the river Tejo, invented by Luiz de Camões in his famous epic poem, here degraded to hookers in Amsterdam’s red light district. The present has been cancelled thanks to a past that didn’t do anything useful save generate material for poetry.

Another theme is the instability in the former colonies after the independence and the widespread fear or reprisals. The whites live in panic, afraid of being killed by the revolutionaries who’ve taken over power. “A neighbourhood with gold on her caries, divorced from a land surveyor who measured in palms, on his knees, rivers and hills, fooled in his calculations by the mineral stillness of crocodiles, narrated in detail that there would be revenge, executions, shooting, searches,” says Pedro Álvares Cabral. Like many other colonists, he abandons Africa with the same nothing they arrived with, and with a feeling of uprootedness. “We don’t even belong to ourselves, this country has eaten our fat and flesh without mercy or profit since they were as poor as when they had arrived.” In this situation they can only think that they don’t belong anywhere anymore. “We’re from no place now,” laments a character. There’s a general feeling that the motherland does not exist to help them.

Finally we have the inversion of roles. Pedro’s wife is turned into a hooker by an Indian from the former colonies. There’s a sinister symmetry to this: the Francisco Xavier of history is known for having converted many souls in the East; now one of those souls returns to make money converting helpless colonists into modern slaves. The empire strikes back: the explorer becomes the exploited. And in Lobo Antunes’ delirious mind the empire strikes back in unusual ways: Luís takes shelter in the apartment of a man called Garcia de Orta, who grows tropical plants inside, only for them to see the plants slowly devour his family members, take over the apartment and forcing them to flee. Ah, none of the past glories matter now; Garcia de Orta may have been one of the great botanists of his era, but in the end everything the Portuguese were proud of just comes back to destroy them. This is one of the best chapters, by the way, it’s The Day of the Triffids on crack.

Although this short novel is too silly for me, Lobo Antunes can’t help showing genuine moments of compassion over the ordeal of the retornados, ordinary people whose lives were torn asunder by a political mess between two continents, and I wish he had focused on such moments more often, especially because the retornados are a theme seldom brought up in fiction and non-fiction, that needs to be discussed, and whose omission leads to a cultural amnesia that from time to time still creates the feelings expressed in another António Manuel Couto Viana poem:


This beggar, once upon a time, was a golden boy,
He had an empire of his own, but he let others steal it.
Nowadays he doesn’t know if he’s Castellan or Moor
And goes to the beaches see if there’s any sea left!

1 I hope I'm not the only one who thinks the American covers are fucking ugly. They tend to be inventive and appealing, but Lobo Antunes was saddled with some really awful ones. The Portuguese cover, by contrast, is perfect in its design since it explains the novel's main themes in a single image: instead of ships we have a shopping cart, which ties the idea of the discoveries to the drive to make money; at the same time the cart is empty, which alludes to our post-imperial poverty; the cart is standing before the Tejo river, from where the ships used to sail to Brazil and India; and if you squint you can see a bridge in the distance, the Vasco da Gama Bridge: that's what Portuguese history has been reduced to - material for naming avenues, schools, streets and bridges; it also shows how this glorious past is ever present in our consciousnesses, stopping us from forging a future. It's all there in one cover. 

2 Manoel de Sousa Sepúlveda shows up in a 1735 book called História Trágico-Marítima, one of Portugal’s many bizarre literary works. We never had a history of great poets, novelists or playwrights, but we had a rich literature of travels: the Portuguese of yore loved to travel, by sea and by land, and usually wrote down their experiences. This book is a compilation one Bernardo Gomes de Brito made of “relations” of 16th century shipwrecks of ships returning from the Indies. I just love the idea of a book about real-life shipwrecks.


  1. Boy, the translator, or publisher, did not think much of the original title, did they? Jerks.

    This is probably the Lobo Antunes novel that had most tempted me, although you have now successfully diverted my attention elsewhere. "The Day of the Triffids on crack," though - still tempting. I'll slog through a lot for one great chapter.

    1. Tom, actually the translator was faithful to ALA's original intention; he couldn't use this title in Portugal because of copyrights.

      And I'm glad I've diverted your attention to other novels; this is a good one, make no mistake, and shortish as it is it's not an exhausting read.

      But I wonder at the difficulties it poses regarding historical events and names. Other people who've read it told me they just ignored them and went with it, but I'm not sure that's the right way to proceed. If one doesn't understand what's patriotically subversive about it, then I don't think one will appreciate it fully.