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Literature : essay

The Unencumbered Monologist: The Novels of Antonio Lobo Antunes

by Mauro Javier Cardenas

The freedom of delirium and the evolution of syntax in the novels of Antonio Lobo Antunes.

Because the syntax that undergirds the twenty-two torrential novels of Antonio Lobo Antunes has evolved so radically since his first novel was published in 1979, and because his novels haven’t been published in English in the order they have appeared in Portuguese, one’s reaction to his work might range from bafflement to wonderment depending on which novel from which period one happens to have read. Did early novels like An Explanation of the Birds (1980) lead to his Nobel Prize nomination? (No). Why aren’t there more shrines to the Inquisitor’s Manual (1996)? (You tell me). What’s with all the fragmentation in What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? (2001)? (I can explain).

In a book of interviews with Maria Luisa Blanco, Antunes notes that to him his first novelistic period ends with Treatise on the Soul’s Passions (1990, unavailable in English), and that his eight novels from this period are characterized by an autobiographical charge (how the Portuguese Colonial War in Angola impacted Antunes’s work has been amply documented elsewhere, so I will limit the biographical exposition to one anecdote from the war: his elation upon receiving a package from his wife containing the works of the Latin American Boom) and by a novelistic technique that was still in development. To dispatch these novels as apprentice work, however, would be unfair to the “savage swirl of images” that courses through the more than two thousand pages Antunes wrote in this period. It’s just that to me what comes next is so much more exciting. And many features of these early novels will disappear altogether by the time we reach his second period: the excessive figurative language will be tempered, conventional transitions between temporal spaces will be dropped, juxtaposition of disparate elements will be streamlined, conventional punctuation will be discarded.

Let’s sever the link between Antunes and Faulkner before moving on. Early in The Death of Carlos Gardel (1994, unavailable in English), there’s an eleven page monologue by a great-great-grandfather that’s identical to the syntax in The Sound and the Fury (the past interrupting the present in italics), and yet Antunes, as if acknowledging the influence but signaling he will take it from here, kills the great-great-grandfather by the end of those eleven pages, and that exact syntax is never to be seen again. Faulkner’s and Antunes’s “quality of vision” is not similar either, so to dismiss Antunes by claiming Faulkner did it first is ridiculous. No one writes like Antonio Lobo Antunes.

The dramatization of what Antunes calls “the immense present that engulfs everything,” one of the central preoccupations of Antunes’s second period, comes together in The Inquisitor’s Manual (1996), inaugurating what will become his flagship syntax. If you don’t find the opening of this novel thrilling and liberating and auspicious for the art the novel, you’re not going to like his next eleven novels:

And as I walked into the courtroom in Lisbon I thought about the farm. Not the farm as it is today, with the garden statues all smashed, the swimming pool without water, the kennels and the flower beds overrun by couch grass, the old manor house full of leaks in the roof, the rain falling on the piano with the autographed picture of the queen, on the chess table missing half the chessmen, on the torn-up carpet and on the aluminum cot that I set up in the kitchen, next to the stove, where I toss and turn all night, afflicted by the cackling of the crows

as I walked into the courtroom in Lisbon I didn’t think about the farm as it is today but about the farm and the house in my father’s day, when Setúbal

(a city as insignificant as a provincial small town, a few lights dancing around the bandstand in the square, flickers in the dark night pierced by the dogs’ anguished howls)

hadn’t yet reached the main gate and the willows along the wall but sloped straight down to the river in a jumble of trawlers and taverns, Setúbal where the housekeeper did the shopping on Sunday mornings, dragging me along by the elbow under the flurrying pigeons

the house and farm from my father’s day with the staircase flanked by granite angels, with hyacinths growing all along the walls, and with a bustle of maids in the hallways like the people bustling in the lobby outside the courtroom

(it was July and the trees on the Rua Marquês da Fronteira twisted in the sun against the building façades)

in clusters that hurriedly formed and disbanded around the elevators, and amid all the witnesses and defendants and bailiffs, my lawyer, holding the sleeve of my sweater, pointed out the steps

“This way, Senhor João, divorces are this way”

Notice the seamless shift between temporal spaces. Notice the breathless serialization of remembered objects (“No one can convince me that inanimate objects don’t suffer,” a character says in The Splendor of Portugal (1997), and perhaps that’s one reason objects are often anthropomorphized in Antunes’s novels). Notice, later in the same chapter, how the phrase “This way, Senhor João, divorces are this way” recurs, acting as a signpost across time. Antunes stakes these signposts throughout his novels so we don’t tarry behind when his narrators remember more than four places at once. Toward the end of The Inquisitor’s Manual (1996), for instance, recurrent phrases like “Don’t kiss me,” “Open your mouth, you bugger,” and “Don’t cry Francisco” follow one another in quick succession, and we immediately know the narrator is remembering his wife at home refusing his kiss (before leaving him), his nurse at a hospital trying to feed him (as a dying old man), and his ex-wife at her apartment consoling him after she tells him she isn’t going back to him (years after leaving him).

In Antunes’s writing this juxtaposition of memories isn’t neutral. One memory can be re-imagined with the materials of an adjacent memory, which might have been modified by a fragment from a dream from a previous chapter, which might have already altered the sequence of memories in the chapter you’re reading. In The Splendor of Portugal (1997), a memory of a childhood tricycle, “which Rui quickly damaged, knocking off one of the pedals with a hammer,” turns into an imaginary moment in the present, where “Carlos and Lena [are] waiting up for me in Ajuda with a new tricycle for me.” In Good Evening to the Things From Below (2003, unavailable in English), a splendid novel from Antunes’s third period, a memory of a bull ring on one page transforms someone on the next page into a bull “lifting his muzzle on a crest of dirt.” These are the types of transformations that have replaced the figurative language of the earlier novels. Whereas in early Antunes a person might have been “like a bull,” and we had to believe that, based on what we knew about the narrator. This was indeed how the narrator saw this person; now this person is just “a bull." We believe it because we have witnessed the process of transformation that led to the image of the bull, although of course we still have to take it on faith that the narrator would have reprocessed this image in this particular way. All of this reshuffling and recasting, which is of course what our minds do, is relayed to us by narrators who, due to grief or sleeping pills or addiction or simply because “hell consists of remembering throughout eternity,” exist in an altered-state of recollection. Reading them is akin to hearing their words and seeing their thoughts at the same time.

With every new novel Antunes’s narrators, as if emboldened by an attentive audience, infuse their monologues with more of themselves, allowing their memory of other people’s monologues to burst into their own—as they do in the The Splendor of Portugal (1997)—or letting in half dreams and shards of remembered phrases—as is the case in Exhortation to the Crocodiles (unavailable in English, 1999)—and how much more intimate can a body of work get than that of a writer who composes increasingly complex monologues so that his narrators can share more of themselves?

I don’t recommend you enter Antunes’s third period without passing through the second. Otherwise the speed at which everything is coming at you will probably baffle you. Antunes’s third period begins in the 21st century with What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? (2001), which opens with a new level of fragmentation:

I was sure I had that dream last night or the night before

last night

and that’s why, without waking up, I kept thinking

—Why worry I know damned well that I’m

not interested in episodes I knew weren’t real

—I’m asleep

that might have scared me yesterday, I’m not scared of them now

Antunes introduces the syntax quickly but carefully, without shifting to another memory just yet. Although the monologues in Antunes’s novels unfurl with the freedom of delirium, Antunes is a meticulous orchestrator, grounding us with recursive sounds and anaphoric rhythms, to which his English translators of his second and third period (Richard Zenith, Gregory Rabassa, and Rhett McNeil), as well as his Spanish translator (the late Mario Merlino, who translated all of Antunes’s novels from these two periods), are incredibly attuned.

What’s next? A fourth period? More of the third? Antunes has published six more novels between 2004 and 2010, so I will have to get back to you. In the meantime, Good Evening to the Things From Below (2003), which is as bold as What Can I Do, and has similar comical first/third person narrative shifts as in Halldor Laxness’ Under the Iceberg, and is set in Angola, a more familiar setting for Antunes than the world of transvestites in What Can I Do, remains untranslated. As does Exhortation to Crocodiles (1999), Antunes’s favorite novel, which he wrote after falling in love with Clarisse in The Splendor of Portugal.


Mauro Javier Cardenas’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Antioch Review, Witness Magazine, Guernica, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Quarterly Conversation.


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