Fado Alexandrino is an amazing novel, brilliantly written and masterfully conceived and executed. Even if it had been less well-written, the novel's impressive formal originality (Lobo Antunes' montage-like narrative style in which temporally and spatially disparate scenes are conjoined in a single page, a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence) would have been sufficient to earn it 'must read' status. The author takes a hint from one or two chapters of Joyce's Ulysses and, exhibiting a Kirk Varnedoe-esque 'fine disregard' for the rules of novelistic fiction, transforms that hint into the hallmark of his style. Fado Alexandrino is the Sentimental Education of the Portuguese revolution, the Ulysses of 1970s Lisbon. It's one of the most important European novels of the past 40 years. And it is also a singularly exhausting reading experience.
I am not saying that the book is especially difficult. (It is a difficult novel--relative to, say, the works of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan--but it's not extraordinarily difficult. After 15 or 20 pages, readers attuned to post-Joycean fiction will become accustomed to the Antunesque style and have little difficulty navigating the cubistically shifting planes of his narrative.) My readerly exhaustion might have something to do with the work required to follow the novel's four distinct but simultaneously narrated storylines, but I suspect a more likely culprit in the very aspect of Fado that makes it so exhilarating and impressive, the author's maniacally metaphorical prose. The metaphor I quote in the title of this post is an admittedly extreme example, but pretty much every page of the novel exists under the gelatinous, contractible threat of Lobo Antunes' octopoid metaphors. (I know it's problematic to comment on the prose of a work read in translation, but Gregory Rabassa, who beautifully translated Fado, is one of the world's most highly regarded literary translators, so I assume that his English version is very faithful to the author's Portuguese.) Antonio Lobo Antunes doesn't write like someone who consciously invents metaphors, who deliberately pauses during the writing process to construct a clever image or a startling simile; he writes like someone who naturally thinks in metaphors; he writes like a man possessed by a metaphorizing demon. Lobo Antunes writes like a demiurge who hovers above every blank page and commands his images to be fruitful and multiply. He is the writer as orgymaster, a Sade of the simile, letting linguistic copulation thrive while his metaphors metastasize into figurative octopi that threaten to strangle the meaning of his serpent sentences beneath an insufficiently diaphanous linguistic veil that sometimes becomes as impenetrably dark as the mouth of the River Tagus on a gloomy winter night... Yes, reading Lobo Antunes at his most manic feels something like that. Reading him, in other words, is both exhausting and exhilarating. It's like good sex. But not the safe, bodiless, postmodern wordsex that academics call 'transgressive.' That's hardly Antonio's style. His prose is strictly bareback, down and dirty linguistic fucking from the wrong side of the tracks. If Jose Saramago is the only contemporary Portuguese literary writer you've read, you definitely need to give Antonio Lobo Antunes a try.