Monday, July 16, 2012

THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Is Antonio Lobo Antunes Europe's greatest living writer? The question is far from absurd, and the answer might well be 'yes.' (Of course, no one who suspects any other answer would bother to ask this particular question.) Since the death of Jose Saramago, Lobo Antunes is widely considered Portugal's GLW--and many Portuguese readers preferred him even during the Nobel laureate's lifetime. And when I consider the contemporary European literary scene as a whole, only a few other writers (Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Peter Nadas and the late W. G. Sebald come immediately to mind) have produced bodies of work comparable in beauty, originality and profundity to the novels of Lobo Antunes. So why is this other Portuguese novelist still something of a secret in the United States? Unfortunately, it seems that we American readers have only ourselves to blame. Grove Press published translations of Lobo Antunes' 1980s novels throughout the 1990s, and they are still in print and/or readily available on the used book market. Recently, both W. W. Norton and Dalkey Archive have published translations of 4 additional novels and a so-so collection of short nonfiction pieces (The Fat Man and Infinity). So as of this writing (and to the best of my knowledge) ten of Lobo Antunes' 21 novels are currently easily available in English translations by translators as distinguished as Gregory Rabassa, Richard Zenith and Margaret Jull Costa. Here's a list, with dates of original Portuguese publication:
  • The Land at the End of the World (1979)
  • Knowledge of Hell (1980)
  • An Explanation of the Birds (1981)
  • Fado Alexandrino (1983)
  • Act of the Damned (1985)
  • The Return of the Caravels (1988)
  • The Natural Order of Things (1992)
  • The Inquisitor's Manual (1996)
  • The Splendor of Portugal (1997)
  • What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire (2001)
That leaves 11 of his novels still untranslated, including all of his fiction since 2001 (quite a backlog) and, apparently, his first novel, 1979's Elephant Memory. But the ten translated novels should be more than enough to elevate Lobo Antunes to household name status among American readers. He should be as well-known as Garcia Marquez or Vargas Llosa and at least as widely read as Saramago, Sebald and Bernhard.

Fado Alexandrino is his breakthrough novel, the work in which the dark, claustrophobic monologue style of his earlier novels (an original combination of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Camus' The Fall, among other precursors) opens out into a symphony of interpenetrating voices and stories, but the grand Fado is also a few hundred pages too long to be a good introductory text. The best place to begin an exploration of Lobo Antunes' oeuvre is probably Margaret Jull Costa's recent translation of the novel known in Portuguese as Os Cus de Judas and which Costa chooses to call The Land at the End of the World. The Portuguese title is better: translating literally as 'the asshole of Judas,' it colloquially means 'the most godforsaken place imaginable'; an acceptable (but still unsatisfying because it loses the theological element) American English equivalent would be 'the asshole of nowhere.' In the present context, Judas's asshole represents both the remote backlands of Angola during Portugal's long colonial war and the dull, dreary, postfascist Lisbon of the late 1970s, which the narrator despises almost as much. The novel is easy to describe--a veteran of the Angolan war relates his experiences in 1970s Africa and Portugal in a Fall-style monologue--but in a Lobo Antunes novel (especially his earlier ones), the 'story' is always only part of the story. The real story here, the thing that impresses me so much that I want to read every word this man has ever written, is the amazingly beautiful, deeply thoughtful and utterly original prose style. Lobo Antunes' compulsively metaphorical prose combines with his profoundly materialist sensibility to constitute a style that might be best described as 'baroque lyrical naturalism.' Even his most eccentric lyrical flights remain anchored (for the most part) in the hard, resistant facts of the body and the world, the tragic realities from which Lobo Antunes, at his unforgiving best, refuses to contrive Saramagoesque fantastical escapes. It may be this very refusal of escapism at the heart of his surrealism that makes Lobo Antunes unpalatable for some readers; an imaginative exit is always more exciting and viscerally satisfying than the multiple no exits of reality. Other readers may be turned off by the Bernhardian obsessionalism with which he returns again and again, in novel after novel, to the African colonies and the Salazar dictatorship and the Portuguese Revolution and its aftermath and his generally negative view of the entire freaking world--but then again, those same readers might have advised Faulkner to get the hell out of Yoknapatawpha and stop whining about 1865. (My Faulkner comparison is entirely deliberate, for Lobo Antunes is yet another of those great 'foreign' writers upon whom the man known to some southerners as "Wiyum Fognuh" exercised a decisive influence.) Whatever the reasons, the undeserved American oblivion of Antonio Lobo Antunes deserves to end. He's not only the 'macho Saramago' and the Lusitanian Faulkner; he's also the Portuguese Norman Mailer and the closest thing his country has produced to a native Joyce. He is one of those rare writers with enough raw talent and original imagination to move the art of the novel several steps beyond where he found it. And that may be the most any novelist can hope to achieve.

Addendum: Here, copied from the otherwise scandalously lame Lobo Antunes Wikipedia page, is a seemingly complete list of all the man's novels. Those of us who don't read Portuguese are missing some intriguing-looking titles (Treatise on the Soul's Passion; Archipelago of Insomnia, etc.):

  • Memória de Elefante (1979) Elephant's Memory
  • Os Cus de Judas (1979) The Land at the End of the World (available in English)
  • Conhecimento do Inferno (1980) Knowledge of Hell (available in English)
  • Explicação dos Pássaros (1981) An Explanation of the Birds (available in English)
  • Fado Alexandrino (1983) Fado Alexandrino (available in English)
  • Auto dos Danados (1985) Act of the Damned (available in English)
  • As Naus (1988) The Return of the Caravels (available in English)
  • Tratado das Paixões da Alma (1990) Treatise on the Soul's Passions
  • A Ordem Natural das Coisas (1992) The Natural Order of Things (available in English)
  • A Morte de Carlos Gardel (1994) The Death of Carlos Gardel
  • O Manual dos Inquisidores (1996) The Inquisitors' Manual (available in English)
  • O Esplendor de Portugal (1997) The Splendor of Portugal (available in English)
  • Exortação aos Crocodilos (1999) Exhortation to the Crocodiles
  • Não Entres Tão Depressa Nessa Noite Escura (2000) Don't Go Through That Dark Night So Fast
  • Que Farei Quando Tudo Arde? (2001) What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? (available in English)
  • Boa Tarde às Coisas Aqui em Baixo (2003) Good Evening to the Things From Here Below
  • Eu Hei-de Amar uma Pedra (2004) I Shall Love a Stone
  • Ontem Não te vi em Babilónia (2006) Didn't See You In Babylon Yesterday
  • O Meu Nome é Legião (2007) My Name Is Legion
  • O Arquipélago da Insónia (2008) Archipelago of Insomnia
  • Que Cavalos São Aqueles Que Fazem Sombra no Mar? (2009) What Horses Are Those That Make Shade On The Sea?
  • Sôbolos Rios Que Vão (2010)
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