May 16 2011

The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes

Chad Post

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Before he became a novelist, António Lobo Antunes was traumatized by his nightmarish experiences in the Portuguese Colonial war of the 1960s and '70s. Serving as an army psychiatrist in Angola and other "lands at the end of the world," Antunes—and many of his narrators—witnessed horrors as the Portuguese government tried to violently quell nationalist movements in their African colonies. If the treatment of the locals, the pointlessness of the war, and the living conditions of the soldiers weren't wretched enough, troops returning to Portugal were faced with new social conditions, and were generally despised and alienated.

All of these wrongs fuel Antunes's literary work, in particular The Land at the End of the World (Os Cus de Judas, 1979), his first and most autobiographical novel (here translated by Margaret Jull Costa). By seizing on his rage and transforming it into blisteringly energetic—and darkly comic—prose, Antunes places himself in the tradition of other "authors of complaint" such as Thomas Bernhard and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Ranting against the stupidity of society, against war, against fame, ignorance, the inequalities of life, etc., these authors craft screeds that bluntly expose and critique society, charming readers with the direct way they speak truth to power and a sort of manic humor. From The Land at the End of the World:

Have you asked yourself what it is we're doing here? Do you think anyone's grateful? No, dammit, they're not! Even worse, yesterday I got a letter from my wife, informing me that the maid just quit, decamped and left: you see what happens when I'm not there to sort her out? Believe me, Doctor, if the master of the house doesn't occasionally stick his ladle in the soup, no maid is ever going to feel any real loyalty to the household. . . . I never heard a rude word from her, it was always your thingummy this and your doodah that, give me your doodah, sir.

Antunes's later novels—Act of the Damned and Fado Alexandrino in particular—are equal parts Céline and William Faulkner. The plots are more labyrinthine, the novels more polyphonic. It's as if the kernel of Antunes's rage has crystallized into a complex design, more nuanced in its depiction of Portuguese society, one that requires more engagement on the part of the reader to fully comprehend the tapestry of voices, plots, and viewpoints.

Which is why The Land at the End of the World is like reading Antunes's novelistic template. It's very straightforward: Over the course of an entire night, a psychiatrist/writer, back from the war, gets wasted in a bar while seducing a (silent) woman with his tales of anguish and hatred. It advances through a series of rants, grotesque metaphors, and repetitions that lay bare his shortcomings, while making him sympathetically bleak:

I think I lost her in the same way I lose everything, drove her away with my mood swings, my unexpected rages, my absurd demands, the anxious thirst for tenderness that repels affection and lingers, throbbing painfully, in the form of a mute appeal full of a prickly, irrational hostility.

Underlying his anguish is a desire for companionship—for someone to listen to him. That's why he somewhat traps this woman in the bar, impressing on her his need to be heard:

Listen. Look at me and listen, I so need you to listen, to listen with the same anxious attention with which we used to listen to the calls on the radio from the company under fire, the voice from the communications officer calling, begging, in the helpless tones of a shipwreck victim . . .

Throughout, his monologue seems almost memorized, something he repeats night after night in hopes of retaining his sanity. As he recounts his experiences—treating other soldiers who will do anything to get discharged, witnessing the obscenely poor communities that constitute the "glory" of Portuguese Africa, finding out about the birth of his daughter via telephone—he both brings the past back to life and tries to exorcise it from his memory. This dual effect is the crux of the narrator's problems: He is the sum total of these horrors, making it impossible to truly escape his past. This sort of double-bind is what Antunes continues to explore in his later novels. Those later books might be more complex, but here, with The Land at the End of the World, we find the clearest articulation of Antunes's overarching literary strategy: "I'm just giving you some spiel, the ludicrous plot of a novel, a story I invented to touch your heart—one-third bullshit, one-third booze, and one-third genuine tenderness, you know the kind of thing."

Chad Post is the director of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester.

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