Down and Out in Luanda and Lisbon
By António Lobo Antunes
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
By António Lobo Antunes
W.W. Norton, 2011
Angola was Portugal’s Vietnam, only in some ways it was much worse. The Angolan war of independence lasted from 1961 to 1975, roughly coterminous with the American intervention in Southeast Asia, but Portugal had no grand strategic pretext for fighting. Its irrational and indefensible objective was simply to cling to its anachronistic empire, years after the larger European powers had given up their colonies. Angola was the jewel of the empire, with a dark history: it had been the main source for the Portuguese slave trade to Brazil and the Caribbean. Later, Angola and the other African colonies received Portugal’s exiled convicts and served as an emigration outlet for the lower classes of the isolated, impoverished regime of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, which was finally overthrown by the military in 1974.
The novels of the Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes often dwell obsessively on memories of the war in Angola, where he served as an army doctor for two searing years as a young man, in the early 1970s, before returning home to Lisbon and becoming a psychiatrist. His novels make that circuit too: the madness of the war and the imperial delusions that caused it lead inexorably to the grim psychiatric wards in which he worked. This year has brought two new English translations of Antunes novels about the war and its aftermath: one popular autobiographical early work, The Land at the End of the World (1979), and one masterpiece of his maturity, The Splendor of Portugal (1997). As he writes in the earlier novel, “the gigantic, unbelievable absurdity of the war … made me feel that I was living in a strange, unreal, fluctuating atmosphere, one that I encountered again later in psychiatric hospitals.”
The Land at the End of the World is told in a relatively straightforward style, compared with Antunes’s more experimental later work. Its tone of bitter disillusionment is pungently, violently expressed: as the translator Margaret Jull Costa explains, the Portuguese title, Os Cus de Judas, is “a slang term for any very remote, desolate place,” but literally means “Judas’s asshole.” This image of obscene betrayal aptly symbolizes the anger of the narrator (who recalls his tour as a doctor in Angola from a distance of several years) and his fellow soldiers at the government that sent them into a vicious war for no good or noble reason, “the serious, dignified gentlemen in Lisbon stabbing those of us in Angola in the back.” This hard-boiled attitude by now is familiar from many war novels, practically the default register for the genre since Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, but an extra degree of cynicism comes from fighting under the flag of a moribund fascist dictatorship and being used as a pawn in convoluted Cold War geopolitics: the narrator wonders, “is it the guerrillas who are murdering us or Lisbon, or is it the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, or the whole fucking lot of them?”
Having grown up sheltered by the fusty pretensions of his conservative bourgeois family in Lisbon, the narrator is abruptly thrust into the tedium and horror of jungle warfare, “fighting an invisible enemy,” with long stretches of boredom broken by ambushes and maiming land-mine explosions. Treating the gruesome wounds of his comrades, he is enraged at the thought of “how pleased my family would be if they could see … the competent, responsible doctor they had always wanted me to be, patching up with needle and thread the heroic defenders of the empire.” His anger and disgust deepen when high-ranking officers from headquarters visit his unit on the front line, urging better “visible results”—the body counts that also obsessed American commanders in Vietnam. His wife gives birth to a daughter while he’s in Angola enjoying the consolations of a native washerwoman, and after the war his bitter alienation leads to divorce and brooding solitude.
The novel’s speaking-truth-to-power tone made Antunes’s name in Portugal, where it broke new ground after the end of censorship under the Salazar regime, but today it seems somewhat crude compared with his later work. Its framing device, in which the narrator addresses his war stories to a woman he meets at a bar and then spends the night with, unfortunately wraps the vivid memories of Angola in a contrived staginess; the young veteran’s pose of premature world-weariness is too suave to be convincing. The woman’s end of the conversation goes unreported, and the narrator seems to find her inscrutable—using an odd metaphor which perhaps has a special savor for the sardine-loving Portuguese, he remarks, “You’re a sardine can to which I don’t have the key.” Undeterred and rather pleased by her reticence, he promises a night of distinctly unromantic pleasures: “We will come together like two Tertiary-age monsters … bleating out the onomatopoeic groans of vast lizards.”
Clearly the open spaces of Angola made a lasting impact on Antunes: nostalgic memories of those landscapes make for some of the most vivid passages of the novel. His narrator recalls, “I was traveling south from Luanda to Nova Lisboa, in the direction of the war, through a landscape of unbelievably vast horizons. I come from an old, narrow country, you see, from a city suffocating in houses that multiply and reflect each other in their tiled facades.” And these memories inspire some fanciful descriptive comparisons of the sort that he would subsequently develop into a full-blown surrealist iconography: “I saw the crocodile’s eyes drifting on the current…blinking with the stony irony of certain busts of Voltaire.” But even with the pleasures of such lyrical flourishes, The Land at the End of the World is still too conventional a war novel to make a deep impression on a reader far removed from the time and place in which it spoke for a generation’s sense of betrayal by its elders.
A reader new to Antunes who goes from The Land at the End of the World directly to The Splendor of Portugal will be astonished by the masterly assurance of the later novel’s technique, the winding flow of its prose monologues broken by abrupt chronological leaps of memory, and the casual vividness of its descriptions. But in fact Antunes made huge strides in his art almost immediately after The Land at the End of the World, as can be seen in Knowledge of Hell (1980), which Dalkey Archive published in a new translation in 2008—a dark, challenging work dense with surrealistic imagery, which takes the reader on a tour of the psychiatric hospitals where the narrator, a veteran of the Angola war, is first a doctor and then an involuntary inmate.
The Splendor of Portugal’s title, of course, is heavily ironic—it comes from the Portuguese national anthem. The novel chronicles the decline of a family of Portuguese plantation owners in a cotton-growing region of Angola, Baixa de Cassanje, the site of a native uprising in 1961 that served as a catalyst for the war of independence. Blacks slaughtered more than a thousand white settlers, and Antunes shows how mercilessly and indiscriminately the whites retaliated. A native boy is caught stealing a sack of beans during the unrest and somehow in the fervid imaginings of his executioners he is held responsible for perpetrating all of the uprising’s atrocities: “the eight- or nine-year-old Bailundo kid nothing but two enormous eyes, enormous pupils…decapitating chickens and people with a blow from his machete, hanging their heads from trees with twine, or hooks, or leaving them to the appetites of the dogs…the kid who stole a sack of beans the same way he stole Angola from us.”
The novel describes overlapping circles of humiliation and oppression—the colonists in Angola still virtually enslaving the natives, now through debt accumulated at the company store on each plantation where the laborers must buy their dried fish, cassava flour and beer at marked-up prices. For those who dare to buy their food elsewhere, there is “the lynching tree where they never let anyone cut the ropes, the rain slowly stripping the victims of their clothes, hands bound with a length of wire.” Then there are other, subtler levels of humiliation in the elaborate colonial status system of race and class—the plantation owners pride themselves on their superiority to the poor white farmers or the whites living in the slums of Luanda, the capital, yet also know that they themselves are looked down on by the Lisbon bourgeoisie whose lifestyle they imitate. The central narrator, Isilda, the heiress of a plantation, remembers her father describing this inferiority complex:
My father used to say that the thing we came in search of in Africa wasn’t wealth and power but black people with no wealth and power to speak of who could give us the illusion of wealth and power, and that even if we actually had those two things we wouldn’t really have them because we were merely tolerated, begrudgingly accepted in Portugal…they saw us as primitive, violent creatures who had accepted exile in Angola as a sort of punishment for some obscure crime…an odious, hybrid race that the Europeans tried to keep locked up far away from them in Africa…
Race and miscegenation are core themes of the novel. One of Isilda’s children turns out to be of mixed parentage, much to the disgust of Isilda’s mother, who openly and repeatedly calls it “an embarrassment to the family” to have a mulatto living in the house. But Isilda says, “I realized long ago that the heart of the world, the true heart of the world, wasn’t in there with us, but out beyond the porch and the grove of sequoias, in the cemetery where they used to bury blacks and whites side by side…” Secrets of blood, loyalty and hatred are gradually exhumed, disclosing in Faulknerian fashion, with the weight of accumulating revelations, the plantation’s buried but ineffaceable connections between the races.
With foolhardy defiance, Isilda, whose husband deliberately drank himself to death, has stayed behind after her three children left for Lisbon in 1975, when thousands of colonists thronged Luanda’s airport and docks, desperate to flee as the war came to the city and the Portuguese army departed. In each of the three sections of the novel, her monologues alternate with those of one of her children: first the oldest, Carlos, a shabby, depressed pharmaceutical sales rep; then the second son, Rui, a cheerful epileptic psychopath committed by Carlos to a group home; and finally the spoiled daughter, Clarisse, now the mistress of an elderly politician with a pacemaker. Isilda’s monologues begin in 1978 and advance gradually toward Christmas Eve, 1995, the unhappy occasion of her children’s monologues and the endpoint of hers.
Decolonization brought the return of hundreds of thousands of Portuguese settlers from Angola and the other African possessions. Known as the retornados, many of them had lost everything they owned, and they were not entirely welcome in the unfamiliar mother country, scorned like the pieds-noirs who fled to France from Algeria in the 1960s. Isilda’s children, each of them unable to adjust to life in Portugal, stand in for the spiritual homelessness of the retornados, a subject Antunes treated with antic humor in Return of the Caravels (1988), in which the great Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries find themselves out of time, neglected and derelict, among the throngs of refugees returning from Angola. (And while The Splendor of Portugal is much darker, it should be noted that it’s also very funny, for those who like their humor pitch-black.)
The Angola war hardly ended with the departure of the Portuguese: it turned into a hellish civil war that lasted nearly three decades, left more than a million dead, and for a time was a proxy front in the Cold War, with the left-wing government backed by the USSR and China, and by thousands of Cuban troops on the ground, while the UNITA rebels were supported by the U.S., South Africa and European mercenaries. (The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s short book Another Day of Life is a memorable snapshot of those fraught months in 1975 when the Portuguese left, the Cubans arrived and the civil war began.) The Splendor of Portugal ends with an apocalyptic vision of Luanda in ruins in 1995, suffused by the stench of prisoners machine-gunned into mass graves by the highway. The civil war finally ended in 2002; and in an irony of history, Angola today is booming with oil profits, and tens of thousands of Portuguese have emigrated there for work in the past few years, while slumping Portugal had to turn to the European Union for a bailout this spring.
But the civil war lasts quite long enough to be the undoing of Isilda, for whom the descent of Angola into deeper horror and absurdity seems without end: “even the lepers from Marimbanguengo are dragging themselves along by their stumps in ragtag armies, dismembering other lepers with machetes.” It seems to her that this is “a war in which it was the dead themselves who fought, not the living, knocking each down with their nauseating, rotten smells.” Troops from the government army requisition her plantation and insolently install themselves in her house. When the UNITA rebels drive out the government troops, she flees on foot with two old black servants for a journey that turns into a bleak odyssey:
me, Josélia, and Maria da Boa Morte fleeing out the back like thieves in the night before a grenade put an end to us, three shivering women putting their fingers to their lips to remind each other to keep quiet, holding onto each other like cripples or invalids, led by the light from the eyes of the owls along the trail through the rice field, we heard a gunshot but maybe it was just thunder over the Cambo River, we heard voices but maybe they were just the yelps of wild dogs chasing after a hare, until we could no longer see the stubble of the cotton field and we realized that the plantation had ceased to exist for us we would never again see the house or the azaleas or the golden rain tree, the plantation had ceased to exist and all the other plantations had ceased to exist just like ours, overrun by the army, the Cubans, the mercenaries, the corpses, the gledes, the pallid barn owls, the faded gray mules, and the overgrown grass….
As they forage for ants and other insects to eat, Isilda can hardly believe that she has become a wrinkled old woman clad only in a batik cloth wrapped around her waist, Job-like in her affliction, “a fragment of a woman in a fragment of a hut among fragments of ruins.” She continually loses herself in antebellum memories whose threadbare sheen of colonial elegance fails to conceal the uglier reality below. She and her family have treated each other with terrible cruelty and are guilty of many awful crimes against their hundreds of grotesquely exploited black workers, yet somehow Antunes
contrives to evoke the reader’s grudging sympathy for these warped characters, not least because they have plenty of comeuppance in store for them.
Antunes’s style makes constant use of repetition, each chapter-length monologue reiterating certain key phrases like a poetic refrain or musical motif, steadily building on them with incantatory force as more memories are summoned up to illuminate or reveal the meaning of these ambiguous scraps of language, with a recapitulation and payoff at the end of each chapter. This is a technique that could be stultifying in the hands of a lesser writer, but Antunes handles it to such perfection that it almost never seems to slow his prose down or become an irritation. (Another contemporary author who uses a variation of this technique, though in a more leisurely and cerebral manner, is the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, and one is also reminded of the crime novelists James Ellroy and David Peace, who use it to blunter but still impressive effect—though Antunes is just as visceral in his descriptions of violence.) It’s a tribute to the skill of translator Rhett McNeil that the novel’s complex language retains such an exciting, addictive, unstoppable flow of momentum in English.
The Splendor of Portugal makes a strong case for those admirers of Antunes who rank him as one of the greatest living novelists. Certainly it’s hard to think of anyone else apart from J.M. Coetzee or V.S. Naipaul whose novels have so unflinchingly captured the savage death throes of European rule in Africa. And whereas Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace are written in relatively traditional style, Antunes is also powerfully compelling from a formal standpoint. Taking the technique of the stream-of-consciousness monologue to new heights, he has developed and mastered a uniquely flexible and poetic prose style of his own, which bends time and image to his will, reproducing all too vividly the nightmare and the madness of the twentieth century in the dark places of the earth.
Joshua Lustig is a Senior Editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York, and a Contributing Editor at Open Letters Monthly.