When I described Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World as a war novel yesterday, I was employing shorthand, just as when I called Cardoso Pires’s Ballad of Dogs’ Beach anti-mystery a mystery. Both novels are about the thing they appear to be about, but also distance themselves from their subject by means of literary style.
The method of Lobo Antunes is particularly wild. Not only does he create distance by putting the narrator in Lisbon in 1979 while describing Angola in 1971, an old tactic, but he smothers his stories, both the one about wartime boredom and horror and the other about the meaninglessness of the narrator’s post-war life, in what he calls “the glassy glitter of the cheap metaphors I loved” (68).
The fourth page of the novel, for example, about how the young chap used to live near the Lisbon zoo:
Ticket-takers have “blinking myopic owl eyes.”
When tigers roar wax hands “shudder in arthritic terror” and clay statuettes of priests rattle “as if they were struggling to digest one too many cookies.”
Camels’ “expression of profound boredom lacked only a managerial cigar to complete the look.”
“Seated on the toilet, where the final remnant of a river in its death agony uttered intestinal gurglings, you could hear the laments of the seals, whose excessive girth prevented them from swimming down the pipes and out through the taps, grunting like impatient math examiners.”
That last one shows the commitment Lobo Antunes has to his metaphors. To the imaginative reader, the world of the novel now includes cigar-smoking camels and seals popping out of water faucets – seals who sound like math teachers! Whatever grim grittiness I might expect from a war novel is hidden under all of this other stuff, of which there is a massively disorienting quantity – four out of five sentences. Or nine out of ten.
… the bathroom is an aquarium of tiles… my arms wave spasmodically like the boneless farewells of octopuses… my eyes resemble the sad, bulging eyes of the sea bream on the kitchen table… I am dissolving [in the tub] as I imagine fish do when they die in rivers… (162)
The character is at this point sitting on his toilet looking at himself in the mirror. The layered metaphor – the transformation of tentacles into “boneless farewells” – is again evidence that the narrator is really imaging the octopus, that the metaphor is not just thrown away. He needs the second metaphor to properly describe the first metaphor, which he needs to tell us how his arms look in the mirror.
Why he needs any of it is another question. The novel is the story of a terrible wartime experience, but it is also simultaneously the story of the invention and deployment of two hundred pages of original, often absurd, metaphors (“I feel like a horse with my snout in the nosebag of my vodka, munching the sour hay of my lemon slice,” 55), a dozen or two on every page.
It is unbelievable. I can barely follow it. Lobo Antunes slips from the “real” to the imagined and back so frequently and with such enthusiasm that I sometimes lost track of which plane I was on. In fact I was on both, simultaneously, just as I was in Lisbon and Angola, and in the narrator’s thoughts and on his date. The broken detective novel of Cardoso Pires circled around its central ideas without looking at them directly, creating a source of negative space for them, while the author of The Land at the End of the World seemingly spoke freely, while seeming to want to escape from his own story by creating an independent imaginary world.
Fascinating books, both of them. A round of reading of post-Salazar Portuguese novels would be hugely rewarding, that is clear enough, although I suppose I will now retreat again to the jolly, comfortable 19th century.