Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You'll be amazed how fat I've gotten - The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes, a Portuguese war novel

Bad critical practice here.  I am going to write about a book I have not finished.  I want to follow a thematic connection with Ballad of Dogs’ Beach.

The narrator of The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes (1979) spent two years in Angola as an army doctor at the tail end of the Angolan War of Independence (1961-1975).  The novel, the narrator’s monologue, is a blend of his war experiences, which range from stultifying to nightmarish, and his life in Lisbon, also dull and horrific, although horrible in a different, self-inflicted way:

Life lived against the current does, however, have its disadvantages: my friends gradually distanced themselves from me, annoyed by what they considered to be an emotional frivolity bordering on dissolute vagrancy.  My family recoiled from my kisses as if from a bad case of contagious acne.  My professional colleagues gleefully put out the word that I was a dangerous incompetent…   (143)

I need those ellipses as Lobo Antunes is one of many Modernist long sentence fiends.  His primary method is the abuse of commas.  See pp.117-23 for a particularly effective and dramatic example, where multiple planes of action (surgery on the victim of a mine; a cheery letter to his wife) are hammered into what pretends to be a single sentence (the reader is free to pencil in ordinary punctuation) in the most expertly Faulknerian manner, best to just plunge in:

… one day I’ll take a photograph of myself and you’ll be amazed how fat I’ve gotten, two Coramine tablets and three Sympatol in the hope that I won’t lose the pulse as rapid and tenuous beneath my fingers as a bird’s heart, Slow march and at ease panted the second lieutenant on the Ericeira Road, a line of exhausted cadets on either side of the tarmac beneath the icy March rain… (123)

And all of this is supposedly being directly spoken to a woman in a bar the narrator is trying to pick up!  And he succeeds, and takes her home, and sleeps with her, and sees her out, and never stops talking.  The unremitting and allusive flow of talk, combined with the narrator’s loathing for Portugal, or perhaps for everything, often reminded me of Thomas Bernhard, but I have a hard time imagining one of Bernhard’s characters using his ranting as a tool of seduction.

I find it ridiculous here, too, but I actually interpret the river of memory and images and bile as something going on in the narrator’s head.  Fragments of the bar and bedroom leak into his thoughts; fragments of his thought leak back into his drunken conversation with the woman.  No need to be too literal.

Perhaps in the part of the novel that remains for me, all of this will be undone, or the narrator will tell us about the super-horrible atrocity he witnessed, which would destroy part of the effectiveness of the novel, so I doubt it.  The narrator’s personality is shattered by a series of ordinary atrocities and military absurdities.  He now numbs himself with booze and anonymous women.  The author, who the narrator closely resembles in biographical detail, also began writing novels.  The Land at the End of the World, his second, made his reputation.


  1. Ah, if only ranting were an effective seduction tool... That idea alone makes António Lobo Antunes' writing sound seductive.

  2. I read this book last year, but under the title South of Nowhere. (I believe it's the same one: certainly sounds like it). I really like Lobo Antunes, as you might imagine. Quite mad. The other book of his I've read, The Return of the Caravels, was better though: about the Portuguese Empire collapsing back in on itself, as if The Lusiads were being told backwards.

  3. All right, The Return of the Caravels will be next, when I won't guess. It, like this novel, is a reasonable length. Lobo Antunes did write some big devils. I cannot believe how many of his novels are available in English. How many books can he possibly sell? And then this one is in two versions!

    The real title, by the way, is not the one on obooki's translation or on mine. It is the earthier Os Cus de Judas.

    On p. 156, the narrator has not yet bedded his pick-up. He "says": "We are, therefore, in a condition to go over to that bed and make love, a love as insipid as that frozen fish we ate in the restaurant, whose one eye fixed us with the dying glassy glare of an octogenarian among the faded green of the lettuce."

    Thus my assumption that this wild stuff is not being said. Or maybe the invisible woman is the really interesting character in the novel.