For many years, António Lobo Antunes and the late Nobel Laureate José Saramago have been widely considered the two leading men of letters in Portuguese literature, each with his own defenders and detractors. As men of Portugal, their various approaches to the country provide a striking comparison. Many of Saramago’s novels, for instance, might be called globally nonspecific, set in locales without name or where the backdrop is ancillary to the story. But for Lobo Antunes, Portugal is more often the subject.
Last summer Saramago died, and Lobo Antunes, now in his late seventies, remains one of the preeminent novelists living and writing in the Iberian Peninsula today. Still, despite international acclaim and the prevalence of his work in English translation, the psychiatrist and Colonial War veteran from Lisbon seems relatively underappreciated beside his Nobel peer.
Nevertheless, Lobo Antunes has been highly popular in Portugal and Europe since the late 1970s. His second novel, The Land at the End of the World, continues to be a bestseller in his native country. It’s a beautifully compressed epic that chronicles a young man’s experience in the Portuguese Colonial War in the 1960s—an experience that mirrors Lobo Antunes’s own biography. Published in 1979, The Land at the End of the World established Lobo Antunes in his native country as a writer of great skill and singular style, and thirty years later, with an expert new translation from Margaret Jull Costa, it makes for the perfect introduction for an English reader discovering the author for the first time. The book has all the hallmarks of Lobo Antunes’s work—a kind of narrative density, idiosyncratic style and structure—but it’s also a direct glimpse into the author’s formative experiences. Inflected with undeniable autobiographical details, the novel was written only six years after the author’s return from Angola.
As a young man in the 1960s, Lobo Antunes, partly at his father’s insistence, trained as a psychiatrist. Like many of his peers in Portugal, he later found himself on the front lines in Angola for two years as a medic in the Portuguese Colonial War. The protagonist of The Land at the End of the World is also a medic recently returned from Angola, a journey he intimately details to an unknown woman in a bar over the course of a long, desolate night while he tries to seduce her. The book unfolds in twenty-three brief chapters that form the man’s monologue, and as the night continues and the narrator gets further into his story, we get to know a young man who is solitary and alcoholic, scarred by his participation in a forgotten war; on returning, he struggles to assimilate back into a society he no longer recognizes. In its contemplation of Portuguese government and society in the late ‘70s, it’s also very much a focused tale and political critique of Lobo Antunes’s native country through the prism of the man’s experience.
Reading Lobo Antunes’s prose gives one the odd sensation of both familiarity and novelty. With long, meandering sentences and thick, eccentric diction, Proust, Faulkner and Céline are all frequently cited as Lobo Antunes’s influences. But a Lobo Antunes sentence is distinctive. There’s a feral quality to this particular novel’s narration, with sentences that furiously push forward for entire paragraphs. Lobo Antunes is a deeply poetic writer—his passages move into the surreal territory of prose poems—and the narrator is drawn, almost comically, to speak in intricate metaphors that use the imagery of animals and untamed nature when discussing society or human behavior:
If I were a giraffe, I would love you in silence, gazing down at you from over the wire fencing, as melancholy as a dockyard crane, I would love you with the awkward love of the very tall, and, thought-fully chewing a leaf as if it were gum, jealous of the bears, the anteaters, the duck-billed platypuses, the cockatoos, and the crocodiles, I would slowly lower my neck on the pulleys of my tendons in order, tenderly, tremulously, to nuzzle your breasts with my head.
Lobo Antunes’s involuntary memory, unlike, say, Proust’s madeleine, is more corporeal; a piece of cake and champagne drops into the narrator’s stomach making “the same sound as the pebbles we used to throw into our grandfather’s garden, plof, creating concentric circles in the lake of our chicken soup at supper, the pond beneath the trees next to the wall by the road where we used to go and smoke a sneaky cigarette . . .” Just as quickly, then, the narrator calls up grisly, haunting memories of treating the wounded and dying—beleaguered by injury or malaria and infection—as a medic in Angola, a perspective of the largely forgotten colonial war that is at once vivid in detail and muddled by the narrator’s trauma and fear.
Each chapter progresses in this manner, wending back and forth in memory and time, even as the story in the foreground—the narrator’s slow, almost routine seduction of the woman—continues. The narrator, we learn, had much waiting for him on his return to Lisbon after the war: a wife and daughters who, years later, grow up in a house “that contains fewer and fewer memories of [the narrator], full of furniture drowned in the dark waters of the past.” The narrator’s melancholy is, in a way, inextricably linked to these nightly liaisons with unknown women, with his sexual desire and deep remorse for the past blurring together. In this way, the book hauntingly depicts the Portuguese government’s effects on the individual—a reminder, as Margaret Jull Costa notes in her introduction, “that we should always question both the morality of war and the wisdom of our leaders’ decisions to enter into wars whose horrors they themselves will rarely experience firsthand.”