[Yale University Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
From the late 1970s to the late 90s, Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes had been publishing books of the highest literary caliber. Works like Fado Alexandrino, Return of the Caravels, and The Inquisitor’s Manual—the first two translated by Gregory Rabassa and the third by Richard Zenith—are as dazzling in their surreal imagery and long, arcane passages of dense prose, as they are engrossing in their concern with Portuguese people of various social classes, dealing with their own loneliness and disquiet, as well as the turbulent political history of their country in the late twentieth century. One line in particular from Fado Alexandrino has resonated for years since I’d read it: “The blades of the fan were slowly spinning, like spoons, in the thick cream of the smoke. . . .” Lobo Antunes’s style delivers these unexpected expressions while maintaining a fluidity that goes beyond the conventions of fiction, in terms of perspective and representing time. First-person, third-person, present tense, past-perfect: all can find equal employment within a given Lobo Antunes novel—often within the same sentence—resulting in a literary experience that resembles a free dive into a dark linguistic pool.
After two decades, however, his books have shifted toward a more austere, less baroque direction (as can be seen in Warning to the Crocodiles, published last year in a translation by Karen C. Sherwood Sotelino). His texts still look unconventional on the page, but instead of massive paragraphs, the narration is cut up into lines that may only contain a brief clause. He refrains from using most punctuation marks besides commas and dashes, the latter to indicate spoken dialogue. Gone are the innumerable similes that seemed to blur together objective and subjective experience. If early Lobo Antunes was like William Faulkner or James Agee, this later period is more akin to Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett. “Over the years I have learned to resist the temptation to generate a myriad of metaphors,” he said in a 2008 interview for the Brooklyn Rail. “The book in its entirety should be a metaphor.”
This core thought of the entire book as metaphor seems to animate the latest from Lobo Antunes’s body of work to appear in English, By the Rivers of Babylon, first published in 2010, and translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The novel takes place in a Lisbon hospital where a patient named António is recovering from a surgery to treat his cancer. The book is divided into the fourteen days of his convalescence. Instead of the groups of characters that usually testify in his books, Babylon stays anchored to a bedridden individual. The intricately structured sentences give way to a steady stream of sensory impressions, both from the objective world and the world of a remembered youth: both the rain “on the hospital window” and the rain “on the awning while we’re watching TV.” The major aspects of Lobo Antunes’s procedures have been carved to the bone for By the Rivers of Babylon. He has reduced his fictive structure to its most basic situation, which amounts to a kind of imaginative theater within the mind of an immobilized person (if not by exceptional illness like in this novel, then often in his other books by the sheer weight of Portugal’s past as a decadent colonial power).
This theater of the mind is quite abstract, presenting at its basic level not coherent scenes or character types, but merely shapes. “Shapes that came and went again, overlapping then moving off, turning slowly or rising up only to subside . . .” This line repeats itself in slight variations throughout this incantatory text. The darkness of the hospital room at night is reminiscent of the protagonist’s childhood bedroom after his mother switches the light off, rendering herself as one of the outlined “shapes”:
with the light on she was his mother, without it just a dark silhouette, steps that disappeared off into the thousand rooms of the house, no not steps but pearls on a necklace when the string breaks, the number of creatures, people, his mother became as she walked away, and not one of them stayed to help save him from the night, the smell of jam in the pantry returned and vanished, and he fell into the folly of issuing an order
—Stay with me, smell
The narration within this passage splits internally, somewhere between the third-person narrator picturing the “dark silhouette” of António’s mother leaving the bedroom, and the first-person voice that seems to take up António’s own mental state, rejecting the image of the retreating footsteps that young António is hearing, searching for another possibility, and choosing the sound of dropped pearls. While the hero of the novel has nothing to do but rest and reflect, it’s as if the true struggle of the story is in these polyphonic discursive operators, tussling over how to control the narrative on the page, unfolding in the texture of Lobo Antunes’s prose.
These shapes take on all manner of figures from a long-gone childhood. Parents, maids, eccentric neighbors, a marriage partner, a mistress, an uncle who went to Spain for work and never returned, a stationmaster with a tragic ending; all populate the hospital room at different moments, and also leave their impressions on António as snippets of their speech loop endlessly in his mind. As day and night follow each other in the hospital, the details and memories accumulate phrase by phrase till you can surmise that António had been raised partially in an agrarian bourgeois environment, surrounded by pines, mountains, a vineyard, “tranquil chestnut trees,” in a household near a village where boot-clad workers transport “baskets of tungsten” from the mines that made them ill. The author António Lobo Antunes indeed grew up in a comfortable environment similar to this one. He also had surgery to treat intestinal cancer at some point in the late 2000s. Some elements of the protagonist António’s past seem biographically accurate, like a close childhood friend and excursions along the Mondego River, but others, like running into his father having sex with the maid, seem to come from his other books. And major aspects of the author Lobo Antunes’s life, like his own medical training and service as a doctor in Angola during the colonial war, are conspicuously absent.
Autobiographical questions aside, By the Rivers of Babylon is a leisurely drift through the circadian rhythms of night and day, while past and present elements mingle in a hospital room, as a projection of the protagonist’s consciousness. A tennis ball from an English resort bounces through the space where a doctor identified as a “stain on the shoe” checks the patient’s vitals, and a long-dead grandfather adjusts his hearing aid at the bedside. The most direct link between the present and the “past episodes” seems to be through pain and organic suffering. A cook warning young António about getting an upset stomach from too many chestnuts comes up against a pharmacist giving the nauseous bedridden António a drink with bitter powder, followed by his grandmother “holding him by the wrists.” He reads his own patient monitor, “my heart writing only in small print now,” and the voice of the maid in the pantry with his father breaks in: “—Look, your son’s watching us.”
What could the purpose be of staging these “images” from the past within the space of the present? By the Rivers of Babylon is like a dialogue between a man confronting death and his childhood self, a being who can’t even conceive of dying. It is also a “conversation” with pain, those emotional and bodily agonies that exert so much control over the horizons of our attention and consciousness:
His life was full of pasts and he didn’t know which was the real one, layers of memories superimposed one on top of the other, contradictory recollections, images he didn’t know and couldn’t imagine belonging to him, and then, without warning, he started getting pains in his spine and in his shoulder and he was nothing but spine and shoulder, the rest didn’t count, his ears listening not to the sounds outside but to the pain’s conversation, in which a voice kept repeating the same phrase but without decoding its meaning for him, perhaps it belonged to the one of the visitors or to those various pasts they had given him in the hospital to distract him from the illness.”
As I read on, and the patient’s memories and torments churned away in the hospital room, I sensed the absence of any reference to the broader social and political significance of the demise of Portugal’s corporatist Estado Novo regime, and the liberation of its African colonies, which leave such an indelible stamp on Lobo Antunes’s other work. There is a single politically-charged image in the novel, when António recalls the sight of his mother placing a carnation “in the little box where she kept her bracelets and that she would open now and then,” that flower being the central symbol of the 1974 military coup that had brought an end to the authoritative state. Lobo Antunes has never staged a zero-sum battle in his work between broad historical currents and the granularity of personal experience. What the meditations of By the Rivers of Babylon suggest, rather than the refusal of politics, is that political struggles, like the strivings for survival, love, and understanding from others, belong to the processes of living, and not those of dying.
As always, it is a pleasure to be buoyed along by Lobo Antunes’s writing, as if floating along the Mondego River, whose headwaters young António would visit with his grandfather in the Serra da Estrela in the summer, when death was still something that happened to other people. Even with this excellent translation from Margaret Jull Costa, only about half of Lobo Antunes’s oeuvre has been translated to English. There is still more prose from the Portuguese master to discern, like the “little thread of water” from the mountainside where the Mondego is continuously birthed, among the “stones and moss and a bright green frog among the reeds.”
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