Doctor and Patient, Lobo Antunes…
by Peter Conrad

One Faulkner novel in particular serves as a prototype for Lobo Antunes: in “As I Lay Dying,” a dead matriarch, as though still conscious inside her coffin, muses on her life while her family makes tragicomic efforts to get her body buried. Lobo Antunes’s macabre narratives often deal with an impatient deathwatch, or trace the muddled disposal of a corpse. In “Act of the Damned,” a stricken paterfamilias listens while his heirs—a motley brood of “sluts and spineless cuckolds”—squabble over his estate. In “The Inquisitors’ Manual,” a former official in Salazar’s government, bedridden after a stroke like the one that disabled Salazar himself, is slowly driven mad as his progeny wrangle and plan to make off with his spoils.

Another funeral, malodorously postponed, comes at the start of Lobo Antunes’s larkiest, most engagingly inventive book, “The Return of the Caravels.” The poet Luís de Camões—who, in 1572, in “The Lusiads,” celebrated Vasco da Gama’s maritime discoveries and supplied Portugal with a national epic intended to match Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid—comes home from Africa four centuries later with a coffin containing his father. Bureaucratic delays hold up the interment, and the long-dead body starts to bubble, seething with “a fervor of worms.” (According to Portuguese law, the dead are entitled to spend only a few years underground, after which, because space is so scarce, their bones must be exhumed and pummelled to powder.) History, Lobo Antunes suggests, is a corpse that will not remain in its grave.

The caravels, cockleshell boats that took Portuguese seafarers off to new worlds, return carrying the shabby detritus of empire. Vasco da Gama and other explorers with heroic pedigrees are jumbled among the fractious, indiscriminate rabble of retornados, who retreated to Portugal in the nineteen-seventies, after the loss of the country’s African empire. The retornados—most of them petty merchants, shopkeepers, and civil servants—spent years grousing and venting their grievances on street corners while their possessions moldered in dockside warehouses. “The Return of the Caravels” makes epochs collide in a brawling comic chaos. Renaissance Portugal, still viewed as a golden age of achievement, collapses into the grubby present. Lisbon, reconstructed on a stern neoclassical grid after it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755, is now a shapeless Third World midden; a floating populace of refugees, ruffians, smugglers, and Gypsies, swarms in shantytowns, feeding on roasted cats.

At one point, Vasco is summoned to an audience with King Manuel I:

Forty-two years had passed since Vasco da Gama had last spoken to the monarch, and after uncounted months in the antechamber, reading doctor’s office magazines, mingling with executives in vests, astrologers in star-speckled capes, representatives of majority, minority, and nonexistent political parties, an Italian journalist, and a delegation from the bakers’ union, encased in the powder of their morning flour, he found an aged prince shooing away flies with his scepter, a tin crown with glass rubies on his head, and the applesauce halitosis of a diabetic huddled on the seat of a Gothic window that opened out onto the galleons of his squadron, which he was contemplating without interest in the melancholy of his flu.

That bulging sentence contains many of Lobo Antunes’s distinctive qualities: the profusion of detail that delights in mess; the word games that flirt with the nullity of language; the professional acumen that diagnoses the king’s disease and finds a poetic simile to catch the precise odor of his sickly breath. The mania for noticing things detains us, but as readers we spend the decelerated time more pleasurably than Vasco da Gama, who cools his heels impatiently in the waiting room; when we finally reach the end of the sentence, Lobo Antunes, having boisterously enlivened this listless interval, defies us to share the king’s boredom. Manuel and Vasco walk out into the evening, and the king asks the explorer for a deck of cards: “I want to see if you still know how to cheat.” In no time, the beached voyager gains control of Lisbon, thanks to a series of dodgy card tricks—a neat parody of the supposedly ennobling but ultimately squalid business of colonial acquisition.

Lobo Antunes’s implosion of Portuguese history works so well because revenants from the country’s grandiose past can be seen all over Lisbon, stiff with rigor mortis. Statues of navigators, of the kings who prompted their expeditions, and of the bards who obsequiously sang their praises scan the horizon from the pedestals. Camões has a monumental column of his own; the nineteenth-century novelist Eça de Queirós embraces a lissome marble muse in a garden; and a bronze effigy of the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa sits at a table outside a café that he once frequented, looking as if he had metallized while waiting for a refill. (As yet, there is no statue of Lobo Antunes, but a street has been named after him in the northern town of Nelas.) The Portuguese are proud of these venerable ancestors, but they can’t help feeling belittled by them. How did a country that once counted Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Goa, and Macao as outlying provinces forfeit its empire and retract to the cramped edge of the Iberian Peninsula? If the poem of nationhood is a proud, ceremonious epic like “The Lusiads,” which ends with a prophecy of Portugal’s abiding glory, the writers who come later are bound to describe a lapse into mean, mediocre mock epic. To make matters worse, Lisbon itself claims mythical origins: in early sources it is called Olissipo, in homage to Ulysses, who allegedly founded the city during his long, digressive journey home from Troy. Joyce’s Dubliners in “Ulysses” don’t know that they are recapitulating Homer’s epic, so they suffer from no sense of shrunken inadequacy. But the Portuguese—who still salute themselves as maritime heroes when they sing their national anthem, even though their seagoing exploits are now confined to trawling for cod—can’t avoid invidious comparisons between past and present.

The lofty statues in Lisbon’s squares represent the judgment of history. Lobo Antunes pities their “heroic cramps,” and fancies that they might be shamming immobility; his revenge is to move them around like figures on a chessboard, asserting the right of the present to rearrange the past. The statue of the Marquês de Pombal, an enlightened autocrat who rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake, migrates all over the city. In one novel, he leaves his plinth and tipsily reels down the hill toward the river; in another, he takes a break in a restaurant, where “his rusty imposing presence” is seen “sipping lemon tea with broad, bronze historic gestures.” Statues that brag about exploration and conquest are cleverly reoriented, or mocked for their inability to stride through space. Magellan, who found a way to the Spice Islands in the Pacific, points down an avenue to a shopping district that might be “a lost island of his own discovery, an island of discount stores selling wooden knickknacks.” In a vast, vacant square by the river, King José I straddles a transfixed horse that “trotted motionless toward India in search of eight-armed concubines.”

Lobo Antunes views Portugal’s discoveries as feats of conjuring, deceptive tricks like those performed by a literary fantasist. Prince Henry the Navigator sends Vasco da Gama off to find Brazil and tow it home; Vasco obliges, tugging the “stupidly enormous” landmass in his wake, though he is unable to control the flocks of raucous imported parrots that fly away shrieking across Lisbon “like a waving of colorful bath towels.” Because the accumulated colonies are too bulky to fit into tiny Portugal, superfluous realms are sneakily stuffed into municipal garbage cans: tropical rivers are discarded as waste, jumbled with “leftover grains of rice and packages of cough drops.”

Saramago beguilingly contradicts this dead end in his “Tale of the Unknown Island,” when a nameless king declares that there are no new worlds left to discover. One of his subjects stubbornly insists that there must still be an unknown island and volunteers to find it. But only a cleaning woman will sign on for his quixotic voyage, so he gets nowhere. Then, in the story’s sudden, miraculous conclusion, the deserted boat becomes the imaginary island itself: the deck burgeons and blooms, as plants twine around the masts, and the fertilized caravel continues travelling in search of itself. Saramago transfers the geographic adventure to the imagination, which will never accept that reality runs out at the horizon. Lobo Antunes is less optimistic: he reduces the process of decolonization to rubbish-dumping, deriding the revolutionaries who so hastily withdrew from Africa. This bungling anticlimax suits the national mood of saudade—a nostalgia for some remote, unremembered epoch during which the Portuguese were happy and their country ruled the waves. Saramago gratifies his readers by making the explorer’s dream come true; Lobo Antunes, always the physician charged with imparting bad news, diagnoses the wistful longing for paradise as a neurosis.


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