Doctor and Patient, Lobo Antunes…
by Peter Conrad

Lobo Antunes maps Portugal as if he were anatomizing a patient on an operating table. In “Knowledge of Hell,” he describes its narrow territory, squeezed between Spain and the Atlantic, as “emaciated.” The equinoctial east wind along the coast sounds like a wheezing “asthmatic child”; the lisping of waves hints that the ocean suffers from a speech defect; and, in stormier weather, the breakers howl as if tormented by “toothache and heartburn.” The tortuous alleys of Lisbon’s medieval districts remind Lobo Antunes of aneurisms or distended arteries, and the Manueline decoration of its monuments—a style dating from the reign of King Manuel I, featuring replicas of ropes, anchors, seaweed, and tropical plants as mementos of his explorers—afflict columns with varicose veins.

As such hypochondriac metaphors suggest, Lobo Antunes invests words with the vividness of live, dying things. He also has a canine capacity for deciphering scents. A Gypsy’s body odor seems to combine the stench of a mule and the aroma of thistle soup; a disgruntled wife creeps into bed with a “grave-ready” husband whose personal aroma is that of “dead sheep.” Any intimacy risks an encounter with someone else’s olfactory halo. A kiss, chemically analyzed by Lobo Antunes, turns out to be redolent of “bleach and stew.” Meals are predictably unpalatable, like a stomach-turning dish of squid, which is a tangled mess of legs and suckers, with “pallid and fibrous meat” afloat in an inky sauce.

Sharing the morbid exhilaration of Lobo Antunes, the characters in his novels can’t help wondering at the creativity of their bodies—so keen to spawn diseases, so foully fruitful. A woman in “The Natural Order of Things,” graced with the glorious name of Dona Orquidea, is dismayed when her doctor announces that her kidney stones have dissolved. She wills herself to produce more, hoping to deposit a sliver of mica or a granite chip in her chamber pot. The geological substance of Portugal hardens inside her as she vows “to make cliffs grow in my belly, cliffs like those in Viana, covered with tenacious grass, cliffs like those along the Douro River, with terraced vineyards and the streambed glistening below.” Those terraces along the Douro, east of Oporto, are where the grapes crushed for port wine grow, but Lobo Antunes has no interest in Portugal’s delicious produce. Dona Orquidea plods patriotically home to transform herself “into a mountain range of schist, into stratified slate, into basaltic formations.”

Intent on tabulating symptoms and issuing doleful prognoses, Lobo Antunes hardly ministers to the reader’s sense of physical well-being. Satirists, like doctors, investigate our distempers, but they would rather kill than cure. Lobo Antunes ruefully acknowledges his failures as a healer. In “The Fat Man and Infinity,” he allows a patient to tell him, “You’d better make an appointment with yourself then, doctor”; he takes the advice, but the waiting list is so long that it will be many months before he finds the time to treat himself. Another Lobo Antunes protagonist equates doctors with morticians or taxidermists. “To many doctors there is something comforting in death, something of validation,” he says. They “enjoy death’s immobility, its dignified quietness.” Art too, fussing over pictorial appearances or fancy verbal replicas, is the connoisseurship of cadavers.

“I wish someone could explain to me why nothing in this country ever changes,” a character in “The Inquisitors’ Manual” moans. Fado singers paraphrase this complaint when they air lovelorn grievances; the same choral lament can be heard everywhere in Portugal, as people wonder why their new freedoms and the shiny electronic gadgets they can now afford haven’t made them any happier. But if this were the whole truth, Lobo Antunes would remain a local, even a provincial, writer. Luckily, he has a remedy for the national malaise; true, nothing changes, but everything metamorphoses when described by Lobo Antunes, whose style triumphantly flouts the stagnation of his society. His most gleefully outrageous inventions waive physical laws and challenge the dreary natural order of things, and it is this quality that gives his work an appeal that extends beyond the borders of his country. A widowed engineer falls in love with a mannequin he sees in a shopwindow and pays a prostitute to sleep with it. A genial lunatic flaps his arms and takes flight, like the storks that used to nest on chimneys in Portuguese villages. On another occasion, Lisbon commits suicide, its “slit veins bleeding bronze generals, pigeons and dairy bars into the Tagus.” Death, as always for Lobo Antunes, is life arrested and arranged into a picture, and postmortem decay produces poetry as delicate as lace or cobwebs. A shop selling woollen goods is taken over by moths, which multiply into white-winged angels and litter the counters with wriggling larvae; these gluttonous seraphs reduce synthetic fabrics to “a skeleton of threads, a ribwork of filaments, fringes of veins.”

“Hatred is vital to good health,” a character declares in “Act of the Damned.” As a medical diagnosis, this seems questionable, but in Lobo Antunes’s case it is a prescription for fine, furious, often spectacularly excessive writing. Hatred, in his attitude toward Portugal, may be a synonym for a rankling, incurable love. The tottering country is Lobo Antunes’s subject, and as a physician he considers it to be his personal responsibility. How can a doctor give up on a patient who has been ill—tantalizingly near death, though never quite ready to die—for the past four hundred years?

by Peter Conrad.
from The New Yorker.


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