Review of António Lobo Antunes' The Inquisitors' Manual
Antunes's career began in the mid-1970's, as Portugal was throwing off Europe's longest-lived dictatorship, and that era of António Salazar still haunts his imagination. It haunts the country, too, this novel (translated by Richard Zenith) insists. "The Inquisitors' Manual" is not so much an allegory of fascism as an anatomy of the way it penetrates societies - families, psyches, bodies - and of the scars it leaves. The regime is represented by the man nearly everyone refers to simply as "the Minister." Minister of what we never learn, though Salazar himself pays deferential visits to the farm that this crude, swaggering patriarch presides over like a feudal lord - and penetrate is exactly what the Minister does: the cook (on the altar in the family chapel), the steward's teenage daughter (in the barn), the pharmacist's widow, the sergeant's wife, not to mention assorted maids and Gypsies. He's not even above ogling his prospective daughter-in-law with the same proprietary leer he directs at his dependents. No wonder his son has turned out to be such a frightened little mama's boy. As the Minister obligingly explains to him while bending the steward's daughter over the manger, "I do everything a woman wants except take my hat off, so that she won't forget who's boss."
Arrogance, brutality, moral squalor - much here is reminiscent of another anatomist of tyranny's intimacies, William Faulkner. And with the Minister and Salazar and their regime growing increasingly senescent, we breathe a rank atmosphere of illusion and cowardice, futility and neglect, that similarly recalls Faulkner's world. The farm chokes on its own abundance, run riot with vegetation and maddened by the cackling of birds. The windmill rusts, the garden angels crumble, the German shepherds sicken and die. Humans descend to the level of beasts; the boss who fornicates in the barn calls the vet to deliver his illegitimate child. The regime's collapse comes as only another in a long series of capitulations.
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