Thursday, April 03, 2008

Antonio Lobo Antunes: Knowledge of Hell

Benjamin Lytal reviews António Lobo Antunes' Knowledge of Hell.
We talk about psychological novels without expecting their authors to have any particular expertise in psychology. Novelists go on instinct, we understand. Henry James described a "sublime confidence" that allowed him to write about the inner lives of others, and we ask no more — and often less — of contemporary authors.

What, then, to make of a psychological novel written by a practicing psychiatrist? António Lobo Antunes, who has been in residence at Lisbon's Hospital Miguel Bombarda since the 1970s, is no mere dilettante: Until 1998, when José Saramago collected what will probably be Portugal's only Nobel Prize in literature for a generation, Mr. Antunes was widely considered a favorite for that prize. The author of some 20 novels, eight of which have now been translated into English, Mr. Antunes differs sharply in style from Mr. Saramago. Where the Nobel Prize winner writes universal allegories in polished, sometimes pale, prose, Mr. Antunes prefers a dense, distinctly Portuguese style, full of mnemonic crosscuts and unstinting imagery.

His attitude toward Portugal is one of wry disgust — he devoted one novel, "The Return of the Caravels" (1988), to the notion that the national heroes from the days of Prince Henry the Navigator might someday return, only to find a squalid harbor town, rather than the great nation they thought they had founded. In Portuguese literature, this attitude — not of keen regret, but of weary self-loathing — is at least as old as Eça de Queiros, the great 19th-century novelist. To this tradition, Mr. Antunes adds his own wretched experience as a medic in Angola during the Portuguese Colonial War (1961–74).

The belatedly translated "Knowledge of Hell" (Dalkey Archive Press, 312 pages, $13.95), from 1983, in many ways an autobiographical novel, draws heavily on Mr. Antunes's memories of Angola — but the titular inferno lies elsewhere. "In 1973, I had come back from the war and knew about injuries, about the cries of pain on the trail, about explosions [. . .] knew about spilled blood and longing, but I had been spared the knowledge of Hell."
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