THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Book Quote:

“Rootless, I float between two continents, both of which spurn me. I’m searching for an empty space in which I might drop anchor and which could, for example, be the long mountain range of your body, some recess or hollow in your body where I could lay my shamefaced hope.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (MAY 23, 2011)

In 1971, Lobo Antunes, recently qualified as a doctor, was drafted into the Portuguese army and sent for two years to Angola, mired already for a decade in a bloody war of independence. Six years after his return, he used this experience for his second novel; it now appears in a magnificent translation by Margaret Jull Costa, whom readers will know from her work with José Saramago. The original title of the book, OS CUS DE JUDAS, refers to a bodily orifice that should probably not be named here, but it is apt, referring both to the battle zone at the eastern edge of the country and the conditions that obtained there; the images of excrement are strong and pervasive. In her helpful introduction, Jull Costa quotes another writer describing the war in Angola as “a form of colonial sodomy — the Portuguese state simultaneously violating the rebellious colony and its own reluctant, traumatized troops.” Point made.

The book, a masterpiece in its way, is not a novel in the normal sense; there are few named characters and hardly a story. Its short chapters, labeled with the letters of the alphabet but in only the vaguest chronological order, consist of a running monologue that the unnamed narrator addresses to some woman in a bar or among the sweaty sheets in his bedroom; it is clear that she is but one of a series of weary listeners buttonholed by this prematurely Ancient Mariner (Jull Costa’s term) whom he himself describes as a “disoriented Lazarus,” returned from the dead yet dead still in his soul. The tragedy here is not so much the horrors of the battlefield (though these are bad enough), but the degradation it inflicts on its soldiers, many of whom become drunkards, deserters, suicides, and in some cases rapists, torturers, and worse. The narrator avoids the worst of these fates but, like that of the author himself, his marriage ends in divorce, despite the love of his young wife and the birth of his two daughters. Lobo Antunes, who has practiced psychiatry alongside his writing, is clearly as interested in PTSD as in anatomizing the trauma itself, and this post-traumatic stress is as sad as they come.

So why read a book that is about death, degradation, and depression? Do we not have enough Vietnam memoirs in our own literature? What Lobo Antunes has to offer is the brilliant inventiveness of his images, no matter what his subject. Here he is on the first page, describing a visit to the Lisbon zoo with his father:

“The zoo had a whiff about it like the open-air passageways in the Coliseu concert hall, a place full of strange invented birds in cages, ostriches that looked just like spinster gym teachers, waddling penguins like messenger boys with bunions, and cockatoos with their heads on one side like connoisseurs of paintings; the hippopotamus pool exuded the languid sloth of the obese, cobras lay coiled in soft dungy spirals, and the crocodiles seemed reconciled to their Tertiary-age fate as mere lizards on death row.”

These can be amusing images, even when grotesquely nasty, as the grossly fat woman running a cafe on the Zambian border “who resembled a vast ambulant gluteus maximus and whose very face had something anal about it and whose nose was like a painfully swollen hemorrhoid.” They can be sad, like the postcoital description of “the exhausted silence afterward of marionettes deserted by the fingers that worked them.” His complaints about the sons of the privileged who are exempt from service take him into Joycean wordplay: “But if you don’t mind my asking why is it that the sons of your ministers and your eunuchs, of your eunuch ministers and your minister eunuchs, your minieuchs and your eunisters, aren’t stuck here in the sand with us?” And sometimes he is reduced to the bare recitation of facts: “Show us some visible results said the colonel and all we had to show were amputated legs coffins malaria corpses vehicles transformed into wrecked harmoniums.”

But colorful writing can also be a disadvantage. As the book went on, I found myself reading less for what he was describing than for the language in which he describes it. The horror, in other words, did not hit home, only the aftermath of horror. Just occasionally, though, among this nightmare of death, degradation, and debauchery, there are some things that are so understated that they catch you entirely unawares. “I happened to walk into the sergeants’ bathroom, into the eternally flooded, stinking pigsty known as the sergeants’ bathroom, and saw the officer clutching the prisoner to him in a kind of epileptic frenzy, the shy, silent girl was leaning against the tiled wall, her eyes blank, and above their heads, through the window, the plain opened out in a majestic fan of subtle shades of green, where one could make out the slow, zigzagging, almost metallic sheen of the river and the great peace of Angola at five in the afternoon, refracted through successive, contradictory layers of mist.” That surprising word “peace” — how incredibly powerful! How poignant to be reminded that beauty can still exist!

But beauty and love are the worst tortures of all. One of the few oases of joy in the book comes towards the end, in a chapter addressed in memory to an African girl called Sofia with whom the narrator seems to have had a relationship characterized by tenderness and compassion. But Lobo Antunes uses it only to demonstrate what a monster his character has become: “That’s what they have made of me, Sofia, a cynical, prematurely old creature laughing at himself and at others with the bitter, cruel, envious laughter of the dead, the silent, sadistic, laughter of the dead, the repulsive, oily laughter of the dead, and all the while I’m rotting away inside, by the light of the whisky I’ve drunk, just as the photos in albums rot, regretfully, dissolving very slowly into a blur of mustaches.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company (May 23, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on António Lobo Antunes
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of: 

The Book of Chameleon by Jose Eduardo Agualusa



May 23, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Unique Narrative, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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