Friday, 10 April 2015

Book Review: The Return of the Caravels by António Lobo Antunes week I was in the mood for Portuguese literature and decided to review a book by António Lobo Antunes. My first choice was Tratado das Paixões da Alma (Treatise on the Passions of the Soul), but as so often I was annoyed to find that it hasn’t been translated into English. Easter just past (or ahead in the Orthodox Christian Churches) it would have felt odd to talk about a book half set on Christmas Eve, so I ruled out The Splendor of Portugal. At last I turned towards The Return of the Caravels by António Lobo Antunes which offers a delirious fusion of Portugal’s rise to and fall as a colonial power between the sixteenth century and 1974. The seedy old colonists who return to Lisbon after many decades away are at the same time the former discoverers and great names of Portuguese history.

António Lobo Antunes was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in September 1942. The medical doctor specialised in psychiatry did his military service during the Portuguese Colonial War (1961-1974) in Angola between 1970 and 1973 and it left a lasting impact on him as well as his writing, above all his choice of themes. He made his successful debut as a novelist with Memória de Elefante (Elephant’s Memory) in 1979 which was immediately followed by The Land at the End of the World (Os Cus de Judas: 1979) and Knowledge of Hell (Conhecimento do Inferno: 1980). After having brought out another three acclaimed novels, namely An Explanation of the Birds (Explicação dos Pássaros: 1981), Fado Alexandrino (1983) and Act of the Damned (Auto dos Danados: 1985), he gave up his career at the hospital and dedicated himself almost exclusively to writing. Others of his works available in English are The Return of the Caravels (As Naus: 1988), The Natural Order of Things (A Ordem Natural das Coisas: 1992), The Inquisitors' Manual (O Manual dos Inquisidores: 1996), The Splendor of Portugal (O Esplendor de Portugal: 1997), and What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? (Que Farei Quando Tudo Arde?: 2001). His latest published work is Caminho Como Uma Casa Em Chamas (2014; I Run Like a House in Flames). António Lobo Antunes lives in Lisbon, Portugal.

The time of The Return of the Caravels is the mid-1970s when settlers from the former colonies flock back to mainland Portugal, above all to Lisbon – spelled the antiquated way as Lixbon throughout the novel –, and put the country at a hard test after the violent end of the dictatorship of over forty years (under António de Oliveira Salazar until his death in 1970) and the rather sudden release into independence of the Portuguese colonies. Early on in the novel “a man called Luís” who has his left eye missing makes an appearance sitting on the coffin containing the mortal remains of his father who died aboard the ship from Luanda, Angola, to Lisbon. When he begins writing his eight-verse stanzas in a café, at the latest, any reader acquainted with sixteenth-century Portuguese literature realises that the man must be Luís de Camões although he is never identified with his full name. As a matter of fact, he isn’t the only prominent returnee from Angola and Mozambique who lives beyond the boundaries of time. There are the now considerably aged discoverers Pedro Álvares Cabral (Brazil), Fernão Mendes Pintos (Japan), Manoel de Sousa Sepúlveda (Indies), and – the central figures of the novel – Diogo Cão (African coast), Vasco da Gama and Dom Manoel, the King of Portugal who dreamt of building a trading empire in Africa and the Indies. Also the botanist and pharmacologist Garcia de Orta, the co-founder of the Jesuit Order Francisco Xavier (Saint Francis Xavier) and the Jesuit missionary António Vieira have their parts contrasting the roles attributed to them by history. In fact, they all have little in common with the virtuous and loyal heroes held in esteem by later generations, but they are profiteers who don’t shrink from exploiting others, notably women, to rise from misery or they are disillusioned drunkards clinging to their glorious past and closing their eyes before reality. The women in the novel are nameless creatures who fight for survival, often selling their bodies because they have no choice. And yet, however nightmarish and decayed the world surrounding them may be, they settle down and go on living best they can. And all the while the old caravels lie anchored beside Iraqi oil tankers on the river Tejo.

As usual in António Lobo Antunes’ work, the narrative perspective of The Return of the Caravels is constantly switching between protagonists. In addition, passages in first person singular or plural alternate with others in third person which often makes it difficult to make out at once whose story is told at the very moment. In fact, it needs some time to get into the read and it definitely requires full concentration to be able to follow it. There also isn’t a real plot to lead through the novel. Much rather it happens to be a patchwork of episodes from the lives of the protagonists which are very skilfully interwove, though, to make a single piece of them despite all. For those who appreciate linear story-telling the novel must necessarily be a disappointment because it makes a big jumble of past and present (or recent past actually), both the country’s and the individuals’. The author excels in giving his historical protagonists a life consistent with both known facts about them and their fictitious biographies and he always does it with a good dash of irony borrowed from surrealism and magical realism… or maybe his patients in the psychiatric ward. Unfortunately, some of it is lost on non-Portuguese readers who don’t have enough background knowledge of Portuguese history or refrain from doing additional reading on it. In his analysis Miguel, who runs a book blog called St. Orberose, explains the most important connections between past and present which the author so deftly fit into his novel and which a casual reader from abroad will easily overlook also because not all names from Portuguese history ring a bell with foreigners (like me). The language of António Lobo Antunes is very lyrical in general and although my Portuguese needs some improvement (to put it mildly) I was charmed by the beauty of the original language.

As you can see, The Return of the Caravels by António Lobo Antunes has been a difficult read for me, but a great pleasure too. Having thoroughly enjoyed as well some other novels by the same author, I can understand that he has been repeatedly considered a probable runner-up for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Of course, the Nobel Committee lays open its files only after fifty years! The particular style of his writing puts him in one line with Louis-Ferdinand Céline and William Faulkner or even James Joyce. I don’t like such comparisons. Every writer is unique and I gladly recommend the books of this one.

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