When José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998, there were those who believed that the wrong writer had been chosen. António Lobo Antunes, it was said, was the more deeply Portuguese novelist, a writer who returned obsessively to the streets of his native Lisbon and plumbed the troubled national psyche in high-Modernist prose, while Saramago, a fabulist and an allegorist, addressed the universal struggle of human beings to thrive in a dehumanized world. Perhaps ironically, Saramago’s global vision triumphed, and Lobo Antunes was left out in the cold. When asked by the New York Times for his response to the announcement of the award, Lobo Antunes replied, “This phone doesn’t work!” and hung up.
Though his Nobel hopes were dashed (he had declared that if he won, he would at last give up his job as a clinical psychiatrist), Lobo Antunes has continued to write as prolifically as ever. Since he began, in 1979, with the fictionalized memoir South of Nowhere, he has produced at least one novel every two years (though only about half have been translated into English), writing in fractured, allusive prose about a country inhabited by tormented young men (An Explanation of the Birds), corrupt officials (The Inquisitors’ Manual), haunted soldiers (Fado Alexandrino) and twisted families (all of the above). He served in Angola in the early ’70s, a reluctant participant in Portugal’s brutal colonial war, and his experiences as a military doctor and as a young man living under the authoritarian regime of António Salazar are the touchstones of his fiction.
In What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?, his most recent novel to be published in English (it appeared in Portuguese in 2001), Lobo Antunes tantalizes with an unexpected suggestion of glitz. The setting is ostensibly Lisbon’s transvestite cabaret scene, a world of colored light bulbs and spangled tiaras. But the real stage is a grayer place, a broad expanse of Lisbon roamed by the son of a drag queen, a lost boy who despairs of finding a real family in the wasteland of his past. Paulo tells his story from the asylum where he’s been interned for a while as an adult. His mother, Judite, is a onetime teacher turned drunk who sells her favors to the neighbors for pocket change; his father, Carlos, abandoned the family to dance and lip-sync at a Lisbon club. As a small boy, Paulo is taken away from his mother by the state and sent to live with Dona Helena and Mr. Couceiro, an older couple whose daughter died in childhood. They do their best to provide Paulo with love and stability, but it’s too late. By the time he reaches the asylum, he’s caught up in an endless recitation of remembered and imagined tragedy.
At the center of Paulo’s mental world is a little house in Bico da Areia on the Tagus estuary just outside Lisbon. This is the place where he lived with his mother and father, and he returns to it in memory again and again, dwelling obsessively on a handful of incidents and images: a car with wooden wheels, a gentian in bud, the Gypsies’ horses, the boys who come to visit his mother (“pups with pine cones bulging in their pockets”). Among the other landmarks in his personal geography are the asylum (plane trees, cigarettes), the neighborhood where he goes to buy heroin (a broken-down wall, a mulatto with a jackknife) and the Couceiros’ apartment (a fading photograph, a bicycle with flat tires). These images continually crop up, gathering substance and associative power with repetition. They are the leitmotifs of the novel, and just as they enable Paulo to construct a coherent account of his life, they guide the reader through the intricate clutter of the tale.
Such guidance is essential, because even by Lobo Antunes’s standards, this is a virtuosic effort. From the start, the novel rises to credenzas of fragmentation, replicating Paulo’s disturbed patterns of thought. The beginnings and ends of sentences are lopped off and different voices are patched together, breaking away abruptly or dissolving without a trace. This often leads to inspired juxtapositions, at once surreal and logical: “Dona Helena without stopping her crocheting to repair a stitch that had become broken from rubbing her back, as she got older her twisted spine, a growing hump.” Over the course of the best chapters, Lobo Antunes displays an almost magical skill, sowing hints and bits of information in a cloud of detail that gradually resolves into a clear picture. Words and details impressed on the mind in the early pages must be retrieved in order to comprehend events in the later pages, and the effect is like a verbal optical illusion, images burned onto the retina or the brain and projected into three-dimensional space.
Lobo Antunes is fortunate in his translators. Gregory Rabassa, like Richard Zenith, is adept at re-creating the staggered flow of the writer’s prose. A key task of the translator is to find a sustained and natural rhythm, and here that is particularly essential. Rabassa, who also translated Fado Alexandrino and The Return of the Caravels, has written about translating Lobo Antunes in his memoir If This Be Treason, and he has a prescription for readers who find the going difficult: “My advice to readers is simply to read, approach him once again as though…they were listening to one of Beethoven’s late quartets through sheer hearing.”
Even sheer hearing, however, fails to dispel the occasional sense that this latest novel suffers from overorchestration. There are moments when the words overwhelm the story they are meant to convey and the melody is lost. This is most often true when the novel strays from Paulo’s narrative, spending long stretches of time in the minds of some of the less intriguing characters and giving short shrift to more central figures. Most of all, the focus shifts too frequently away from Paulo’s relationship with the man he calls his father.
Carlos–or Soraia, as she prefers to be known–is one of the few truly sympathetic characters in the novel. She isn’t Paulo’s real father (even Judite can’t say who that might be), but she tries to play some role in the boy’s life, fitting him in between assignations with patrons of the club where she works. While Soraia entertains her clients, Paulo waits in the park across the street, watching the windows of her ground-floor apartment, a ramshackle place furnished with kitschy care and another mental landmark for Paulo. As a child, Paulo is at once drawn to his father and ashamed of him (the shame is mutual: Soraia is reluctant to call Paulo her son in front of the other drag queens). As an adult, Paulo grows closer to Soraia, becoming friendly with Rui, Soraia’s young lover. Rui, a handsome boy from a prosperous family, introduces Paulo to heroin and compulsive thievery, with Soraia as their common mark.
Though Paulo treats Soraia poorly–at one point, he stoops so low as to steal her false teeth–to a great extent he makes her world his own. The other transvestites at the club are like his aunts, and together with Dona Amélia, the woman who sells candy at the club, they make up a kind of unorthodox family. In one poignantly strange scene, Paulo, Soraia and Rui pay a visit to Dona Amélia and her mother, and the latter doesn’t know what to make of the threesome (“a creature with a lot of earrings and rings and two skinny young fellows who open my drawers and rummage in my pots and pans”). At Soraia’s apartment, the three men fall into a comfortable camaraderie (“my father in a black wig/–Come in come on in hey/a song on the radio, a liqueur, Rui”). Lobo Antunes hints at the way the bizarre becomes familiar and ordinary, providing long glimpses of the cozy cabaret scene; but he never brings his full attention to bear on it, always cutting away to a side player’s story.
One of these diversions is written from the perspective of a journalist, a random observer about the same age as Lobo Antunes. When the journalist tries to write a story about Soraia, who has been attacked by the heroin-dealing mulattoes, he is chided by his editor for cluttering up the story with too many details. The story, in fact, seems to be something close to the novel, a “tale of some Mulattoes and a drag queen all mixed in with a turkey in the oven, a slum of a house in Bico da Areia with a defunct gentian….” The Lobo Antunes-like journalist, meanwhile, is preoccupied by the realization that he is growing old (“sixty-two years old and with the beginnings of glaucoma”), a theme that is picked up in a chapter narrated from the perspective of another character of the same generation (“it’s hard to be fifty-eight years old since September”).
Weariness pervades the novel, so that even young Paulo seems preternaturally aged. A gloomy sense of the passage of time is repeatedly conveyed: in a faded photograph of the Couceiros’ daughter (“features that were being eaten away by verdigris”), in Soraia’s dusty glamor (“a pirouette of unimaginably worn velvet”), in Judite’s bitter account of her long loneliness in Bico da Areia (“the mirror is finally dark, the bedroom is dark, the living room is dark”). Even the Tagus is weary where it flows past Bico da Areia, “tired of bumping into mountains, dams, castles, mills, desolate.” This gloom is underscored by the victimhood of nearly all the characters. Soraia, it is discovered, owes her homosexuality to the fondling of an aunt who gave her baths when she was a boy, and Rui was driven from home by the hardheartedness of the aunt who raised him. Detours into the lives of Dona Amélia, the drag queen Marlene and Paulo’s girlfriend Gabriela, among others, reveal child prostitution, murder and neglect. Perhaps emblematic of the general sense of hopelessness is Dona Aurorinha, a ragged old woman who lives upstairs from Soraia. She appears like a harbinger of failure, popping up every so often in Paulo’s internal ramblings. Once a girl with a doting admirer, the recipient of “lilac messages,” she is now a bony recluse, and even her groceries exude despair: “wilted vegetables, a small bottle of olive oil dripping green tears.”
Though the novel is set in the late 1990s, it seems to hark back to a dimmer time. The simple, impoverished lives of Lobo Antunes’s characters might have unfolded in the 1950s. The drag club, far from a glittering den of vice, seems a nostalgic throwback, and so plain are the furnishings of the Lisbon dwellings that the mention of a dwarf from Snow White that sits on the fridge in the Bico da Areia house strikes a jolting note of modernity. Only the heroin dealers belong to a truly contemporary world. The sense of mustiness, neglect and inconsequence are reinforced by an awareness of Portugal as a European backwater, trailing behind its prosperous neighbors. Whether any national malaise is reflected in the book is beside the point, but the notion of marginality does seem pertinent. Skilled and even brilliant as it is, the novel lacks the vitality (even the vigor of cruelty, usually a strength of Lobo Antunes’s novels) to propel its substantial mass.
An abrupt conclusion, neat but unsatisfying, brings Paulo full circle, back to the club where Soraia clung to her passing fame until she grew thin and wasted, victim of the “illness that kills fags and street women.” Her end is sad, but she loved the life she chose. Paulo, meanwhile, takes the path of least resistance, unorthodox as it is revealed to be. As the novel makes crushingly clear, the answer to the question What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? is: succumb.