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.