‘The Land at the End of the World’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – Part I : A Particularly Imbecilic War


‘The Land at the End of the World’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes (1979) – 217 pages              

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa


Nothing of the many, many works of fiction I have read before has prepared me for the brilliant and devastating expressiveness of Portuguese writer Antonio Lobo Antunes.

But first, some background about the story here.

The Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar sent his army off to a misbegotten, godforsaken war in southern Africa in order to quell an uprising and to keep Portugal’s African colonies including Angola and Mozambique.

Portugal’s involvement in the Angolan War (1961-1975) was almost as contemptible as the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

The original title of this novel was “Os Cus de Judas” or “Judas’s Asshole”.

Here is a guy sitting and drinking at a bar telling his war story to the woman sitting next to him, intending to pick her up just for the night. And what a story it is, since it is the truth.

Our hero is one of those reluctant young men on a ship from Portugal “dragged from the native forests of their government offices, billiard tables, and clubs, and catapulted, in the name of vehemently held but imbecilic ideas, into two years of anguish, uncertainty, and death.” They are headed to southern Africa to fight the people who live there.

In the Portuguese army, our guy was a nurse or what we would call a medic. When someone gets shot in the stomach and their intestines come dribbling out, he is there to push them back in until the doctor arrives. Or when someone has their leg or legs shot or destroyed to the point that they will be amputated, he is there to console them.

We were fish, you see, in aquariums of cloth and metal, dumb fish, simultaneously fierce and tame, trained to die without protest, to lie down without protest in those army coffins, where we would be welded in, covered with the national flag, and sent back to Europe in the hold of a ship, our dog tags over our mouths to quash even the desire to utter a rebellious scream.”

This novel is not for the self-satisfied or the faint of heart. ‘The Land at the End of the World’ is for those who have adventurous minds and those who appreciate the magic of powerful coruscating evocative sentences.

Despite being a fairly short novel, this is not a quick read. Each sentence is filled with metaphors, similes, other literary devices, and historical and cultural references as well as allusions to pop culture such as Charlie Chaplin, Andy Warhol and even ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’ by Paul Simon. It is exhausting yet wonderfully flamboyant and outrageous.

Extraordinary fiction sometimes requires extraordinary readers. Antonio Lobo Antunes is a writer who could make even a Leo Tolstoy feel inferior.

In my next article, I will examine Antunes’ skillful and sublime usage of literary devices such as similes and metaphors and others by providing examples from his writing.

In my efforts to fully appreciate every one of its magnificent sentences, I found reading ‘The Land at the End of the World’ slow-going but richly rewarding. I found reading this novel akin to digging up a literary treasure.


Grade:    A







5 responses to this post.

  1. I’m so glad to hear you loved this novel, and Antunes’ brilliant style in particular! I agree with you that the novel is deceptively short — it really is so rich that it can only be read slowly and savoured, and takes me a while to get through even when I re-read it.
    Some of his other, later novels feature multiple narrators, which makes the reading experience even richer. He is definitely a challenging writer who demands a lot of his readers, as you note here.
    I look forward to your next post about it!

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Russophile,
      I appreciate you pointing me in the direction of this important author. I’ve been researching which novel of Antunes to read next and currently have settled on ‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ which is apparently about Salazar and the time when Salazar was dictator. Which of his later novels have you read?

      Liked by 1 person


      • You are very welcome! I am always happy to bring more attention to Antunes. “The Inquisitor’s Manual” is an excellent choice for your next read from his works. It is one of the ones that has multiple narrators and is a very chilling read, and yes, it does provide a really rich portrait of life under the dictatorship. Antunes is always a lot more context-specific than Saramago tends to be: you’ll notice that the themes of Portugal’s Colonial Wars and the dictatorship come up again and again, and are very central to his works. I’ve always thought that might be one of the reasons he is less well-known than Saramago outside of Portugal.
        I’ve read quite a lot of Antunes . . . “Fado Alexandrino”, “The Natural Order of Things”, “An Explanation of the Birds”, “Knowledge of Hell”, “The Splendour of Portugal”, “Acts of the Damned”, “Until Stones Become Lighter than Water” . . . all were well worth the read, but my favourites apart from “The Land at the End of the World” are “The Splendour of Portugal”, and yes, “The Inquisitor’s Manual”!
        I’m also looking forward to reading “Warning to the Crocodiles”, which should be released in English translation next month after several delays. Antunes is really prolific and not all of his works are available in English yet.

        Liked by 1 person


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