‘An Explanation of the Birds’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – A Stunning Portrait of a Hapless Fellow


‘An Explanation of the Birds’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes (1981) – 261 pages     Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith


Talk about darkly funny. ‘An Explanation of the Birds’ is an often uproarious novel about this Portuguese guy named Rui who ultimately commits suicide when he is 33 years old, We find this out quite early in the novel, but it doesn’t spoil the comedy somehow.

Rui’s father is a successful industrialist who owns his own business. His father is severely disappointed when Rui takes up history in college.

One of my father-in-law’s cherished dreams,” Carlos said, “was that Rui would work for us, but the guy didn’t have the slightest knack for business. Come to think of it, he didn’t have much of a knack for anything.”

Rui’s upper-class first wife Tucha chimes in:

Sexually, I’ve never seen such a washout, he couldn’t get it up, he’d get all frustrated, apologize, cry. I don’t know why you’re so interested in him, nobody else is.”

And Rui’s second wife the communist Marilia has her say:

And not only your father,” she added in a wrathful torrent, “but also your mother, your sisters, your brothers-in-law, the whole shitload. First class assholes.”

Marilia again:

My relationship with you was like a time-out in my life,” Marilia explained, wiping her mouth on the sleeve. “I discovered that marriage wasn’t for me, you see; there are other things that mean a lot more to me.”

‘The Explanation of the Birds’ is part stream-of-consciousness, part remembrance, part Greek chorus, and part eulogy of “his unremittingly hapless existence”. Each sentence, some of which are pages long, crackles with its own manic energy.

The novel is written in a kaleidoscopic modernist disjointed fashion which is often confusing. The author juxtaposes several separate story lines without any transitions which often threw this reader off. However I see the novel as challenging rather than difficult. I got a lot out of reading ‘An Explanation of the Birds’. If I had paid more exacting attention, I’m sure I would have even gotten a lot more.

And then there are always the birds.

A flock of sparrows hopped among the reeds on the shore, the heavy moldy lagoon smelled like an unwashed armpit: something along the way went kaput, life took an abrupt ninety degree turn, and here I am more lost than ever.”

The novel it most reminded me of is ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’, about the only United States classic to come out of the 1960s. Though written in the 1960s, ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ was not published until 1980, by which time its author John Kennedy Toole had already committed suicide in disgust and discouragement in 1969. To compare a novel to ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ is high praise indeed. However ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ is a much easier read than ‘An Explanation of the Birds’.


Grade:    B+



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