Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Lobo Antunes’

‘Act of the Damned’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – “Hatred is Vital to Good Health.”

‘Act of the Damned’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes   (1985) – 246 pages            Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith

If you have not read Antonio Lobo Antunes before, please, please, do not start with ‘Act of the Damned’. It is a novel that is quite difficult, especially for a novice, to appreciate. It is not the best place to start with Antunes.

‘Act of the Damned’, this tale of familial sin and disintegration, is Antunes’ William Faulkner novel. It is an over-the-top cacophony of voices similar to ‘The Sound and the Fury’ but even more extreme.

Perhaps my personal experience with reading William Faulkner will be instructive. As a farm boy in school, I always did fine in school classes, especially in math and science. However I was a disaster to my parents on doing the work on the farm. After high school I set off for the University of Wisconsin – Madison to major in mathematics. However my interests started turning in different directions. During my sophomore year, I decided to take a course in Contemporary Literature. This opened up a whole new world for me, but one of the novels we were to read for the course was ‘Absalom, Absalom’ by William Faulkner. Now ‘Absalom, Absalom’ is a difficult novel with some of the sentences running on for pages. I couldn’t finish that novel and dropped out of the Contemporary Literature course.

However by this time I was so intrigued by literature that I signed up for the same Contemporary Literature course the following semester. This time the assigned Faulkner novel was the much easier ‘Light in August’, and I sailed through that and through the course.

I realize that William Faulkner is rather “out” today in the world of literature, but I still consider him one of the most powerful of writers. Later, I even read ‘Absalom, Absalom’ and ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and was much moved by both.

‘Act of the Damned’ is the nasty story of one of the old rich families in Portugal who helped the dictator Antonio Salazar stay in power for 36 years. The time is the mid-1970s, just after the Carnation Revolution, and the family is plotting to flee first to Spain and then to Brazil. There are nine separate narrators in ‘Act of the Damned’, each with their own tale of decadence and twisted motivation. This dissolute family is described in all its decreptitude.

All of the characters in ‘Act of the Damned’ are contemptible except for the mongoloid daughter, the result of incest, who is now a grown woman with the mind of a small child and who at least has an excuse for her behavior.

Some of the paragraphs in ‘Act of the Damned’ run on for four pages.

It would have helped the novel to have a list of the names and a short description of each of the characters at the beginning of the novel.

‘Act of the Damned’ is a novel that if I were to read it slowly a second time, I would probably find it to be brilliant. However, I don’t feel like doing that now.

This is not the novel you should read if you are just discovering Antunes. Antonio Lobo Antunes is still definitely one of the few major figures in world literature today, and a good place to start is ‘The Land at the End of the World’.

Grade:    C+

‘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+



The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I’ve Read in 2021


This year I was again tempted to expand my favorites list beyond 12 to 15 or 20 but finally had the good sense to keep it at 12.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the book cover image to see my original review for each work.


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



‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut (2021) – There is something special in the way Damon Galgut continuously and quickly shifts the focus from person to person here, each with their own vivid, frequently shocking, insights into what is happening.




‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff (2021) – I did not expect a novel about an abbey of nuns in 12th century England to be this high on the list, but it totally fascinated me. Here we have an eloquent and persuasive depiction of a successful society composed entirely of women.



‘Cosmicomics’ by Italo Calvino (1965) – Italo Calvino’s playful conceit is that there were people, a family, around to witness the creation of the Universe, the Sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets. There’s Grandma, Grandpa, and Mother and Father, as well as the boy Qfwfq and his sister as well as some of their neighbors, and especially there is always a lady or girl friend to help Qfwfq on his way through the Universe.


‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ by Beryl Bainbridge (1974) – This is a deadpan comedy like nothing you have ever read before. Somehow Beryl Bainbridge manages to keep a straight face while telling us this outrageous story.




‘Agua Viva’ by Clarice Lispector (1973) – If ‘Agua Viva’ made complete sense to someone, I would worry about that person. But the fragments are deeper and make more visceral sense than most writers’ complete thoughts.




‘The Passenger’ by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1938) – A novel which vividly captures the terrors of Kristallnacht in Germany, the Night of Broken Glass.





‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes (2004) – This year will be remembered as the year I discovered Antonio Lobo Antunes. What impresses is the striking use of words and images throughout.




‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason (2021) – Meg Mason maintains a wry deadpan tone throughout this emotional roller coaster of a novel.





‘Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight)’ by Emile Zola (1883) Here is Zola on Octave Moiret who runs the department store in Paris: “He made an absolute rule that no corner of Au Bonheur des Dames should remain empty; everywhere, he demanded noise, people, life…because life, he said, attracts life, breeds and multiplies.”


‘A Calling for Charlie Barnes’ by Joshua Ferris (2021)There are many, many novels where the main characters are just too good to be true. However ‘A Calling for Charlie Barnes’ is not one of them, and that’s quite a high bar to attain in novel writing, especially when you are writing about your parents.


‘Mrs. March’ by Virginia Feito (2021) – The Mrs. March in this novel is quite repellent. It takes real talent for a writer to pull this off, and this is Virginia Feito’s first novel.





Happy Reading!




‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – A Most Foul Political Minister of Portugal


‘The Inquisitors’ Manual by Antonio Lobo Antunes    (2004) – 431 pages          Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith


This has been a remarkable reading year for me, in particular for having discovered the Portuguese writer Antonio Lobo Antunes.

Antunes removes the veneer of niceness and reveals just how crude and coarse we humans can be. Yes, we humans are animals and not very nice animals at that and don’t you forget it. And dictators bring out the absolute worst in the human animal. Antunes is one of the few writers who can face up to this.

Instead of a narrator explaining the words, thoughts, and actions of the characters, in ‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ we get the voices of about twenty different characters, each expressing his or her point of view. They tell us how things really are, not how they are supposed to be.

The voices that speak are quite evenly divided between the males and the females. This is an effective device for Antunes. Through the various voices we get closer to the real story. But we never get the complete story, because no one knows everything. There is no omniscience.

At the center is the political minister, Senhor Francisco. He is a close advisor to Professor Antonio Salazar who was the actual dictator of Portugal from 1932 to 1968. Salazar ruled Portugal with a tight fascist fist for decades with the Catholic church backing him up. He used secret police to crush opposition, and he and his close advisors, including Senhor Francisco, could put anyone they wanted into prison just by calling them “Communists”.

Senhor Francisco runs his farm Palmela, “a weird farm full of birds and cows”, like Salazar runs Portugal, and after his wife Isabel leaves him, Francisco uses some of the females working on the farm including the cook and the milkman’s daughter for sexual purposes resulting in a couple of illegitimate children. When the cook is ready to deliver his baby, he calls in the veterinarian rather than a doctor.

Years later the old decrepit Minister Francisco is attracted to the young woman Mila since she reminds him of his first wife Isabel who left him, and he showers Mila and her mother with presents and gifts. While he is fondling her, Mila can’t hide her repulsion.

Her mother asks, “What did you do to the codger, Mila, that he went away looking like a man about to die?”

Before the dictator Professor Salazar visits the Minister’s farm, Senhor Francisco has his workers shoot all the crows so Salazar doesn’t think the crows are mocking and taunting him with their cawing.

What impresses in ‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ is the vivid visceral use of words and images throughout. This is writing that takes you outside of the safe, comfortable territory into wild uncharted original terrain.


Grade:    A



‘The Land at the End of the World’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – Part 2 : The Sublime Use of Simile and Metaphor

If you love words, you will probably love what Antonio Lobo Antunes does with them. Nearly every sentence captures its subject so brilliantly and devastatingly as to have left nothing unsaid. Multiple similes and vivid metaphors roll off his pen (or computer) in every sentence.

While reading ‘The Land at the End of the World’, I was so impressed with Antune’s skillful use of those two literary devices, similes and metaphors, that I decided to write an entire article about it. Never have I encountered such effective use of similes and metaphors. All quotes in this article are from that novel.

A simile draws a resemblance between two dissimilar things. Similes can usually be spotted by seeing the words “is like a” or “is ___ as a”. Similes are apt comparisons.

The ship’s orchestra blasted out boleros for the officers, who looked as melancholy as owls caught in the dawn light”.

speaking a strange language I could barely understand, which sounded like Charlie Parker’s saxophone when he’s not screaming out his wounded hatred for the cruel ridiculous world of the white man.”

kisses as loud as the sucking of sink plungers”

ah, the meals eaten in silence opposite one another, full of a rancor you can smell in the air like a widow’s cologne.”

We are therefore in a condition to go over to the bed to make love, a love as insipid as that frozen fish we ate in the restaurant, whose one eye fixed us with the dying glassy glare of an octogenarian among the faded green of the lettuce.”

these long winters as dull as blown light bulbs”

An exhausted soldier slings his rifle “over his shoulder as if it were a useless fishing rod”.

Knitting needles “secrete sweaters as they clashed like domesticated fencing foils”.

As these examples show, Antunes frequently goes over-the-top with his similes, brazenly and delightfully over-the-top.

A metaphor is the direct comparison of two unlike things by saying that one of them is the other.

inside my head, a slow October rain is falling on the sad geraniums of the past.”

If I were a giraffe, I would love you in silence, gazing down at you from over the wire fencing, as melancholy as a dockyard crane, I would love you with the awkward love of the very tall, and, thought-fully chewing a leaf as if it were gum, jealous of the bears, the anteaters, the duck-billed platypuses, the cockatoos, and the crocodiles, I would slowly lower my neck on the pulleys of my tendons in order, tenderly, tremulously, to nuzzle your breasts with my head.”

The war has made animals of us, you see, cruel stupid animals trained to kill”.

In the case of ‘The Land at the End of the World’, the effective use of these literary devices makes for a colorful entertaining read.


Grade:    A



‘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







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