B O O K R E V I E W
THE FATAL WEIGHT OF MEMORY
d i s c o v e r i n g p o r t u g a l ' s a n t u n e s
BY OONA PATRICK
Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated by Richard Zenith
THE NATURAL ORDER OF THINGS (A ORDEM NATURAL DAS COISAS)
© 2000, Portuguese Original 1992
Grove Press, 320 pp.
THE NATURAL choice after reading José Saramago is to read António Lobo Antunes, another leading Portuguese writer with several novels already available in English translations. Reading these two novelists, as well as João de Melo, gives the impression that there is some very exciting fiction coming out of Portugal. The Natural Order of Things is a novel in which the very theme is the coexistence, or simultaneity, of the past and the present, and of the real and the unreal. Antunes’s technical skill in getting this across is alone worth looking at. Among other stylistic feats, he writes amazing sentences in which two scenes, years apart in time, take place at once. He is compared to Nabokov, among others, for the time shifts, the song-like riffs and the very particular repetitions which are also reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
Antunes’s description of the action, taking place in two scenes at once in the same sentence, is a spectacle.
In this long sentence, the middle-aged character’s mind interweaves an event in the past (a caged fox escaping in a rambling old house) with what is happening in the present as he tries to hail a taxicab for his teen-aged wife Yolanda:
"The fox, helplessly yelping and not knowing what to do, scurried into the living room in a whirlwind of fur, and my aunts, busy knitting doilies in worn-out armchairs by the faint light that entered through the curtains, stood up in unison, using their needles to shoo away the animal, which bumped into a pendulum, setting off a hailstorm of carillons and hiccups of cuckoos, and finally, Yolanda, after you’d sneezed for the third time, pulling Kleenex from your purse, there appeared a green taxi light sailing in the traffic circle behind a hearse, and I, eager to please, oblivious of the traffic, skipped across the asphalt, threatened by splashboards, horns, and insulting expletives, the fox turned around in a circle…"
This dual scene extends for six more pages like this, cutting back and forth as rapidly as in a film. The impression it leaves is of memories as real as the present day. The past coexists with everything that comes later, the characters in this novel, and perhaps Portugal itself, continuously living in both times. “The past is so clear and vivid that I don’t need to close my eyes to see, once more, Uncle Fernando descending the stairs holding the fox by its tail.” Part of the way Antunes makes his combinations work throughout the novel, as it grows even more complex, is that the characters and their memories are given powerful tags—words, images, lines of address. Its success also must owe much to the translator’s skill (Richard Zenith also translates Pessoa).
While Saramago is known for his lack of punctuation and long paragraphs, Antunes is also very inventive. One lovely feature in this novel is its paragraph breaks and related repetitions. While these sections remain prose, after these breaks a single word, such as “rockroses,” “turtledoves” or “Sunday,” will fall off the end of one paragraph, sometimes pause on a line by itself, then move to the next paragraph:
Julieta appears, in a pinafore and with a ribbon falling out of her hair, and, spurred on by my brother, she drops a huge brick onto my chest, in spite of my protests, it was SundayThese refrains reoccur as single, haunted words dropped in between unrelated paragraphs, memories returning unbidden to the mind:
a Sunday in 1950, forty-two years ago.
‘whereas my brother-in-law’s cousin, after less than an hour,’And again, these unrelenting rockroses of memory:
‘had to be rushed back to the top, given oxygen, and taken to the mine infirmary.’But there was nothing to talk about, I thought, because what on earth can one sayAntunes’s imagery blooms and corrodes. In the first narrator’s remembered home there appear “the corpses of sailors that clutched broken rudders and peered at us from behind the hatboxes in the closets.” This comes at the end of a plainer, corpse-less description of “the house, the house, my God, surrounded by seagulls and sea mist on top of a cliff.” In this case, what makes it work is the atmosphere of a remembered place, which makes corpses, mixed in with hatboxes, somehow all a part of the man’s screwy memory. This is just one of hundreds of examples.
rockroses, forget the rockroses
to a man who never lay in Solange’s bed
In a book as inventive as this, the magical realism is almost innate to the writing style. The real and unreal mix the same way the past and present combine in the minds of the characters. Some fight this mixing, telling themselves, for example, that the men who speak of flying over the rooftops of Lisbon are simply drunk, while the minds of others are completely given over to it: “We flew high above the river, Lisbon shrinking under our stork bellies.”
In another instance, a family appears to abandon hope of finding medicine for a strange condition. “ 'My husband thinks he’s a tree,' explained my stepmother to the pharmacist.” And then they give in, seeing, or at least describing, the tree too: “During the night bats were flying out of the hollows of his trunk, and when his breath was just a tiny cold north breeze he had to be sawn in half to fit in the ambulance, and my stepmother, wiping her eyes, lamented to the family, 'To be an acacia is a dreadful disease.' ” These people, already haunted by their memories, stop fighting the intrusions of the “unreal.” It’s almost fatalistic magical realism.
An atmosphere of trauma, suffering and wasted lives runs throughout. In a twist accomplished in part by a shift in style, the insane illegitimate woman shut away in the attic of the old family house finally speaks. Her section begins without shifting of times, refrains or magical realism. Her thoughts, at first, are so lucid you almost wonder if the entire rest of the book was a dream, or if the truth is that all the characters are crazy except for her. Her lucidity makes it all the more chilling when she speaks of hitting playmates over the head with a brick, and then her thoughts, too, gradually break down under the weight of memory like everyone else’s.
While Saramago enjoys a greater international reputation than Antunes after his Nobel Prize, and his allegories perhaps carry larger, world-historical implications, Antunes is even more exciting as a stylist. Portugal’s current trove of literary riches continues to overflow.
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