Thursday, April 20, 2017
Blown away by the beauty and complexity of The Land at the End of the Earth
I'm again blown away by the beauty, complexity, and depth of Antonio Lobo Antunes's short novel The Land at the End of the Earth (1979), an examination of the horrors of the Portuguese colonial wars in the 1970s and the effect of the war on a young soldier. A plot summary, however, does not and cannot convey the excellence of this novel, in which literally every sentence is full of oddities, insights, wit, and bits of philosophy and insight. Antunes's prose seems at times like beat poetry - like taking Howl and turning it into a prose poem. But he still manages to tell a story, of sorts. He doesn't dwell on back story but over time we learn more about the narrator's life: halfway thru, we now know that he is a doctor who joined the army (drafted into the army? not clear yet) and we see him dealing with the most horrendous and grotesque of war injuries, including loss of limbs from roadside explosives. He also is recently married, and is wife gives birth to their first child while he's in service in Angola. One of the powerful chapters recounts his visit on leave back to Lisbon, and Antunes captures succinctly the shock of return, the difficulty of adjustment to the proprieties and conventions of civil life (he gets in a weird dispute with the customs agent in the airport), the alienation and estrangement from his family - nobody can understand service in the the colonial wars from the safety of Lisbon. The novel is presented as a tale or confession from the narrator to a woman he's trying to seduce during the early morning hours in a bar - the novel is addressed to her, or to "you," but Antunues does not dwell on this narrative device, just returns to it from time to time, and by doing so lets us know that the soldier never does adjust to civilian life (the narration takes place about 8 years after the events described), that his marriage must have dissolved, and we sense he's no longer involved w/ his young daughter nor with the bourgeois family. It's a challenging novel to read - the syntax is at times Proustian in complexity, there are many topical references (as noted yesterday, translator Margaret Jull Costa includes helpful yet unobtrusive footnotes), the vocabulary is rich, even arcane at times - but pick up almost any sentence, almost anywhere in this novel, and you'll be blown away from Antunes's insight and wit.