Wednesday, April 19, 2017
The horrors of the Portuguese colonial wars - The Land at the End of the World
Judging from the first 50 or so pages, Antonio Lobo Antunes's novel The Land at the End of the World (1979) is among the strongest and most unusual novels I've come across in many years - who is this writers and, if this novel holds up and his other dozen or so novels are equally good, why does nobody in the English-reading world know much about him? Well, he's Portuguese, so maybe there aren't a lot of great translators, and it would take one, I think, to manage this work, with its highly unusual metaphors and its arcane vocabulary (plus many topical references); Margaret Jull Costa does it justice, though, as far as I can tell, and even includes helpful yet unobtrusive footnotes for our guidance. The novel is narrated by a young Portuguese man of a conventional, perhaps well-to-do Lisbon family with a strong military background. Though he tells us little about his childhood or background - except obliquely, the terrific opening chapter tells in some detail about his childhood memories of a visit to the Lisbon zoo, very Proustian - we see that he joins, perhaps against his will or perhaps out of indifference - the Portuguese army, and he his shipped off to the colony of Angola to participate in the war against rebel forces. Antunes's description of the arrival in Angola, of the train convoy to the military outpost, and of various frightening and decrepit scenes, including a visit to a leper colony, are outstanding. The Portuguese colonial wars in some ways mirror American engagement in the Vietnam war - bitter, stupid, hopeless, producing so many needless deaths and other tragedies, breaking apart families, etc. This novel could well be read alongside novels of the Vietnam era and perhaps other novels of American engagement in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the Portuguese war was even more horrendous than the American follies - racist, the product or a corrupt dictatorship, and in defense of an archaic and criminally unjust colonial system of oppression (and much longer in duration as well).