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Fragmented, Yet Lyrical and Entrancing

By Jaime Manrique,
who is at work on "Cervantes Street," a novel
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

WHAT CAN I DO WHEN EVERYTHING'S ON FIRE?

By António Lobo Antunes

Translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa

Norton. 585 pp. Paperback, $19.95

From the beginning of his long, distinguished career, António Lobo Antunes has been a pitiless chronicler of Portugal's colonialism in Brazil and in Africa, the repercussions of which are felt to this day. Lobo Antunes served as a military doctor in the Angolan war of independence from Portugal (1961-75), which generated genocidal acts on both sides, and has emerged as the unquestionable historical conscience of the liberation wars fought by the Portuguese colonies in the 1960s. Haunted by Portugal's imperialist past and decades of repression at home, Lobo Antunes's characters are a cast of disaffected, predominantly marginal people whose souls have been corroded by the legacy of their nation's brutal history (another one of his major subjects is the 36-year right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, which ended in 1968). His latest novel, "What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?," translated into English with a pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech by the legendary Gregory Rabassa, is another dissection of Portugal's sick soul.

The story line of "What Can I Do" deals with an anguished son who immerses himself in Lisbon's underbelly in a quest to find out about his drag-queen father's brutal death. Despite its noirish elements -- the action takes place mostly at night or in a permanent chiaroscuro, and the characters are tawdry, twisted and disturbed -- this is no mystery novel. Lobo Antunes is a fiercely idiosyncratic writer whose novels are spiked with surrealist touches, lyrical flights -- haikulike in their pith -- and a relentless probing of his characters' damaged psyches. The people who weave in and out of this novel are barely sketched, and we seldom know what they look like or what their lives are like outside the moment he is writing about.

Faulkner, Céline and Joyce are routinely mentioned in efforts to try to describe Lobo Antunes's style. Considering his extensive and important body of work, it is unflattering to compare his style with that of any other novelist living or dead. His fractured -- and challenging -- way of telling a story is all his own: No incipient narrative is sustained for more than a few sentences before it is interrupted by another thread. This technique can be frustrating. Consider, for example, the following passage, which is one of the most sustained moments in the entire novel:

"eight or nine plates spinning around, horizontal and fast at first and then slower and slower and more and more wobbly, about to fall off and stopped from falling by the little man who keeps running back and forth and giving them another spin by twirling the bamboo pole, one or two plates always off balance, one or two plates slipping, one or two plates that you can picture in pieces on the floor . . . when I think about myself I think about the little man trotting beside the table in his fake Oriental costume and his mandarin mustache that is ready to fall off."

Despite the frustrations, the novel is worth sticking with and best approached as a highly allusive work that brings to mind the late Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo," which also centers on the search of a son for his dead father. Here, too, the dead address us from the underworld. And like many of Rulfo's characters, Lobo Antunes's people are ghosts before they die. As with Rulfo's masterpiece, this is a novel told in voices. Some 70 characters are listed in the three pages of dramatis personae. But to call these voices characters is a stretch. They have fragments, shards, splinters of stories to tell, yet they do not develop or grow or become very distinctive. They are interchangeable, like the disembodied voices in a chat room situated not in cyberspace but in hell. In fact, the Tagus River, which runs through Lisbon, where the novel takes place, brings to mind the mythological Styx.

A writer's writer par excellence, Lobo Antunes has a profound relationship with his literary predecessors. Though he is a philosophical novelist, he doesn't present us with theories about existence; he gives us instead his own grim vision of humanity. It is this vision, imbued with sadness, absurdity and existential despair, that held me captive throughout. It is as if Lobo Antunes believes that in our chaotic and mad age, a writer can be truthful to what we have become and where we are heading only if he delivers his stories piecemeal, as if to reflect the media-crazed nature of reality as perceived today, when we are bombarded by the important and the banal as if there were no distinction between them. No other novelist alive is as unblinking, or as prescient, in trying to capture this aspect of our time.

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