Lost in Translation: The Curious Obscurity of António Lobo Antunes

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Considered by many to be Portugal’s greatest living writer, António Lobo Antunes’ relative obscurity in the English-speaking world is something of an enigma. The author of 23 novels, and still, at the age of 69, turning them out with unerring industriousness, Lobo Antunes is quite a big deal in Portuguese-, Spanish- and French-speaking countries. He has his illustrious champions too: George Steiner calls him “a novelist of the very first rank…an heir to Conrad and Faulkner;” no less a canon-builder than Harold Bloom says Lobo Antunes is “one of the living writers who will matter most;” according to J.M. Coetzee, his shorter works, published in English as The Fat Man and Infinity, “are alive with the poetry of the everyday, and tinged with the gentlest of self-mockery.” Every October his name is among those bandied about for the Nobel Prize, yet mention him to most English speakers, even literary types, and you will be met with terribly blank looks.

The irony is it was approval from the United States that made Lobo Antunes his name as a writer. Despite claiming that from the age of seven his sole ambition was to be a writer, he took his time getting started. Speaking in his apartment in central Lisbon — almost every square inch of wall-space lined with books in multiple languages — Lobo Antunes says he initially wrote without intending to get published. A friend finally prevailed on him to submit a manuscript for publication and Elephant Memory appeared in 1979. It was on the publication of his second novel, Os Cus de Judas (idiomatically, “the arse-end of nowhere”, published twice in English under more prim titles, most recently The Land at the End of the World) that things began to, unexpectedly, take off. “I received a letter from an American agent — a big name at the time; I wasn’t going to reply — I thought it was a joke. But I wrote back, thinking, why not, it’d be cool to have an agent in New York. So the first book came out and the reviews were very good. In the U.S., if you have The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, you have America, and if you have America, you have Europe. It all snowballed — all of a sudden, I had an agent, a publisher, translators, and readers. That was all very strange for me.”

That agent was Thomas Colchie, who also broke Manuel Puig and Reinaldo Arenas in the U.S. Back home in Portugal, Lobo Antunes quickly became one of the giants of contemporary literature, locked for a long time in mutual hostility with the late José Saramago — not so much a feud as irritation on the part of each at constant comparison by the media. By the end of the 1980s he was able to give up his job as a psychiatrist in a Lisbon mental hospital and live off his writing. His work reads like a biopsy of Portuguese society over the past 50 years, dealing along the way with the dark days of Portuguese fascism (The Inquisitor’s Manual, published in 1996), the 1974 Revolution and its aftermath (Fado Alexandrino, 1990) and the messy reflux of decolonization (The Natural Order of Things, 1992, and The Return of the Caravels, 1988, in which Vasco da Gama arrives back in post-revolution Lisbon with other “retornados” from Portuguese Africa).

Lobo Antunes’ style is dense and sometimes disorienting, with multiple narrative voices jostling for space on the one page — something which is more marked in recent novels where paragraphs often begin uncapitalized, such is the textual overspill. The novels are not easy to read but neither are they forbiddingly inaccessible. The effect is like studying a painting up close inch by inch, particular by those painters such as Rembrandt and Rothko whose works photographic reproductions don’t really do justice. The books are often a slow read but details remain embedded in the mind long after you have put them down. The British writer he most bears resemblance to in intensity is David Peace, though that doesn’t tell a quarter, never mind half, of the story. Lobo Antunes is much the greater stylist, with his luxuriant imagery beautifully rendered into English by his various translators, among them Gregory Rabassa and Richard Zenith. He has been at times compared to Faulkner, Céline, and Proust, though, when I put this to him, he laughs and says he is nothing like them. But sumptuous as his prose might be, it is bolstered by a masterly rigor and underneath the surface, rage burns. Few novelists ever have produced writing that is at once so gorgeous and so angry.

One of the earliest motors of that anger was his own participation in the bloody colonial wars that Portugal fought from 1961 to 1975 in a desperate attempt to hold onto its empire. Antunes spent 27 months in Angola as an army medic, returning in 1973, 13 months before the revolution that overthrew the fascist regime. One of his company’s officers, the leftist Ernesto de Melo Antunes (no relation) was a leader of the revolution, and Lobo Antunes speaks of him fondly as having been like an older brother. But the war itself was a terrible “extreme” experience with the future novelist witnessing and participating in what he calls “terrible things.” He has never returned to Angola, though says he would like to, being evasive as to why he hasn’t — “things are complicated over there.” Angola was for him a wonderful country, a land of pungent smells, rich colors, and beautiful sunsets, which, if it weren’t for the war, he would have thought of as paradise. He is also amazed as to how forgiving the Angolans he knows are of their former colonial masters — “it’s strange because, if I were Angolan, I would be full of hate, but with them there’s none, only gentle friendship for the Portuguese, they treat you like family.”

Lobo Antunes never talks about his war experiences — “out of respect for the dead” — and, with the exception of The Land at the End of the World, has treated the wars only obliquely in his novels. He is similarly unforthcoming about his books; he says it is “not my place to talk about them.” He is however expansive on other subjects, particularly the process of writing. Despite his prolific output he finds writing hard though, he adds, “it is for anybody who writes.” A few years ago he told an audience in Boston that “writing is not difficult — it is impossible — but sometimes it becomes easy when an invisible force guides your hand.” When he has a book going, his routine is regular and punishing, writing from nine in the morning till 11 at night with two one-hour breaks in between. He dismisses suggestions he toils more than anyone else, saying many a manual laborer works far harder and compared to Dickens, Balzac, or Stendhal, his effort is modest. Though he measures himself against the greats, Lobo Antunes is remarkably humble. He starts from nothing, without anything in mind, without even notes to guide him, and never writes to a plan. Everything is done in longhand — “I like seeing the letters form and smelling the paper” — and he owns neither a computer nor even a mobile phone. Considering how vivid the topography of Portugal is in his novels, this is surprising; the critic Peter Conrad has said that in Lobo Antunes’ novels, the “world [inside the narrators’ head] is the size of a country.” His work is almost like psycho-geography in reverse, Portugal conjured up from nothing in the study at the back of his apartment. Lobo Antunes is so self-effacing as to sometimes disbelieve words he can’t remember writing, wondering “if it would be really honest to put my name on the cover of this book.”

Like most writers, he is beset by doubt. He always wonders if his next book will be his last. After finishing a novel, he is incapable of writing for months, he says, as was the case after the publication in Portuguese last September of his latest novel The Commission of Tears (about the 1977 attempted coup d’état in Angola). He has since started writing again but still does not know what course it is going to take. He has never reread any of his books — not in itself that exceptional among writers but neither does he do public readings. He doesn’t hold onto manuscripts or discarded drafts (though, smilingly, he says he did so for a while “because American universities pay a lot for that sort of thing,” but then started throwing them out again). He doesn’t read reviews anymore either, not for fear they might be bad, but for fear the good ones “might be wrong.” You get the sense his reticence about his books is as much to avoid spoiling them with discussion and you also feel Lobo Antunes is taking the long view on literary fame — at one point, he says, “after your death, your books are all that remain.” If, as Harold Bloom suggests, Lobo Antunes is one of those living writers “who will matter”, the author himself looks to be making careful preparations for his posthumous reputation.

As a reader, Lobo Antunes holds the bar high. He speaks warmly of contemporary writers he admires though those are few. For him the 19th century is the high-tide mark of literary excellence — “at any one time across the world, in America, in the U.S., in Russia and so on, there were 30 or so geniuses all working; today, you’re lucky if you can find five in the whole world.” He also holds the Moderns in high esteem. As for today’s writers, entering the Lobo Antunes canon is as onerous as trying to get into heaven is for the rich man in St. Matthew’s Gospel. While we are talking, he opens a parcel of new books his publishers have sent him; he picks through them, grumbling that they are “shit” (including, amusingly, one by a prominent American writer with quite a reputation for self-importance). Only a Portuguese biography of the late Angolan UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi arouses his interest. Biography is what he mostly reads while writing — with fiction he finds he picks holes and ends up rewriting in his head — the biography he is currently looking forward to most is one of the 20th-century American crime writer and friend of P.G. Wodehouse, Rex Stout. Those writers Lobo Antunes does like include Cormac MacCarthy, whose “monosyllabic brilliance” he praises, and the late W.G. Sebald, who was a friend. On prompting, he also concedes Saul Bellow had some good stuff. But for the most part there is little in contemporary fiction that interests him.

It is certainly not the product of a narrow worldview — Lobo Antunes reads and speaks Spanish, Catalan, English, and French as well as his native language and he tells me he has taught himself enough Russian to be able to compare translations of his beloved Gogol and Chekhov. He speaks particularly highly of English-language translators, placing them above those in the other languages he reads. He also, quite rightly, thinks highly of his own translators in English, more so than his French ones — he says his novels in French have been poorly translated, though he is happy with his latest collaborator, Dominique Nédellac, but one presumes he is not basing that opinion on a full reading of the books.

The last few years have been dramatic — in 2007 he successfully underwent surgery for intestinal cancer — his novel from that year, My Name is Legion, is dedicated to the doctor that “saved my life.” That same year he won the Camões Prize, the Portuguese language’s top literary award and two years ago, he married for the fourth time. His output has not let up, with a new book almost every year. Some of his back catalogue has also seen the light of day in English, with two books apiece issued by W.W. Norton and Dalkey Archive in the past four years. English-language publishers have a lot of catching up to do however; though some of the older books are getting translated only one from the last decade has appeared in English — What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? which was first published in Portuguese as far back as 2001. Many of the eight he has written since have appeared in French, German, and Spanish, but not in English. In the U.K. bar two editions, now out of print, that Secker issued in the early 90s, Lobo Antunes has barely been published, with his readers there relying on U.S. imports and his work making only flitting appearances in U.K. bookshops.

So why is he not better known in the English-speaking world? One can understand how the casual reader might find forbidding the work of a man who flatly denies he is a storyteller and who says that “plot, whenever there is one, and usually there isn’t, is just a hook to say the things that interest me.” His near absence from the literary pages, despite the good reviews, is more puzzling though. Lobo Antunes himself is not too fazed. “George Steiner told me he tried to get people in Cambridge interested in my work; he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t known. Someone told me the English just prefer English writers,” he says with a shrug. Stateside, he is far from a household name, but he does at least have the firm grounding for a major reputation. It is true that literature in translation is a notoriously hard sell with the Anglophone publishing world seemingly only capable of handling one big writer at a time — think of, in recent years Sándor Márai, Roberto Bolaño, and Hans Fallada. In all three cases their success in English was, significantly, posthumous. Regrettably, many readers may not come to know António Lobo Antunes’ considerable body of work until all that remains of him is his books.

Image courtesy of the author.