The first English translation of Antunes’s 1980 novel, third in a surreal, teasingly autobiographical trilogy having to do with a psychiatrist haunted by his participation in Portugal’s colonial war in Angola during the 1970s.
The plot is minimal. “Antunes” is on his way back from a holiday on the southern coast to his accursed job in a Lisbon hospital. (In real life, the author practices psychiatry in Portugal’s capital city.) During the drive, he takes stock of himself, his country and his profession; he and his colleagues are “insipid lunatics...rich clowns tyrannizing the poor clowns their patients with slapstick psychotherapies and pills.” He finds little to like, and he dislikes at length and grandiloquently. The real story in this book is its torrential prose, characterized by caustic rage and wit, by the alternation of salty vernacular and rococo literariness, with simile heaped upon simile heaped upon simile. Dreamlike and vengeful, built around the analogy between Portugal and the asylum, this is the novel-as-screed: daring, fitfully brilliant, but also often overwhelming. The most chilling scenes—and the most phantasmagorical, as when the protagonist, examining soldiers en masse in Africa, is menaced and pursued by the “flaccid snouts” of disembodied penises—are those that have to do with memories of Angola. The narrator’s disgust for and guilt over the war suffuse everything else here.
Not always coherent and sometimes over the top stylistically, but its intensity never flags, and in bursts the prose can be startlingly original.