Portugal’s years under the fascist Salazar are portrayed in a succession of bad dreams, each vividly recalled as characters comment on that dark night of the national soul.
Antunes experiments with language and ideas in a story both allusive and surreal: sinister dogs haunt the landscape, and one narrator is building a boat as a means of escape though the sea is some distance away. But what counts is the cumulative effect and an atmosphere rendered so that history is both judged and understood—in a read that’s challenging as various voices pick up the narrative or circle back on what has just been revealed. It opens as the middle-aged Jao enters a Lisbon courtroom for a divorce hearing. Jao, a gentle soul, is the only son of Senhor Francisco and his wife Isabel, who ran off with another man when Jao was still a small boy. Jao has been living on the family farm, once a prosperous place where the Senhor, a senior minister in Salazar’s fascist government, lavishly entertained the dictator and his cronies. Now, it’s a rundown, falling-apart place where Jao is building a boat to escape while he’s still sane, unlike his father, who ended up demented and in a hospital. As the case proceeds, Jao recalls how his father used the farmwomen and how he panicked when Salazar fell, fearing that communists were coming to get him and the farm. Jao, the Senhor, life on the farm, and the excesses of the former regime—arbitrary imprisonment and brutality in Africa—are remembered by a string of characters like Dona Titina, the aging housekeeper who raised Jao; Sofia, Jao’s socialite wife; the Senhor’s mistresses; his illegitimate daughter, as well as the senile Senhor himself.
In so dark a tale there can be no chirpy affirmations, but only telling indictments of the corrupt, the cruel, and the unjust—and these Antunes memorably accomplishes.