If Portuguese postmodernist Antunes (whose mazelike fictions include An Explanation of the Birds, 1991, and Fado Alexandrino, 1990) were a filmmaker, he’d be the late Luis Buñuel—who, incidentally, makes a telling brief appearance in this multilayered 1988 novel. It’s an energetic conflation of historical past and fictional near-present, in which Vasco de Gama’s 16th-century voyages of exploration merge with evidence of the dissolution of Portugal’s colonial African empire. Multiple narrators—including poet Luis Camoes (author of his country’s national epic The Lusiads), a motherly mulatto whore, and a distracted Admiral lost in dreams of the fleshpots of Amsterdam—evoke a dizzyingly complex series of visions of political, mercantile, and sexual adventuring and exploitation. Hyperbole is Antunes’s game (figures like “a plantation overseer, who did secret business in Siamese twins and . . . “a poet with powdered hair and shoes with buckles and high heels” keep turning up), and the result is a jagged storm of a book that the reader must be prepared to weather.
Antunes isn’t easygoing, but the chaotic brio of his sardonic tragicomic sensibility is often perversely entertaining.