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The Missouri Review 27.3 (2004) 214-216
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This 1988 novel can be a difficult read if you've few ready references for Portuguese history, culture and colonial geography, but if you're willing to keep an encyclopedia at your side or conduct a few Google searches for background orientation, it's a rouser.
The narrative switches between times and places—mainly 1974 Lisbon, when a bloodless coup ended thirty years of fascism and the vast Portuguese empire, which in the fifteenth century had stretched from the Azores and Madeira Islands to Guinea to Angola to Mozambique, on into India and across the Atlantic to Brazil. Scenes are full of anachronisms: the sailing ships of the title beside Iraqi tankers at the mouth of the Tagus River, which runs through Lisbon; stonecutters chipping limestone for a monastery alongside vending machines; explorer Diogo Cão's bunkside collection of Agatha Christies. The several loose story lines involve displaced colonialists returning to Lisbon, but chapters are best read as lively set pieces—writhing tableaux of Lisbon across five centuries.
Even points of view switch. A passage that starts off in limited third person might in a few sentences become first person, then a few sentences later revert to third person—an initially baffling disruption that [End Page 214] becomes second nature to the reader. Antunes articulates the intended effect of this strategy in another context: "I was struck by the absurd idea that we were a single individual looking at himself in a mirror."
The thought is Vasco da Gama's, in a scene with his king, Dom Manoel. The main characters/narrators in this novel are earthy fictionalizations of historical figures that include da Gama, the missionary Francisco Xavier, the Portuguese poet Luís Camões (who in one scene begins drafting the octaves that will become The Lusiads, his epic on da Gama that Antunes is loosely updating here) and Pedro Álvarez Cabral, arguably the first European in Brazil. Even Cervantes appears, hanging out on the docks with some of the others and exclaiming, "I'm going to put that in my book." Oscar Wilde, Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel all get cameos, too.
It's a circus, but a larger purpose than entertainment is evident in the author's constant juxtaposition of a postmodern world and sensibility with old-fashioned grit. A giant blue sign in the cityscape is referred to as "the Nivea Cream ball," while vomit in a ship's hold reaches a foot deep; a boarder's wife is put to work in "a whore bar" in order to pay rent at the Apostle of the Indies Boarding House, a central locale in Antunes's Lisbon; partridge-sized bats mistake reflections in the waves on the Tagus for prey and, kamikaze-like, perish. There's some impassioned dialog on socialism, too, as must have gone on in Portugal after 1974, when a system was being sought to replace fascism. In one scene Cabral is told by his prince to "land in Brazil and bring it here to me." When he's done it the prince says, "What do I want something like that for . . . ?" And so, writes Antunes, "with lots of Hail Marys and lots of work we . . . towed Brazil back to America." Here as elsewhere, the author's fascination with harsh life, cruelty and squalor is tempered by humor and empathy for his beleaguered characters.
His prose is a paragon of robust writing. Even absurdities are meticulously observed and/or researched and deftly rendered, with details like the previously mentioned bats, a ship's cholera flag and the way an airport's luggage conveyor "sobbed its way around . . . giving little twists." Precise details, whether historical, cultural or invented, ground this by turns dreamy and nightmarish vision in the real world. Lists of incidental-seeming particulars render a flavor so pronounced as to constitute a worldview: life as brutal but beautiful—as...