Doctor and Patient, Lobo Antunes…
by Peter Conrad

Lobo Antunes was born in Lisbon in 1942 and claims that he decided to be a novelist at the age of seven. When he was sixteen, however, his father sent him to medical school, where he trained as a psychiatrist. His medical and literary careers progressed in parallel, and he is still the director of a Lisbon geriatric clinic. Brooding over the Nobel Prize, Lobo Antunes once said, “My medical career would terminate the moment I cash that check.” But his day job has been the making of him, and it isn’t easy to dissociate his artistry from his clinical skills. During his medical training, he attended what he calls “the lesson at the morgue,” and what he learned there shaped his methods as a writer. In one novel, a character narrates a nightmare with a postmortem examination of himself, and Lobo Antunes makes clear that this is an elementary and unavoidable part of literary activity. “You’re a writer and never thought of this?” the character asks the book’s narrator, a journalist. “You never imagine yourself naked, smelling of formaldehyde, flat on your back in a marble tub, waiting for them to cut open your ribs with a huge pair of scissors?” Few of us are brave enough to entertain that thought; lacking volunteers, Lobo Antunes serves as his own specimen. In 2007, he underwent surgery for intestinal cancer, and, knowing how his body would look cut open, recorded the experience in a series of articles. Writing, as he practices it, can be creepily close to vivisection, and his novels conduct an autopsy that is both personal and political.

Some of Lobo Antunes’s earlier books seem too laceratingly confessional to be called fiction at all. In “Knowledge of Hell,” a narrator, whose name happens to be António Lobo Antunes, agonizes during a long drive over the failure of his marriage and the futility of his work in psychiatry. Lobo Antunes the narrator admits that his patients serve as a novelist’s exploited, manipulated playthings: a psychiatrist is able to “live among distorted men” and fish in “the agitated, rancorous aquarium of their brains.” This dabbling in neurosis is second nature to writers, who are, in his opinion, “adult people torturing themselves to create school compositions, imaginary intrigues, useless imbroglios.”

The novels that followed “Knowledge of Hell” extend beyond this self-purgation. Lobo Antunes, who admires Faulkner, shares his partiality for overlapping monologues, which gives the impression that an entire society is incautiously confiding in an analyst or a confessor. “Fado Alexandrino,” published in 1983, uses this polyphonic technique to investigate the failed hopes of Portugal’s recent history. The “fado” of the title is the music of helpless resignation: the word means “fate,” and it refers to the ululating laments declaimed by singers—wrapped in funereal black shawls, their faces set in a rictus of misery—in Lisbon’s night clubs. Here the vocalists are four soldiers who return disillusioned, like Lobo Antunes himself, from a colonial war, this one in Mozambique. They become disgruntled witnesses to the 1974 revolution, in which the army bloodlessly toppled the moribund Fascist regime. That uprising occurred on April 25th, which made it a rite of spring—a carnival of renewal, celebrated by soldiers with carnations in the muzzles of their guns. The rejoicing, as the novel demonstrates, did not last long. Leftist hardliners took over and, for a while, it seemed that Portugal would be captured by Communism. The ideology that prevailed, however, was consumerism. Lobo Antunes’s cohorts helplessly watch their nation’s collapse from idealism into self-indulgence, and even surrender to it themselves during a boozy reunion that takes them on a long crawl through bars and brothels. Their night of carousing ends in a death: one member of the gang is murdered, and the rest share blame for inciting the crime. The novel pessimistically concludes that there is no way of salvaging a society so embedded in the past: revolution seems “so absurd in a country that was worm-eaten,” and the flag-waving and chanting of the ideologues amount to little more than “a ridiculous piece of fiction, a puppet show, a complete farce.”

Lobo Antunes’s contrapuntal narrative functions as a rejoinder to the Fascist cult of corporatism, in which Salazar’s state assumed that its citizens, equalized by conformity, became indistinguishable from one another. The discordant monologues of the novels allow individuals to tell their stories, though in doing so they erode the bonds of family and community and end in a kind of solitary confinement. Lobo Antunes transcribes the complaints of Portugal’s “little people,” who once—as a slumdweller in “Fado Alexandrino” says—relied on Heaven to look after them; now their advocate is a novelist. Making this his mission, Lobo Antunes has progressively extended the bandwidth of his monologues. In “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” he intertwines the fractured soliloquies of transvestites in a Lisbon night club, their nervily anonymous clients, a hospital orderly, and a solicitous journalist investigating this dim underworld. An epigraph taken from the fourth-century Christian scholar Epiphanius hints at the purpose behind this ghostly babble: “I am you and you are me; where you are, I am, and in all things I find myself dispersed.” Dispersal is our dusty fate, but our ashes and our drifting atoms can mingle. Although his venal characters pursue selfish agendas, Lobo Antunes’s technique emphasizes their interrelation and appeals to our commiseration. He is still writing for the foot that he saw hanging from that improvised shroud.

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