Review of Fado Alexandrino by António Lobo Antunes
Grandmaster of Metaphor
Trying to come up with the right word to describe Antunes’ prose is difficult. Any comparisons are superficial, but I’ll mention all the writers he resembles in minor ways. The best single word I could find was “tintinnabulation.” That’s what his words do. They rattle around in your head, slide around like unsecured luggage on a freighter, jostle and chortle, and crowd one another out, the images swarm, magnify and recede, searing your mind, and continually, and over and again, tintinnabulating until you’re terrorized, barreling forward into Surreal, fractured heavens and hells.
At times I was lost, groping through the text, wall-eyed with indefinable sensations. The difficulty level bordered on Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom! at first, but I could feel the blockage loosening up. The dams eventually burst and the rollicking, hedonistic, rambling, phantasmagoric words flooded in with Biblical insistence. The author’s intrinsic reliance on crunchy, noodling metaphors within metaphors sold me on the style, but it took practice to acclimatize myself to the hailstorm of his method. Having read The Land at the End of the World, I immediately bought all 13 volumes of Antunes currently available in English. Fado Alexandrino is a doubly forceful encore to that book, vaster and braver and more insane in every way. His prophetic images, nuanced through bodies and minds, his visionary texturing of layer upon layer of perspective, the imagination, the absurdist comedy, the deep pathos, the bloody violence, all congealed into a twisted nightmare. It took me far too long to read. At times I recoiled, gasping, but I always dove in for more.
The book takes place in a restaurant so splattered that the colors all run together. The men who tell their stories here are tied together by the tragedies of war and the semblance of lives they lead afterward, some politics intrude, reality blends seamlessly with their words – it is sometimes impossible to tell if a line is spoken aloud by a character or not, since quotation marks were missing from Antunes’ typewriter. There is an astounding richness of diction, an abundance of syntax that is most inspiring, a Nabokovian variety of descriptions, endless clarifications, and haunting, Kafkaesaue flights of fancy all intricately interwoven with contra-textual interpolations, until it becomes a fabric of dispossessed, roiling, shamanistic visions, belligerent speculations, Borgesian depths of irony and allusion, an ever-deepening darkness, a whirlpool, spewed out by the most expressive, articulate of cynics, amid the most entertaining and gruesome business of warfare, as he warps mentally between Mozambique and Lisbon, cradled by his whores, the narrator, abysmally in his cups, indulges in luscious flashbacks, which layer the novel with a hazy filter.
It is a book to be treasured, devoured, regurgitated, and savored repeatedly. It is sustained dementia, a mesmerizing panoply of humanity’s willy-nilly selfishness. It’s mind-boggling to conceive how Antunes’ brain concocted all of this controlled chaos. The riveting imagery makes for an immersive experience, as crowded as an Altman film, with “the strange toothache of nostalgia,” fading in and out, coupled with effective motifs and repetitions, as the characters “vomit out the sea.”
It is an interior sea, as detailed and manic as Javier Marias at his best. The sea of human emotion and strife, language as a liquid, solidifying around them. The narrative flows. The chapter divisions become almost meaningless, but stopping reading is like coming up for air before plunging back down into an ocean of grease. It meanders, digresses, diverges, submerges you. You have to succumb to the galloping rhythm if you are going to make it all the way through this monumental work.
Schizo-phrenetic, with constant interruptions, confusing jump cuts and scene changes, often mid-sentence – just roll with it. It’s a sophisticated form of impressionistic storytelling. The environment is constantly personified, wilderness mingles with urban settings, nurses become creatures, and the wildest illusions intrude into the mundane conversations of night club drifters. Get used to the feel of mud, insects, rot, destruction, toads, make way for sex, murder, strangulation, erotic fixations, bursting pustules everywhere, simply everywhere, war-torn landscapes of the mind, stumbling, delirious soldiers, and obviously, death as a hovering omniscience. Antunes is as acerbic as Céline, but somehow dignified in his irreverence. His prose is always biting, pissing and scratching as it scrambles through labyrinthine paragraphs, you are grabbed, manhandled and left in a slowly drying pool of excrement. The book is truly fecal in texture, with elephantine horrors sliding across the page, dwelling too long under your nose, dribbling over your mind, leaving a definitive, tongue-shriveling aftertaste, at times deliciously repulsive. Reminiscences manifesting with lucid detail, scenes morphing into still-lives, memories metamorphosed into fossilized hangover hallucinations – these are the corridors of this literary convolution. Remarkably, it is crystalline in structure, and gem-like metaphors sprout in abundance: “The washing machine was sobbing away at its work.” – Hundreds of profound observations about the state and nature of objects and environments parade through the narrative, every character is caught with their pants perpetually down, trailing afterbirths, or excrement, like baffled fish in the grit-smeared tank of Antunes’ mind.
The squelching, magnificent simile-metaphor sandwiches are to be re-read endlessly, like the following – “Madam Simone, hand-in-hand with the fellow in a red jacket, came back on stage rolling her ancient body with all the grace of a locomotive, and bending over in an awkward bow that made the vast withered mass of her mammaries pop out like cartilagenous heads of twins peeping out and hanging down in the course of a birth.”
How could you not read this?
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