In the tradition of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, one of the twentieth century's most original literary voices offers "kaleidoscopic visions of a modern Portugal scarred by its Fascist past and its bloody colonial wars in Africa" (Paris Review). Hailed as a masterpiece of world literature, The Land at the End of the World--in an acclaimed translation by Margaret Jull Costa--recounts the anguished tale of a Portuguese medic haunted by memories of war. Like the Ancient Mariner who will tell his tale to anyone who listens, the narrator's evening unfolds like a fever dream that is both tragic and haunting. The result is one of the great war novels of the modern age.
The narrator of the story is a veteran, who is haunted by the horrors of the Portuguese colonial war in Angola in the beginning of the 1970's. In the course of one night he just talks and talks, to a woman he meets in a bar, and later on takes home, and through her to us, the readers. He talks about his youth and family, about his divorce and his green eyed daughter, about his present life at the edge of society, about alcohol, about sex, but most, most of all, about the war in Angola. About the boredom, about the heat, about the dogs and the hungry local children hanging around the military bases, about the injured and dying men he had to treat, being the doctor. About the senselessness of it all. About the young man who couldn't stand it any longer and shot himself in the face. About the loneliness, even if there were all these other men around. About the search for comfort in the arms of prostitutes. About the crimes committed by the Portuguese army. About torture and rape. And most of all, about not doing anything to stop it all. Seeing, and not acting. And the incredible guilt of not having acted.
This is heavy stuff, not only because of its subject, but also because of its style. The sentences just go on and on, and can start in Angola and end along the shore of Portugal. In between you have possibly read a reference to a work of art, or a literary masterpiece, or a historic event. It is definitely no easy reading and I am quite sure I have missed about half of the cross-references. It seems to be the kind of book that you would start to appreciate more as you get older, and know more about art and history and literature. It took me awhile to get used to the style, and it was no relaxing read at all, but it was so beautifully written and so intimate in a way. The details make you feel as if you are there in Angola, and feel the utter despair of a person who has come to despise himself.
Like its predecessor, this second novel of António Lobo Antunes is at least partially autobiographical, and like before, there is some kind of framing narrative (this time the narrator telling his story to a woman in a bar which he then takes home and sleeps with – personally, I’d like to think that this is the same woman the narrator of Elephant’s Memory meets towards the end of that novel, so that the later work would be nested inside of the earlier one, but there is not really any indication for that), a framing narrative that surrounds and somewhat anchors the narrator reminiscing about his life in no particular order and jumping between times and places apparently at random.
As noticeable as the similarities are, there are a number of differences as well: The Land at the End of the World has a closer focus both in its framing (just an evening instead of a whole day, and involving only two people) and its central narrative, which concerns itself exclusively with the colonial war in Angola in which Antunes served as a medical officer. Apparently, it was to a great degree this subject matter – the Angolan war being something one did not really talk about in Portugal back in 1979 when the novel was first published – which made the release of this novel a scandal and Antunes a popular author in his home country. As was to be expected from his first novel, Antunes does not pull any punches in his depiction of the war, he is relentlessly grim whether writing about the Portuguese colonialists or the Angolan rebels, whether he describes the atrocities of the war, the thoughtless cruelty of the Portuguese towards the natives or the squalor and misery the Angolans are forced to exist in. The Land at the End of the World may not be fuelled by the hot fury that propels Elephant’s Memory, the narrator’s gaze is much colder in this book, his attitude more detached, even clinical at times, but this only serves to make it all the bleaker.
In sharp contrast to the misery man seems to spread everywhere he goes (and while Antunes’ apparent subject is very specifically Portugal, I don’t doubt that, in this as in all his other novels, it is at the same time the conditio humana in general that he describes, his regionalism being a means to represent the universal – one of the reasons, I presume, why he is so often compared to William Faulkner), and in fact the only relief from it, are the occasional, rare glimpses of untouched nature which Antunes describes with great, almost aching intensity. Not that the rest of his writing was any less intense; in fact, in the end it is the prose far more than the subject matter of The Land at the End of World which makes this an outstanding and enduring novel, the first of Lobo Antunes' masterworks. While the author still piles metaphors upon metaphors, the imagery in his second novel is much more under control than it was in the first - there is an actual purpose to the images, and a structure that even with all the twists and turns the narrator takes makes him return to the same places, the same images. Scenes and events are visited several times, explored from different angles and under different illuminations, and it becomes clear that the narrator will never be done with them, that his experiences in Angola have marked him for life. And there are recurring images, indeed many of them related to visibility - a particular prominent one is that of rays of light illuminating something at an angle: An image, I think, of Antunes' poetical method, the way his prose creates a kind of chiaroscuro, illuminates by obscuring, reveals by clothing in metaphor. If Elephant's Memory was the promise of a great writer, then The Land at the End of the World is the fulfillment of that promise - and only the first of many to come.
Told in a first person, circular, colorful narrative of seemingly endless runon sentences depicting nightmarish scenes of hideous combat injuries and disfigurements, interspersed with erotic sexual couplings, the aged narrator is looking back at his time as a new doctor conscripted into the Portuguese army and posted to the interior of Angola where a shadowy war continues to sputter and spark between stultifying boredom and explosions of bloody violence. (How's THAT for a runon?) Haunted by specific visions - his male nurse sitting stunned in the dust holding his bloody intestines in his hands following an attack, or the dead young soldier he wrapped gently in a sheet and put him in his own room, telling himself he was only asleep, or the camp dogs licking the operating room blood from his clothing, arms and hands - the narrator, in endless interior monologues to various sexual partners past and present, attempts to lose himself in drink and eroticism.
There are numerous flashbacks to his childhood and youth in Benfica and Lisbon, often skilfully contrasted with the awful circumstances of his two years of boredom, whoring, drinking and misery in Angola. I was often reminded of Yossarian and his "Snowdens of yesteryear." Think CATCH-22, but without the humor. There are also passing references to Fitzgerald, and maybe also to e.e. cummings' war novel, THE ENORMOUS ROOM, along with numerous allusions to Portuguese, Brazilian and other European writers, artists, politicians and more.
I can understand now why this book has earned a place in the canon of war literature. The writing is sinuous and graceful - although it's difficult to know how much the translator (Margaret Jull Costa) figures in. The endless, convoluted sentences were sometimes problematic, although you do get used to it after while. But war lit, yeah. It definitely belongs. I'm glad I read it, and will recommend it highly to fellow war lit buffs.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA
The narrator, a middle-class Portuguese medical student is encouraged by his family to join the Army and go to Angola to fight the war that the Dictator Salazar was fighting to save Portugal’s false glory and his own grip on power. Sadly…
“True to the family prophesy, I had become a man: a kind of sad, cynical greed made up of lascivious despair, egotism, and an eagerness to hide from myself had replaced forever the fragile pleasure of childish joy, of open, unreserved laughter, embalmed in purity, and which at night, when I’m walking home down a deserted street, I seem to hear, echoing at my back like a mocking cascade.”
Antunes, a psychiatrist, who himself served as a doctor in Angola in the 1970s tells this tale of a medic whose experience in the war changes him forever.
Through an ample dose of magical metaphors and poetic phrasing Antunes’ creative imagination can, at times, dazzle and overwhelm the effects of this war on both the African populace and the soldiers who are held in check by Salazar’s secret police.
The narrator is doomed, witnessing what he does, he becomes a sad, depressed and disillusioned man, cut off from family he drinks, loses sleep and the ability to love another person. Back in Lisbon he tells his tale to an unnamed lover as he relates how the war changed him.
“deep down of course, it is our own death that we fear when we imagine someone else’s – and that is what makes cowards of us all”.
There is a fair amount of sexual description which relates how he was loved well by an Angolan native recounting their lovemaking like, “making love to one another, as furiously as rhinoceroses with toothaches”. Yet his sexuality fades as do most of his other desires.
In the end this is a daunting, poetic indictment of dictatorships, war and imperialism. Antunes in his writing is as persuasive as Clarence Darrow and creative as both Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
A classic literary work, a cautionary tale, considered one of the great books of modern day Portuguese literature.