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The Land at the End of the World
With nearly two dozen books to his name, António Lobo Antunes is unquestionably Portugal's greatest and most accomplished living novelist. There are many (myself not included) that believe the Swedish Academy awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize to the wrong Portuguese writer, though rumors persist that Lobo Antunes is an annual contender for the much coveted literary prize. His dense and powerful works are often compared to those of Joyce, Faulkner, and Céline, though he denies influence from either of the former.
The Land at the End of the World (Os Cus de Judas) is Lobo Antunes's second novel, originally published in 1979. The work has been published previously in English under the title South of Nowhere, with a translation by Elizabeth Lowe (1983, Random House). This new rendering by Margaret Jull Costa bears the distinctive quality that one expects of her translations (Saramago, Marías, Pessoa, and Eça de Queirós). A side-by-side reading of the two English editions shows clearly that the new translation is much richer and more fluid than its predecessor. Margaret Jull Costa also translated The Fat Man and Infinity, a fantastic collection of essays and short stories that demonstrates another side to Lobo Antunes's many literary talents.
Maragaret Jull Costa writes in the introduction, "The title of this novel in Portuguese is Os Cus de Judas, 'Cu de Judas' being a slang term for any very remote, desolate place 'the back of beyond,' 'the middle of nowhere,' 'the boonies' but literally it means 'Judas's asshole.'" The book's original title (more so than The Land at the End of the World) is both a literal and figurative allusion to the book's harrowing narrative. It aptly conveys the harsh desolation of both the setting and the main character's internal state.
The story relates the tale of a nameless narrator as he recounts his time serving as a medic in the Angolan interior during the Portuguese Colonial War. The Land at the End of the World may well be Lobo Antunes's most autobiographical work, as he, too, spent over two years during the war as a medic. Nearly all of the book's action takes place in a bar as the narrator, while attempting to charm a woman he wishes to spend the night with, offers up the harsh details and inescapable memories of his time in the war zone. His long, dark, and often resentful monologues illustrate the timeless horrors of armed conflict and the lasting repercussions on individual lives and the nation as a whole. The narrator also muses upon the repressive Portuguese government and the factors that led up to the 1974 revolution.
We weren't mad dogs when we arrived here, I said to the lieutenant, who was seething with anger and indignation, we weren't mad dogs before the censored letters, the attacks, the ambushes, the mines, the lack of food and tobacco and cold drinks and matches and water and coffins, before we were told that a Berliet truck was worth more than a man and before we found out that the death of a solider merited just three lines in the newspaper, he died in combat in Angola, we weren't mad dogs, it's simply that we meant nothing to the mealy-mouthed State, who shat on us and used us as laboratory rats and who now at least are afraid of us, so afraid of our presence, of our unpredictable reactions and the remorse we represent that they cross the road if they see us coming, they avoid us, they don't want to face a battalion destroyed in the name of a lot of cynical ideas no one believes in, a battalion destroyed merely to defend the wealth of the three or four families who shore up the regime, the giant lieutenant turned to me, touched my arm and begged in a voice that was suddenly a child's voice, doctor, fix me up with some illness before I explode right here in the street from all the shit inside me.
António Lobo Antunes crafts remarkable prose full of vivid description and analogy. His writing is both visceral and cerebral, combining for an effect that is both haunting and breathtaking. Despite the horrific subject matter, Lobo Antunes manages to infuse the narrator with a dark humor that enlivens his character. While decrying rampant atrocity and state-sponsored neglect (or, rather, indifference), Lobo Antunes is still able to breathe a beauty into the work that contrasts sharply with the emotions the story is intended to elicit. His literary dexterity allows both the story and the language to flourish, and the synergistic effect truly is bewildering.
The Land at the End of the World has been hailed as Lobo Antunes's masterpiece, and it certainly is deserving of such praise. His other works, however, resonate with as fevered a pitch, and if this story offers something the others do not, it may simply be that it was informed by the young novelist's own experiences of the tragedy and absurdity that is modern warfare. With António Lobo Antunes's training as a psychiatrist, his insight into war's effects on the mind and spirit offer another dimension that lend this work its great richness and relevance. The Land at the End of the World is an exceptional work of art, one that further demonstrates the potent talents of a masterful storyteller.
No, seriously, happiness, that vague state resulting from an impossible convergence of parallel lines in the form of a good digestion and a smug egotism untouched by regrets, still seems to me- for I belong to the glum category of the sad and restless, eternally waiting for an explosion or a miracle- something as abstract and strange as innocence, justice, honor, those profound, grandiloquent, and ultimately empty concepts that the family, school, the catechism, and the state solemnly imposed upon me so as to tame me more easily, to nip in the bud, if I may put it like that, any stirrings of protest and rebellion. What others demand of us, you understand, is that we don't cause them to doubt, that we don't disturb their teeny-tiny lives, which they have carefully insulated against despair and hope, that we don't shatter their aquariums of deaf fish floating in the slimy water of the day-to-day, lit obliquely by the sleepy lamp of what we call virtue, which, when looked at closely, turns out to be merely the lukewarm absence of ambition.
Recommended by Jeremy, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Considered to be António Lobo Antunes's masterpiece, --now in a new and fully restored translation by acclaimed translator Margaret Jull Costa--recounts the anguished tale of a Portuguese medic haunted by memories of war, who, like the Ancient Mariner, will tell his tale to anyone who listens. In the tradition of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, Lobo Antunes weaves words into an exhilarating tapestry, imbuing his prose with the grace and resonance of poetry. The narrator, freshly returned to Lisbon after his hellish tour of duty in Angola, confesses the traumas of his memory to a nameless lover. Their evening unfolds like a fever dream, as Lobo Antunes leaps deftly back and forth from descriptions of postdictatorship Portugal to the bizarre and brutal world of life on the front line. The result is both tragic and absurd, and belongs among the great war novels of the modern age.
"Antunes's (What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?) haunting work entangles the reader in a maelstrom of ghastly wartime impressions, recounted by a young medic during the Angolan struggle for independence during the early 1970s. The narrator is a writer looking back after a period of some years, remembering his bourgeois Lisbon family's pronouncements when he was posted to Angola — 'At least doing his military service will make a man of him' — yet recognizing that the horrific, raw experience of caring for the sick and wounded in the squalid harbor town of Luanda, Angola, over two years only created a creature 'made up of lascivious despair.' The Portuguese imperialist presence in the country is everywhere felt, especially in the sexual exploitation of the Africans, and the narrator toils amid the 'gigantic, unbelievable absurdity of the war' at a hospital, patching up the dismembered, blown-apart, and malaria-ridden, drinking heavily, and questioning his own insignificance. He is a person of exquisite education and sensibility, having come of age amid the regime of AntÃ³nio de Oliveira Salazar in the 1960s; his fluid, hallucinatory narrative (addressed to a tender lover, 'you') meanders through memory, cultural allusions, and visceral sensations to describe a surreal experience that proves devastating and transformative. (May)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
One of the twentieth century's most original literary voices delivers a haunting and heartrending meditation on the absurdities of love and war.
About the Author
António Lobo Antunes, born in 1942, is the author of many books, including What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire?, Act of the Damned, The Land at the End of the World, The Splendor of Portugal, Knowledge of Hell, and more. Born in Lisbon in 1942, Antunes was trained as a psychiatrist and served in the Portuguese Army during the Angolan War. He lives in Portugal where he continues to write.Margaret Jull Costa won both the 2008 PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize and the 2008 Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for Eca de Queiros's The Maias. She is also the translator of the work of Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, and Javier Marías.
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