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An Explanation of the Birds (Antunes, Antonio Lobo) Paperback – August 7, 1995
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Each of these should come with a disclaimer: "WARNING: you may never know who the characters are or what they are talking about. This is not a fault of your brain or the printer. It is doubtful it is part of a plot to take over the world since they wouldn't know who to put in charge or where to find them if they did. Read at your own risk." Don't be surprised if the warning is written by the author.
If you are patient, you will eventually identify and identify with the characters and the events they are describing. Once you get to that point, the flow of the story will change for you and what went before will be clearer (you'll never be totally clear - Antunes probably planned it that way).
This is one of those books being referred to when you hear "it has to be experienced".
The second lieutenant in Fado Alexandrino is a masterpiece.
When will Antonio Lobo Antunes receive the Nobel Prize for Literature? Or is he to remain like Vargas Llosa and Graham Greene amongst those eminently worthy but perpetually overlooked?
To boil down the plot to its very essence, the above paragraph encapsulates Fado Alexandrino. But this sprawling, extravagant, difficult novel covers so much more with every one of its nearly five hundred pages. The impact of this novel is not what is said, but how it is said, the way Antunes manages to weave five very different lives together into a coherent whole, spanning more than a decade of time.
Antunes uses an interesting style of extremely long paragraphs, broken up by the very rare period, but littered with commas. In one paragraph - this is not rare - a character will begin thinking about something, his thoughts triggered by an off-hand comment, and his mind will wander back to five years ago, or ten, or yesterday, and the focus of the paragraph will switch to this new scene, with new characters, without changing tense, staying in the 'present', and then another character will begin thinking, and they will take over the scene, they will direct the paragraph to another place and time, they will be the focus. This happens again and again, we constantly change from early times, when the soldiers were young and inexperienced, to the moderate years, with wives and children, unhappy or not, to the 'present', the reunion, when some are old and some are older, but all are weary in their own way. Yet somehow it works. It is a testament to Antunes literary skill that we are never completely lost, that there is always a thread to hold the path, that even with rapid, unflagged changes of point-of-view character, or scene, of time, of focus, we can stay on par with the course and understand what is happening. A good example of this shifting focus: What sad pusses dead people have, the soldier thought, what soft rubbery mouths, like a sick clown's, and their hands, Captain, so quiet like that, hanging down, pale, whether it was from the vitamin pills or the ampules, I was soon able to stand on my pins and shuffle along from room to room without any help, the day after tomorrow the little man with the briefcase will dump the furniture into the street and take over the house, the day after tomorrow, the soldier thought, they're going to kill my uncle for good, Odete stopped visiting me, waving, smiling, I'm fine, he remember Olavo in the apartment in Cova da Piedade, newspaper open on his knees, staring at him a little unwillingly with furtive eyes that tried unsuccessfully to congratulate themselves, to be happy, the ferry shaking and leaping on the waves, the trip of the truck to the town, the following day, in the afternoon, he got dressed and sneaked out of the buildings while the concierge went to pay the electric bill, he walked two or three... And so on, and so on, and so on. This paragraph continues on for another page.
The primary reason that all this works is because of the Revolution, a turbulent time in Portugal's history, when socialism and communism threatened to take over, when violence, raping and slaughter were commonplace. The novel is split into three section, Before the Revolution, During the Revolution, and After the Revolution. Generally, when jumping around, we are able to tell what is happening because of this time, this character, this situation's proximity to the horrible events in Lisbon. Granted, although the time can change so sudden and dramatically, during the 'Before the Revolution' section, most of the jumping is contained to a time that is before the Revolution, and the same with the other two sections. It is almost as though the primary character of the novel is the Revolution itself, a great maelstrom that sucks in the five soldiers, twisting and turning their lives about.
Antunes has a fantastic sense of imagery, an ability to describe situations and localities unlike anyone else I have experienced. He is very organic with his descriptions, a woman's mouth is 'an orange pulp', her thighs open 'like a marine polyp', and so on. Considering that the focus of the novel is the Revolution and its terrible, deleterious effects upon the nation of Portugal and, in particular, the city of Lisbon, the themes of death and decay are primary in the writing. So that in the daytime, with the sun cruelly exposing the mends, the filth, the lack of paint, and the sores of poverty that the lights disguised, everything seemed smaller, uglier, very depressing, and desolately poor. Unfortunately, this diseased, dirty quality of the writing - so effective when portraying a nation gone to rot - is difficult to read when referencing women. There is not a single positive female character in Antune's Lisbon, they are all selfish, or vapid, or dirty, or rotting, or old, or meek, or domineering, or... the list continues. However, it can be argued - quite correctly, I believe - that these negative qualities are not inherent in women so much as a part of the perception that the soldiers carry within themselves. In Mozambique, they were accustomed to raping and prostitution - male or female - and it is easy to imagine that they would have gained a low opinion of females and sex because of this.
There is one misstep in this book, and it is worthy of mention. The second to last chapter is the only chapter that completely focuses in upon one character, and is the only chapter where the narrator is a woman. The chapter is reminiscent of Molly's soliloquy, as in Joyce's Ulysses, with huge run-on sentences that take up an entire paragraph, long, detailed descriptions of sex and lust, wandering thoughts and ideas, etc. The chapter is written with fantastic skill, but the problem is that it does not really fit the rest of the novel. The tone is different, the pacing is different, the style is different, and it didn't seem to serve much point. Yet, it was an enjoyable read. An interesting dilemma.
By the end of this dense, difficult novel, there was a sense of relief that it was over, a feeling of accomplishment. However, there was loss, because, with Fado Alexandrino, I was able to fall into a decadent, violent world so completely that getting out again was a difficulty, and this is a rarity in a novel. The effect was powerful, almost physically so while reading, and I would recommend to no person reading two Antunes' novels in a row. Beautiful, morbid, complex, difficult, structurally amazing and intricately detailed, Fado Alexandrino is well worth the effort.