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The Fat Man and Infinity: And Other Writings Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 16, 2009
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“The personal essays and reminiscences of António Lobo Antunes, happily gathered here, provide not only glimpses into Portuguese life but also passages that lead to the heart of experience itself. His descriptive quickness and his genius for metaphor cause the line between prose and poetry to vanish before our astonished eyes.” (Billy Collins)
“Lobo Antunes’ sketches are alive with the poetry of the everyday, and tinged with the gentlest of self-mockery.” (J M Coetzee)
About the Author
António Lobo Antunes, born in 1942 in Benfica, is considered to be Portugal's greatest living writer. The author of more than twenty novels, including What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire?, he has won many awards and makes his home in Lisbon.
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Top Customer Reviews
Antunes is easily in the company of James Joyce, William Faulkner and Sigmund Freud, all three of whom he has acknowledged as influences, while remaining a great original himself. If you enjoy good poetry and its inherent ambiguity, his writings are bound to astonish you. The present book is a collection of 107 short pieces, 600 to 1000 words, partly a memoir, that is an excellent, very approachable introduction to his many novels. I have now read three of his novels and am finishing a fourth, where his imagination really soars. I write some poetry and found his works really inspiring in my pursuit of my own imagination, stirred up by his. Each of his works is a treasure chest about the human condition. He is a meticulous craftsman -- he reports that three pages a week is about his usual pace for his novels.
Many of the 107 pieces have been published previously as newspaper pieces, so reading all 107 pieces at one go might be overwhelming compared to enjoying one a week. The stories have a ordinary coherence that his novels sometimes do not. In his novels he allows himself to tell a story from points of view of many of the minds of his characters, weaving these voices in his original manner. At times it seems the reader is left with little clue as to who is saying what, but after while, with persistence, one can catch on to his method. In my opinion Antunes is much more successful than Joyce was in his Ulysses in communicating to the reader his characters and their rejoicing and suffering in the human condition. I am glad I read The Fat Man & Infinity first. To read his novels the reader has to draw on his own imagination as a raft to ride the seas of ambiguity Antunes provides. Without such a raft, interest will drown. Each reader no doubt has a different trip, different vistas, different thrills. This is also true for Joyce's Ulysses, Ledo Ivo's Intruder and Garcia Marquez's novels, but for me, Antunes' seas are the most worthwhile.
Antunes, in his novel What Can I Do When Everything Is on Fire?, makes what seems to be a self reference about his writing: "..., I wrote it with this memory of the feeling I had as a way of seeing that I wouldn't lose it." (p. 233). This is the outlook of the poet. He piles descriptions upon description, interwoven by remarks of one or more minds to create the rich sea of words that one must navigate to absorb the feelings he is communicating. And his novels deal with much tragedy and sorrow and cruelty in the human condition as well as longings, desires and love. He trained and practiced as a psychiatrist, principally in the Angola War and in state hospitals, for many years before he launched his career as a writer. However, he knew he had to be a writer from age 12 on. His psychiatric training and experience no doubt was valuable in allowing him to delve deeply into human feeling without becoming a mental or emotional case himself. In addition, as he relates in the book reviewed, in the guise of one of the stories, he learned a valuable lesson from one of his patients in keeping the appearance of sanity, that is, to fill your briefcase full of oranges and go to the zoo to talk to the tigers.
The book is composed of 107 short stories, usually around three pages in length. It is divided into three parts, with the first two devoted to mainly childhood memories, and are told in the first person. If you are at all sentient, several of these stories should stir some long dormant neurons that contain incidents in your own childhood. Even though the place names in Portugal may be unfamiliar, there is the universality of the experiences that resonate. The third part is equally astonishing, maybe even more so. Instead of his own reminisces, he has a phenomenal ability to project himself into the lives of the people around him, male and female, and capture one of the dilemmas, if not the central one, of their life. As other reviewers have indicated, and I heartedly agree, this book is not for the "speed-read" crowd. The stories are meant to be savored, and reflected upon, and I rarely read more than six at a time. In numerous stories, I'd read just the first three sentences, and then "tabulated" the amount of information conveyed, in terms of setting, gender and age of the characters, social and economic status. In several of the stories, there were the considerations involving the expenditures for gas and electricity, which defined one class; in others, it was the considerations involving servants, which defined another class. His metaphors and descriptive passages are wonderfully fresh: "a good ballast of booze"; "I'm not an elderly man with the heart of a child. I'm a child whose envelope has grown slightly worn."
From his youth, he would watch movies on the beach that were projected on a sheet. At age 11, he felt the first stirrings for the opposite sex, and felt that the 15 year old boys who "stole" them away were "decrepit." Far from the electronic gadgets that thrill today's youth, in a couple of stories he mentions the thrill of seeing the optical phenomenon of the "green flash" at sunset. There was the "You Can't Go Home Again" quality of a visit to a childhood home: "The only thing you can open with them are doors that no longer exist." "Brazil" was his aunts who went to pathways in a cemetery. His essay "Like Us," reminded me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem "I am waiting" in the collection A Coney Island of the Mind, Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti l Summary & Study Guide. And in terms of universal and now contemporary themes, one story contains a priest who stroked his knees, and asked about his "chastity," but quickly moved away when his aunts entered the room.
Antunes has obviously been an intense observer of the human condition, and this is clearly reflected in Part III, where he dazzles with the incisive depictions of an incredible range of characters, mainly those enveloped in despair and desperation (most of humanity?). There is the banality of life, with people wearing almost identical purple and green track suits, going to the mall, bringing back someone else's wife, and does anyone notice? There are the disenchantments of lengthy marriages: a wife who discovers that her sister has been having a long term affair with her husband, and will seek revenge with the gigolos in Spain; the wife who doesn't want her husband to die now because people are watching, which was payback for a marriage filled with slights. There is the loneliness of a divorcee whose mom nags her about her weight, as she "listens to the pile of her carpet grow." These are only a small sampling of the themes and characters which Antunes addresses and depicts.
A couple of his stories involved his experiences as a medical doctor in Angola during its war of independence, but I had hoped for more. His outlook might well have been contained in the story "Life Surprises Us Sometimes": "Because the people who weren't there with us and who were not therefore dying were the ba**ards in Luanda and Lisbon, the politicians, the generals, the big businessman..." Perhaps this theme will be further developed in "The Land at the End of the World". I intend to find out, and welcome any other suggestions.
A marvelous book, that yes, Mike, deserves a re-read in five years or less. 6-stars.