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Knowledge of Hell Paperback – March 18, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
The narrator of this stark and elegantly translated novel is a psychiatrist named António Lobo Antunes, returning from vacation to his loathed job at Miguel Bombarda Hospital in Lisbon. Over the course of the trip, the narrator's mind ranges over the monstrosities he encountered in the colonial wars in Angola in the 1970s and in his work; through the layering of memories, he draws parallels between the destruction of the war and the questionable care offered to the mentally ill. The novel is both stylistically and emotionally demanding: the point of view shifts back and forth from first- to third-person as the narrative develops in a plotless associative collage, including a hallucinatory episode in which hospital employees gleefully consume the corpse of a soldier. The novel has a heavy autobiographical element and presents a bleak vision of humanity, except in the narrator's tender appeals to Joanna, his daughter, to whom much of the novel is addressed. In this early work (first published in Portugal in 1983), Antunes transforms rage into gorgeous, lyrical language. (Mar.)
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"His themes are reminiscent of Faulkner's and Celine's, and his style is as complex as Proust's." --Library Journal<br /><br />"Antunes is definitely a writer worth reading for his literary talent and his insights into Portugal's history, geography, and national character." --Publishers Weekly<br /><br />"One of the most skillful psychological portraitists writing anywhere." --The New Yorker
"Antunes is definitely a writer worth reading for his literary talent and his insights into Portugal's history, geography, and national character." --Publishers Weekly
"One of the most skillful psychological portraitists writing anywhere." --The New Yorker
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This was my first experience with Antunes' work, and, stylistically, it is the most difficult prose I've ever read. Here the author switches points of view abruptly - sometimes mid-sentence - and inserts dreams and fantasies into the narrative without alerting the reader in any way. He projects his paranoia and insecurities onto partial memories, desires, and absurd imaginary confrontations. Sometimes he records dream-like episodes, where he is suddenly mistaken for a patient and locked away in the asylum, or he inhabits the unknowable final conversations of a suicide, but presents them all in the same unreal tempo as those thoughts that I had credited as rational. To further complicate, he piles simile on top of simile, modifying one with another, and perhaps even another, as the sentence winds through clause after clause until I'm forced to go back and hunt for the original subject. In the end, it is a non-linear phantasmagoria where Angola, the hospital, and Portugal, as represented by its countryside and history, all collapse into the refractory, unreliable mental process of this doctor and splatter across the page with abandon.
It took more than a chapter to even accustom myself to the rhythms of Antunes' words, and even though I was eventually able to penetrate the style for its content, I would never say that the book flowed or became easier to comprehend. It did remain consistent to itself though, but only by maintaining an aggressive concentration was I able to see the book through. After finishing, I went back over the first chapter, and was quite surprised to see just how much more I was able to glean from it; so there is no doubt that, for me, should I ever decide to re-read the book, that I'll pick up a substantial amount of new information.
But it does not take a great deal of discernment to understand that Antunes is condemning the field of psychiatry here - that, literally, the inmates are running the asylum, that psychiatry is nothing more than an advanced form of charlatanism, and that the system of the institution is ineffective, cruel, and broken. It is the weight of the inhumanity that Antunes' alter ego in the book has experienced in that institution that has nearly fractured his own mental processes, and thus sparked a vacation, a sabbatical away from the hospital to which he is in the process of returning.
So what is it exactly that Antunes is trying to accomplish with his complicated prose if his objectives are this straightforward? (As an aside, I will freely admit the possibility that there are uncounted concealed insights that I was unable to pick up on. Yet I can't help feeling that any insights I may have missed circle back to the original proposition that no one is crazier than anyone else, no matter what their exterior behavior indicates, and that modern attempts to deal with mental illness is even more barbaric than warfare.) About mid-way through the book, it dawned on me that if anyone were able to fully and thoroughly document the mental processes and thoughts going on in my own head at any given time, the result would also look like a tangled, incoherent mess. Like Antunes' habit of skipping helter-skelter from subject to memory to observation to fantasy, my own thoughts often follow similar, incomprehensible patterns, even including the disassociation technique of thinking of myself in the third-person. Of course, since I'm comfortable there, my craziness seems normal, though to anyone else it would sound certifiable.
And that may be the point Antunes' is most eager to elicit with his oblique styling. Yet since other reviewers and editorials concerning his work indicate that his technique is consistent throughout his oeuvre, then I must assume that, rather than a limited objective meant to merely enhance the points of this particular book, his methods are an exhaustive and detailed attempt to honestly describe the reality of our mental world by portraying it as it actually functions. Thus, the difference between Antunes (at least here in 'Knowledge of Hell') and those writers trying to reveal the subconscious or detailing hallucinogenic states or even those writers like Faulkner, whose dense dreamy prose seems designed to awaken us to an idea, is that Antunes is a writer concerned with realism - with an absolute commitment to faithfully reproduce his character's interior dialogue. His technique then is a way to illuminate that reality, like a cubist painter who tries to reveal three dimensions on a flat canvas. To someone with little patience for such things, neither attempt is going to come off very well.
After absorbing the novelty of this idea, I have to admit that I slowly began losing the edge of my interest. Rooting around in the muck of anyone's consciousness is bound to be distasteful at best, though 'Knowledge of Hell' does not fully plumb the depths of sordidness that I often suspected it was leading me toward. Still, it is called 'Knowledge of Hell' for a reason, and though I think Antunes legitimately discussed unpalatable subjects without exploiting them purely for emotional response, this is not a book for the squeamish.
'Knowledge of Hell' was originally published in 1980, one year after the book "The Land at the End of the World', and, by inference, might be considered as sort of a sequel - or at least a continuation of the story that began in Angola and then picks up in the Miguel Bombarda hospital. I do still plan on reading 'The Land at the End of the World' at some time - perhaps that is indicative of the value I found in 'Knowledge of Hell' - but my enthusiasm is tempered by the emotional drag of this first acquaintance. The overall effect is one of a severely subjective appraisal of the world in which ignorance is truly bliss, and once those who are discerning enough pierce the veil of our mutually agreed upon reality, there is little beyond it but despair and loneliness.
On a lighter note, I found this Dalkey Archive Press edition first-rate and solid, and the partial listing of their catalog full of fascinating unknowns (to me). Based on their recognition and inclusion of Antonio Lobo Antunes in their stable of writers, and the quality of their books, this looks as if their list might be worth investigating regardless of what I know about the individual authors, much the same way I'll often take a flyer on unknown authors from the NYRB imprint. Type Dalkey Archive into Amazon's search engine for a representative example