Portuguese high fiction: tradition degenerates


"Act of the Damned," by Antonio Lobo Antunes. New York: Grove Press. 246 pages. $22

You can't take Antonio Lobo Antunes to the beach. He wants no distractions. He becomes elusive, hard to follow. A quiet room, late at night or early in the morning - that's the way to approach this 53 year old Portuguese author.

Mr. Antunes is a writer of serious novels, set for the most part in the turbulent 1970s. That was the decade when Portugal, convulsed by its withdrawal from southern Africa and the subsequent socialist revolution at home, almost came apart. He is not an easy read.

This is not to suggest he's impenetrable. But he does expect you to pay attention. He shifts his point of view from character to character a bit too unexpectedly, so that at times it's difficult to know just whose voice you are hearing. But there is a fine music in his words and sadness drips through every phrase. Mr. Antunes is touted as a potential small-country Nobel laureate, like Samuel Beckett of Ireland, and Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala. It's not out of the question. In "Act of the Damned," Mr. Antunes dwells on themes that recur in those societies commonly described as "traditional." These are usually contained within old countries exhausted from the tensions generated by social class systems rigidly maintained beyond their time, and poverty that descends through generations, leaching all energy from the blood. His story is of familial degeneration, of incest, deception, cruelty and fear. The fear is engendered by the rising of the once quiescent rural masses of the Alentejo region. It's 1975: The Revolution of the Carnations is under way; communists are everywhere; the underclass is overstimulated.

Sometimes the story is funny, sometimes bizarre and freakish, as are its characters. Yet there is none of the surrealism once so favored by Latin writers of the Americas, no escape from the scene's squalid reality. At the center of the action is an old man who lay dying in the attic of a great house, amid the dishevelment of rotting seigneurial privilege: some silver chalices, thick brocade, incontinent hunting dogs sprawling in the salon, loyal stewards hanging on. Hovering about are the various family members, the wretched heirs too impatient to allow the man to die peacefully, and who alternately cajole and threaten him to learn the whereabouts of the treasure they are certain he is hiding. They fluff up his pillows, and seize him by his lapels. They are desperate to get at it, beat it over the border to a Spain safe from the rising peasantry, then on to Brazil, where generals rule who speak their language and have no patience with socialists.

The old man watches his feverish son-in-law, Rodrigo, and daughter, Ana, ransack the house. His distracted 60-year-old son, half an idiot, lays model railroad track under the old man's bed, around the toilet. The old man laughs inside, watching the vain search for "the money I'd spent over the years in casinos and brothels in Lisbon. . . ." There's nothing left, except the house, and that, one expects, will collapse the moment the old man gives up the ghost, whether Diogo and Ana make good their escape or not. In fact, this outcome seems certain, more certain than anything in the book.

Richard O'Mara is a features writer for The Sun. For 12 years, he was foreign editor and before that, foreign correspondent in Latin America and Europe. He has written for the Virginia Quarterly Review and the Saturday Review.

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