Cronici English Nr. 331

People and Rivers…




„My work consists in writing until stones become lighter than water. I do not write novels, I do not tell stories, I do not claim to entertain anybody or to be funny or interesting – I just want stones to become lighter than water,” António Lobo Antunes said in 2016. Therefore, it would not come as a surprise for his readers that the novel published by the Portuguese writer one year later, in 2017, was entitled precisely „Até Que as Pedras Se Tornem Mais Leves Que a Água” („Until Stones Become Lighter than Water”). The outstanding Romanian version of the book („Până ce pietrele vor deveni mai ușoare ca apa”) owes to Dinu Flămând and Anca Milu Vaidesegan, with an excellent Preface signed by Dinu Flămând, who has also translated, in an equally inspired manner, other texts by the Portuguese writer, such as „O Coração do Coração” (transl. „Inima inimii”) and „Sôbolos Rios Que Vão” (transl. „Pe râurile ce duc…”), part of a series of translations published by Humanitas Fiction Publishing House including „Boa Tarde às Coisas Aqui em Baixo” (transl. „Bună seara lucrurilor de pe-aici”), „O Arquipélago da Insónia” (transl. „Arhipelagul insomniei”) and „A Ordem Natural das Coisas” (transl. „Ordinea naturală a lucrurilor”).

Considered by the writer himself „the best thing I have written so far”, immediately called by critics „a cathedral novel”, subject to critical interpretation right upon its publication, this text is a genuine intellectual exploit, since the plot proper can be summarized in a few sentences. A sub-lieutenant saves a child from the inferno of the colonial war in Angola, after the little boy’s entire family has been tortured and killed. The Portuguese military brings home the African child and adopts him, raising him together with his wife in Lisbon, in spite of the warnings his comrades-in-arms gave him, while they were still in Africa, about the threat that the boy, brought to Europe without even being asked what he wanted, would eventually pose. Over four decades after the atrocious war in Angola, the child, now a man married to a white woman who despises him, with a family who does not understand him (including his white half-sister who has chosen to go mute in order to hide, or perhaps to better express, her feelings), kills his father in a kind of ritual act when, in their home in Northern Portugal, he takes part, alongside his entire adoptive family, in the annual pig-killing ceremony – avenging, at this distance of time, the brutal murder of his parents in Africa. Subject-wise nothing else happens in this novel, but such a sketchy summary would be detrimental to Lobo Antunes’s text, as long as its essence consists, as does the entire work of the great Portuguese writer, in the hypnotic atmosphere, in the meandering, almost baroque phrasing nearly devoid of punctuation, in the author’s gift of combining, by means of amazing polyphony and of a dialogue of voices unique in contemporary fiction, the past and the present, real memories and imaginary ones, the characters’ dreams and their unvoiced desires. And the setting is a haunting, truly unforgettable Lisbon, described with striking poignancy and poetic intuition and intricately linked to gory Angola – which the writer will nonetheless not describe as such, but will carefully avoid to depict any war scenes so as to merely hint at it, thereby rendering it ever more meaningful.

Confusing the readers used to a traditional type of discourse, the text of this novel recreates the history of a family, which it afterwards obsessively recounts over the course of several decades, depicting in fact the pathway to disaster of its members, who are unable to leave behind the traces of the past: violence, the growing sense of estrangement, their inability to communicate with one another. At times reminiscent of Faulkner’s best writings – his influence is in fact obvious especially on a stylistic level – but also perfectly integrating all the implications present in Borges’s labyrinthine fiction, the narration in this novel does not merely tell the story of an average family, be it one of mixed blood and carrying the burden of so much guilt hidden under the guise of respectability, but it also courageously delves into the meaning (meanings!) of contemporary literature.

The tendency to depict, irrespective of the subject of his novels, one and the same space, Portugal, Lisbon in particular („the only topos where my literature truly feels at home”, as he has said on more than one occasions!), has been obvious ever since António Lobo Antunes’s first writings, such as, for instance, „Os Cus de Judas”, published in 1979. Certainly, there would be clear differences and nuances in his subsequent writings, because, if in his first novels the capital was depicted as a city somehow stuck in its own past, from which its inhabitants seemed unable to escape, somehow carrying it along wherever they went (illustrative in this respect is the protagonist of „Memória de Elefante” who, after years spent in Africa, finds Lisbon not only exactly as he had left it but also as he himself had made it up during the long months he had spent in Angola and – after having made it up – exactly as he used to remember it night after night), Lobo Antunes’s subsequent novels brought several new elements that entailed a shift of perspective. His initial vision, which certain exegetes regarded as rather ‘dystopian’, advanced an image of Lisbon essentially different from the one present in the novels of his co-national, José Saragamo, because in António Lobo Antunes’s work the entire Portuguese world – particularly the space of the capital – seems touched by an evil impossible to elude and with consequences difficult to overcome. Many critics have referred to the atmosphere of Lobo Antunes’s fiction as one verging on oneiric surrealism, because, for most of the time, his protagonists feel as if they were living inside a funeral urn, always pulled downwards by the memories that haunt them all, so that the present itself seems to become a mere potentiality, always craved, always dreamt of, yet extremely difficult to attain, as it happens in „Until Stones Become Lighter than Water”.

Certainly, apart from the obsessive depiction of Lisbon, António Lobo Antunes tries to appropriate (but also to place in a quintessentially Portuguese setting) William Faulkner’s outstanding narrative art. For, just like in Faulkner’s work, in the Portuguese writer’s novels there is no escaping the past, timelines are constantly intertwined, the phrasing is almost always overly elaborate to equally encompass events of the present and the protagonists’ memories or events from their past, somehow striving towards a new materialization of Bergson’s ‘duration’, different from that achieved by Marcel Proust or by the author of „The Sound and the Fury”. In fact, Lobo Antunes himself asserted, as early as 1997, that Faulkner’s influence was pivotal in his work: „Faulkner makes me write because I am always tempted to correct him”, a situation which Harold Bloom would have placed under the sign of the attempt to cancel, at least on a textual level, the tyranny of time. Not incidentally, for the author of the present novel Lisbon itself becomes, like the mythical Yoknapatawpha, a „preferred field of fiction”, as the author himself put it, and this aspect is meant to perfectly structure the multiple narrative levels – so difficult to combine and bring to a common denominator – in „Until Stones Become Lighter than Water”. In fact, here, like in „O Esplendor de Portugal”, the writer deconstructs, with irony, often with a sarcasm seemingly derived from the best pages written by his predecessor, Eça de Queirós, the much-discussed obsession of the Portuguese with their glorious past and with the years of splendour and greatness of the Empire of the Navigator Kings but, precisely by its ironic dimension, the text withstands inclusion into the ‘historiographic metafiction’ that has become such a customary narrative endeavour with many writers in recent decades.

As it becomes obvious from the very first pages of  this book, which is divided into twenty-four chapters preceded by some introductory and explanatory paragraphs (attributed to the voice of the protagonist’s cousin, who narrates and foretells the recounted story like the chorus in ancient tragedy), the reader is faced with an experimental text in which the author does not attempt to reconfigure a highly accurate image of external reality in accordance with the ancient, established logic of mimesis, but focusses instead on non-reality – or the (specific) reality of reminiscence, of aspirations, of hidden desires. This will result in the concoction of a strange universe, difficult to decipher in the entirety of its implications in the absence of the knowledge of the particular manner in which António Lobo Antunes has devised every one of his pieces of fiction.

In fact, in this novel, as previously in „A Ordem Natural das Coisas” (1992) and „O Arquipélago da Insónia” (2008), all the characters seem to be islands which, albeit close, do not allow communication (more exactly, they do not accept to allow communication), hence the constant sense of loss and of the protagonists’ dissipation in a genuinely oneiric ocean, similar to what occurs in „Boa Tarde às Coisas Aqui em Baixo” (2004), set in an Angola marked by a permanent confusion of identities at times threatening to turn everything into an utterly inescapable nightmare. And if, until he wrote „Until Stones Become Lighter than Water” Lobo Antunes had a predilection for a Lisbon permanently linked to Angola in terms of conflict setting, we should mention that in this novel he has managed to transgress the boundaries of the present in a much bolder manner, permanently mindful of the implications of the past, just as, on a different level, he has also transgressed the stylistic boundaries previously defining his fiction. Hence the downright obsessive theme of the need for communication but also of the difficulty to achieve it, of the imperfect, ever-curtailed conversations between people, with all their ensuing meanings. Hence too, the genuine mythologizing of the objects that render both the city/ cities and the text of the novel indelible, the mere putting together of the apparently disparate images and memories eventually proving that, from a certain point of view, the only real home in this book is the consciousness of the characters affected by loneliness, each and every one of them carrying a pain that tags along irrespective of what they do, irrespective of how many murders they might commit or of how many good deeds they might do in a lifetime.

Because, in „Until Stones Become Lighter than Water”, Lobo Antunes has also excelled in creating a real labyrinth – of a family, of the recent past of Portugal and of the war in Angola, of a narrative discourse impossible to encapsulate in an abridged analysis. Undoubtedly, it is once again Faulkner, namely the first part of his „The Sound and the Fury”, that comes to mind. But Antonio Lobo Antunes’s narrators are not Benjy and the author’s choices have different aesthetic motivations in this novel. For, by resorting to an actual fugue line (in fact, the structure of the novel is a musical one and is based on the counterpoint technique par excellence), by placing the accent on the five narrative voices that speak in turn and whose vision of the world and of the events narrated underscores all the more the idea of estrangement, thus opening new perspectives on the meanings of the book, the Portuguese writer in fact highlights the distance and equally so the pathway from William Faulkner’s epics to Samuel Beckett’s poetics through – paradoxical though it may seem – the rhythms of Fernando Pessoa’s lyrics.

Confusing the readers used to a traditional type of discourse, the text of this novel recreates the history of a family, which it afterwards obsessively recounts over the course of several decades, depicting in fact the pathway to disaster of its members, who are unable to leave behind the traces of the past: violence, the growing sense of estrangement, their inability to communicate with one another. At times reminiscent of Faulkner’s best writings – his influence is in fact obvious especially on a stylistic level – but also perfectly integrating all the implications present in Borges’s labyrinthine fiction, the narration in this novel does not merely tell the story of an average family, be it one of mixed blood and carrying the burden of so much guilt hidden under the guise of respectability, but it also courageously delves into the meaning (meanings!) of contemporary literature.

Certainly, there will be intricacies, as long as in this family no one approaches the ones nearby other than with fear or maybe with an unprofessed desire to hurt them and love is but a sexual urge impossible to control. Therefore, death literally walks in and out of doors and windows – as if it were yet another family member – and parricide only becomes predictable. Undoubtedly, at this point the strong and fully internalized influence of Juan Rulfo is obvious, with some pages of „Until Stones Become Lighter than Water” seeming almost parts of the outstanding novel „Pedro Páramo”.

On the other hand, if we take into consideration the intentionally ambiguous manner in which many of the crucial moments in this book are depicted, we shall realize what a profound influence Juan Carlos Onetti has had on Lobo Antunes – a writer who, having specialized in Psychiatry as well, explores to the ultimate pathological and stylistic consequences the ambiguities meant to underline the peculiarities of his characters’ minds. What results is that, in some fragments, everything will seem not just an emphatically experimental novelistic discourse but a pure vision, the core of a quintessentially oneiric way of perceiving things, perfectly in tune with the age in which the narrated events occur. Hence the multiplication, from a certain point onwards, of the frames and narrative perspectives in this novel. In the same degree, in „Until Stones Become Lighter than Water”, Lobo Antunes’s writing is structured in a manner allowing even for the voice of the reader to be involved in the text, not in order to be heard (in the strict sense of the word), but to facilitate a more thorough comprehension of the meanings of the novel. Or, as the writer himself asserted, „when all have become lighter than water then yes, I can be read, because then I will have written everything I was supposed to write.”

Antonio Lobo Antunes, „Até Que as Pedras Se Tornem Mais Leves Que a Água” („Until Stones Become Lighter than Water”)/ „Până ce pietrele vor deveni mai ușoare ca apa”, translation into Romanian and notes by Dinu Flămând and Anca Milu Vaidesegan, preface by Dinu Flămând, Humanitas Fiction Publishing House, 2019

Translated into English by Mirela Petrașcu

 

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Despre autor

Rodica Grigore

Este conferențiar (disciplina Literatura comparată) la Facultatea de Litere și Arte a Universității „Lucian Blaga” din Sibiu; doctor în filologie din anul 2004. Volume publícate: „Despre cărți și alți demoni” (2002), „Retorica măştilor în proza interbelică românească” (2005), „Lecturi în labirint” (2007), „Măşti, caligrafie, literatură” (2011), „În oglinda literaturii” (2011, Premiul „Cartea anului”, acordat de Filiala Sibiu a Uniunii Scriitorilor din România), „Meridianele prozei” (2013), „Pretextele textului. Studii și eseuri” (2014), „Realismul magic în proza latino-amerieană a secolului XX. (Re)configurări formale şí de conținut” (2015, Premiul Asociației de Literatură Generală și Comparată” din România, Premiul G. Ibrăileanu pentru critică literară al revistei „Viața Românească”, Premiul „Cartea anuluì”, acordat de Filiala Sibiu a U.S.R.), „Călătorii în bibliotecă. Eseuri” (2016), „Cărți, vise și identități în mișcare. Eseuri despre literatura contemporană” (2018, Premiul „Șerban Cioculescu”, acordat de revista „Scrisul Românesc”), „Între lectură și interpretare. Eseuri, studii, cronici” (2020). Traduceri: Octavìo Paz, „Copiii mlaștinii. Poezia modernă de la romantism la avangardă” (2003/2017), Manuel Cortés Castañeda, „Oglinda Celuilalt. Antologie poetică” (2006), Andrei Oodrescu, „Un bar din Brooklyn. Nuvele şi povestiri” (2006, Premiul pentru Traducere a1 Filialei Sibiu a U.S.R.). A coordonat şi a realizat antologia de texte a Festivalului Internațional de Teatru de la Siblu, în perioada 2005-2012. A publicat numeroase articole în presa literară, în revistele: „Euphorion”, „Observator Cultural”, „Saeculum”, „Scrisul Românesc”, „Viața Românească”, „Vatra” etc. Colaborează cu studii, eseuri şi traduceri la publicații culturale din Spania, Mexic, Peru şi Statele Unite ale Americii. Face parte din colectivul editorial al revistei „Theory in Action. The Journal of Transformative Studies Institute” de la New York.

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