There are a very few writers I turn to when I really need something that is guaranteed to blow my writing mind. On one end I turn to Italo Calvino for the prismatic layers beneath his concise language and on the opposite end is the lusciously messy work of Antonio Lobo Antunes, and neither has disappointed me yet. I often hold back from reading these authors, admiring them for months before ever opening them. I’m always slightly worried that this will be the book that lets me down. The Land at the End of the World by Antonio Lobo Antunes rocked my world.
The Experience of Being a Soldier
“Listen. Look at me and listen, I so need you to listen, to listen with the same anxious attention with which we used to listen to the calls on the radio from the company under fire.” – Antunes
I’ve never been to war, but Antunes has. He was a Portuguese medic during the war in Angola, and through his writing, I got a different sense of how war affects a soldier than I had from soldiers turned writers like Tim O’Brien and Joe Haldeman. Both O’Brien and Haldeman convey the arbitrariness and unending quality of war along with a kind of stony acceptance as they write about being inside a war.
By setting this book (which draws on his own experiences) after the war, Antunes shows the lingering after effects of war on a human life. Along with some realities of the field hospital, the narrator shares how the war undid him as a person, stripped him of his family, and left him in this bar night after night telling the same tale.
“That’s what I have become, that’s what they have made of me, Sofia, a cynical, prematurely old creature laughing at himself and at others with the bitter, cruel, envious laughter of the dead, the silent, sadistic laughter of the dead, the repulsive, oily laughter of the dead, and all the while I’m rotting away inside, by the light of the whisky I’ve drunk, just as the photos in albums rot, regretfully, dissolving very slowly into a blur of mustaches.” – Antunes
One passage reminded me directly of the epistrophe in the opening of O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, which reads in part, “Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead.” Antunes writes, “It was late January, it was raining, and we were going to die, we were going to die and it was raining, raining.” Instead of simply repeating words at the end, Antunes twists those repetitions into something even more magical, but the results are still devastating and they linger in my mind.
In the Land of Sex and War
“I’m traveling the gentle geography of your body, the river of your voice the cool shade of your hands.” – Antunes
What surprised me most about this book was how sexy it was. But the more the narrator tries to lose himself in this woman he’s brought home from the bar, the more his memories are drawn back to the war which makes the liaisons in Portugal seem sadder and somehow makes the ones in Angola (as the narrator and his fellow soldiers try to find comfort in the arms of women) sweeter. The language is gorgeous as the inception of life merges with the end of it.
“I like the way breasts perform a kind of flanking maneuver and rise indifferently to the tremulous, eager height of my kisses.” – Antunes
The Voice of Antonio Lobo Antunes
“The novels as yet unwritten accumulated in the attic of my mind like ancient bits of apparatus reduced to a pile of disparate parts that I would never manage to put together again.” – Antunes
Antunes has a way of weaving two (or more) spaces in time together in the same breath that is unequaled, so I wasn’t surprised to see him do that here with scenes from the war in Angola and moments years later in a bar. What I was surprised by was the images he created with words like “cotton syllables that dissolve in the ear just as the remnants of a piece of candy do on the curled shell of the tongue” and drumbeats that are “concertos of panicking, tachycardiac hearts, only restrained by the darkness from galloping wildly off in the direction of their own anxiety.” Of course, some of this has to be due to the marvelous translation of Margaret Jull Costa, but every sentence made me reconsider my own language. I read the book very slowly because of this, but I loved every second of it.
The Aftermath of War
Did you ever have a dessert so delicious you couldn’t bear to eat another bite for fear of spoiling the flavor on your tongue? I tried to open another book after The Land at the End of the World, but I knew nothing would be quite as good. I leafed through a book of poetry but had to put it aside because I knew I was still immersed in Antunes. Even now, a week later, I had to resort to reading a really familiar book just to have something to read that wasn’t going to compete with his writing. Read this book, if you dare, but know that it will change you and likely your writing forever. I’m looking forward to it.
If you want to get lost in this book like I did, pick up a copy of The Land at the End of the World from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.
Paullette saysJune 30, 2013 at 8:00 pm
Once again, you’ve exposed me to–and made me excited to read–an author I otherwise never would have heard of; thank you, Isla!!!
Isla McKetta, MFA saysJuly 1, 2013 at 10:57 am
Oh I’m so glad, Paullette! You’re going to love him! Just one word of warning, if you ever try to read his book What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?, don’t expect to finish it. It’s insane, but wonderfully so. A later book, you can see how his penchant for running parallel moments in time over each other progresses (maybe to the point of incomprehension). Even though I couldn’t get more than halfway through, though, I felt the book affected me deeply and made me a better writer. Knowledge of Hell is perhaps my favorite of his.
Natasha saysJuly 3, 2013 at 10:44 am
Jerry Soffer saysJuly 4, 2013 at 9:34 am
Antunes is next on my list, solely because of the passion of your review. You’re the most moving book reviewer out there. I hope you don’t get sidetracked into writing advertisements, because I’d probably end up buying alligator tonsils if you wrote an ad for them.
Isla McKetta, MFA saysJuly 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm
That might be the nicest compliment I ever received, thank you, Jerry! You’re probably safe from my advertising speak for now, but if you ever need a bridesmaid dress… 🙂 Hope you are having a great weekend.
Jerry Soffer saysJuly 7, 2013 at 3:37 am
I’m wavering, but I’d need a full bucket of Nair and a plastering trowel. That thought is all that keeps me safe.
Isla McKetta, MFA saysJuly 7, 2013 at 7:07 am
🙂 You’re wonderful! Please let me know your thoughts on Antunes once you read him.
Jose Corado saysJuly 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm
Your comments on Antunes’s book is wonderful so this will be my next one since I am very interested in learning from soldiers who have served in conflicts that are not much known yet. By the way, the colonial war in Africa, where lots of Portuguese soldiers served and died, should be a topic of interest to be researched.
I also want to read this book, because I might find the answers to something I have been looking for. As you have read, Tim O’Brien and others have made reference to the unexpected US legacy in Vietnam, Korea and other East Asian nations: the thousands of Amerasian children fathered and then abandoned by US soldiers. It has been so sad to learn and to read about it; that subject has completely changed my life, because I still do not accept how many children were conceived and abandoned. Thus, I would like to know, since the Portuguese intervention in Africa, has not been much studied yet, if Portuguese soldiers also fathered children and then abandoned them as their US counterparts have done in many nations. If anyone has the answer to that, please let me know, this is for a research on comparative militaries and their interventions overseas.
Isla McKetta, MFA saysJuly 10, 2013 at 5:32 pm
I’m glad you’re interested in the book and the question you raise is a very good one. I hope we can help you find an answer. I’d find it hard to believe if there were not children left in similar circumstances in Angola.
Jose Corado saysJuly 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm
Thanks for responding to my post. So you too believe there might have been children conceived by Portuguese soldiers during the colonial war! As I said, this conflict has not been covered as the wars in Korea, Vietnam and WW I & II, where many children were fathered and abandoned by US soldiers. Though I cannot say, the same happened in Angola and the other Portuguese colonies, something makes me think the day someone starts looking for war children in these countries, they would indeed find some adults claiming they are the descendants of Portuguese soldiers and peobably some of them wanting to find out their father’s whereabouts.