If you like your narrators drunk, shell-shocked, adrift, and stricken with logorrhea, please read on. Following in the tradition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World (Norton; 224 pages) is a book of anguished testimony. (Open Letter publisher Chad Post accurately grouped the author with Thomas Bernhard and Louis-Ferdinand Celine as an “author of complaint.”) Based on Lobo Antunes’s experiences as a medic in the Portuguese military, which, from 1961 to 1974, engaged in a failed pacification campaign in its African colonies, The Land at the End of the World was published in Portuguese in 1979. Margaret Jull Costa, who shows a remarkable facility at capturing the author’s elaborately woven sentences, now has translated it into English.
Save some long-mothballed, early twentieth-century avant-garde movements, memoir may be the only literary genre requiring a statement of principles. This applies to readers and writers alike. Do you expect a memoirist to show perfect recall, to reconstruct a past with vividly described environments, clear dialogue, and novelistic scenes? Or do you want a memoirist to admit the fallibility of her memory? Perhaps in an introductory preface, and to confess that some scenes, characters, and timelines may be elided, compressed, combined — i.e., do you mind if she makes things up, as long as it’s in the service of a good story? (Or are you looking for something else entirely?)
In Los Angeles recently, during the Q&A portion of an event at the Hammer Museum, author Deb Olin Unferth, who appeared with novelist David Bezmozgis, sided with those who would claim that memory is acutely fallible and that a memoir should be written accordingly. Unferth’s memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love And Went to Join the War (Henry Holt), is made up of short, pithy chapters and frequently acknowledges the author’s uncertainty about the events she recounts in her book: when Unferth, a freshman in college, dropped out of school in 1987 to tag along with her older boyfriend, whose passion for liberation theology and socialism led him to seek out ideological kinsmen among the revolutionaries of Central America.
It’s no easy thing to make the political personal, but David Bezmozgis has done it in his first novel, which follows a band of Russian Jewish émigrés over the summer of 1978 as they wait, in Rome, to find out which country will take them. The Free World tells a compelling story, dissecting the tangled, and often tortured lives of Samuil Krasnansky, an unreconstructed Communist and Red Army veteran; his loving wife, Emma; his sons, the taciturn, fearsome Karl and the hopelessly sybaritic Alec; along with Karl’s family and Alec’s wife, Polina. All of these characters emerge as distinct beings, painfully human in their foibles. But the real achievement of The Free World is how it shows people struggling with their familial obligations and the various ideologies holding sway over them. For any story about Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet Union is, inevitably, also one about the power of ideas: the failed Soviet experiment, the emotional allure of Zionism, the mythos of America, and the less clearly defined promises of Canada and Australia, which also represent potential destinations. Continue reading