A River of Words to Capture the Nastiness of War: ‘The Land at the End of the World’

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.

With the death of Jose Saramago last year, Lobo Antunes could be considered the undisputed king of Portuguese letters, and though close to a dozen of his books have been translated into English, this novel would serve any reader as a fine, if heady, initiation. It is a book to be parsed slowly, both because it is a catalog of horrors and because its language demands it. Lobo Antunes is a master of the extended but precise simile:

“From my brothers’ bedroom window, you could see the camels, whose expression of profound boredom lacked only a fat managerial cigar to complete the look.”

“He had the disappointed, frenetic look of a man who lies down in bed each night beside a frigid wife kept alive only by the iron lung of the radio soaps.”

Always get the last word.

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At one point, the narrator remembers a girl he met on the beach, who “was watching the waves with all the lofty majesty of a bored carnivore who had suddenly withdrawn into some painful, motionless meditation, shooing us off into the shadowy corner occupied by forgotten, futile objects.” The description could have stopped after “carnivore,” and almost certainly should have stopped at “meditation,” but that is not in this man’s nature. He will talk beyond exhaustion, stumbling through the depths of drunkenness and haunted memoryscapes.

As for plot, there isn’t much. Told in twenty-three chapters (one for each letter of the Portuguese alphabet), The Land at the End of the World is the monologue of a former military doctor, as told to an unnamed and practically invisible woman whom he meets at a bar. Ostensibly the narrator is trying to seduce her — and it is no spoiler to say that he does, in a fashion, succeed — but this setup is mostly an opportunity for the narrator to share his horrific story. Like Coleridge’s Mariner, he is driven out of compulsion; he only requires a captive audience.

We should be glad to grant him one, because the novel is as enthralling as it is phantasmagorical. Still, there is a kind of indulgence required by a story like this. By opening its pages, the reader is entering into an abattoir of colonialist mayhem, of wasted villages and terrified soldiers huddled behind layers of barbed wire, staring out into the dark. Its comforts are few, its humor so dark it should come with a pair of night-vision goggles. But it is in the language, which often veers toward excess, where the novel really startles. Consider this almost meditative description of the narrator trying to save a wounded soldier:

“I tried to perform heart massage, but his chest was soft and boneless and it crunched beneath my hands, like a sort of pulp, an explosion was all it took to turn Macaco into a rag-and-sawdust puppet . . . ”

The narrator makes several references to Hieronymus Bosch, and Antunes’s prose is so densely imagined that it has the florid, crowded intensity of one of the Dutch artist’s triptychs. His sentences are often overripe, leaking verbiage, but the novel’s ghastly subject matter demands it. So when faced with a description like “the mineral-eyed geckos on the ceiling swallowed the instantaneous Communion wafers of moths,” you can either admire the fecundity of the description, the vividness of what is actually a throwaway line; or you can stop and tut-tut the author.

Margaret Jull Costa also peppers the book with useful footnotes explaining Lobo Antunes’s references to Portuguese artists and politicians, and in her introduction to the novel offers a concise gloss on this pungently anti-war novel: “we should always question both the morality of war and the wisdom of our leaders’ decisions to enter into wars whose horrors they themselves will rarely experience firsthand.”

The rectitude of her position would be too obvious to state if not for the fact that it’s so rarely heeded. But there’s this other thought, too, as expressed by the narrator, about the seemingly unremarkable nature of a war being waged abroad:

“Why the hell doesn’t anyone talk about this? I’m beginning to think that the one million five hundred thousand men who went to Africa never existed and that I’m just giving you some spiel, the ludicrous plot of a novel, a story I invented to touch your heart — one-third bullshit, one-third booze, one-third genuine tenderness.”

For an American, this can be a question of why we don’t talk more about Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s because the extended hangover of such campaigns leads to a kind of willful communal myopia. The loss of life, treasure, and national prestige is so embarrassing the public prefers not to reckon with the toll. Whether Angola or Vietnam or Iraq, the episode becomes something academic, confined to countries, if not continents, most of us will never see. The veterans of these wars, like Lobo Antunes’s narrator, then get shooed to society’s margins:

“We weren’t mad dogs, it’s simply that we meant nothing to the mealy-mouthed State, who shat on us and used us as laboratory rats and who now at least are afraid of us, so afraid of our presence, of our unpredictable reactions and the remorse we represent that they cross the road if they see us coming, they avoid us, they don’t want to face a battalion destroyed in the name of a lot of cynical ideas no one believes in.”

The war will never end for some. As Lobo Antunes’s narrator testifies, “Eastern Angola? I’m still there in a way.”

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