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Knowledge of Hell

af António Lobo Antunes

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1563172,582 (3.5)9
Like his creator, the narrator of this novel is a psychiatrist who loathes psychiatry, a veteran of the despised 1970s colonial war waged by Portugal against Angola, a survivor of a failed marriage, and a man seeking meaning in an uncaring and venal society. The reader joins that narrator on a journey, both real and phantasmagorical, from his Algarve vacation back to Lisbon and the mental-hospital job he hates. In the course of one long day and evening, he carries on an imaginary conversation with his daughter Joanna, observes with surreal vision the bleak countryside of his nation, recalls the horrors of his involuntary role in the suppression of Angolan independence, and curses the charlatanism of contemporary psychiatric "advances" that destroy rather than heal.… (mere)
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"but I had been spared the knowledge of Hell." — Antunes

The compulsive metaphor is the usual mark of inferior writing, but Antunes is doing something different here. Using the metaphor as a kind of Spacing between phrases, as something not meant to be read - a temporal distancing. The use of ellipsis (as in Celine/Tolstoy) would be more direct, though in such cases the reader simply passes over the impediment. Were Antunes to advance further on this theme/style, perhaps he would find himself the Oulipian successor of the micro-catalog (short list). ( )
  Joe.Olipo | Sep 19, 2023 |
Excessive Figures of Speech as an Illness of Writing

Most of the online reviews of the English translation mention Antunes's language. The consumer reviews on Amazon and elsewhere call it "amazing," "dense," and "difficult." To be a little more specific, the complexity comes from French surrealism, Celine, and Latin American Magic Realism. Yet Antunes is different from Lispector, Lorca, Dos Passos, or any number of possible precedents, beause he is addicted to tropes. He lards sentences with as many figures of speech as he can, and seems not to pause to ask if his metaphors are appropriate to the narrative, or make sense together, or even make any kind of sense at all. "Language of Hell" seems entirely unedited, as if Antunes never met a metaphor he didn't like.

A review at Three Percent (www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/2008/04/03/knowledge-of-hell/) says Antunes's sentences are "labrinthine" and "carefully wrought." The first is sometimes true; the second almost never is. This book is partly about a psychiatric asylum outside Lisbon, and partly about the Angolan war of 1961-74. An interview in the "Paris Review" focuses on the trauma of that war, implying it is enough to account for the avalanche of tropes. But at an early point -- maybe ten pages in -- the "hell" of mental asylums and bloody wars became endless and therefore uninteresting. My only interest was diagnosing Antunes's severe addiction to metaphors.

Here's an opening example:

"...the sky was composed of successive layers of overlapping gray, the river shuddered with a fever all the way to the sea, and the rain furiously burrowed hundreds of crystal braids into the highway. The windshield wipers moved their shaky automaton elbows, shaving away the persistent acne of the raindrops." [p. 63]

In my count that is five tropes. The first is rare in this book, because it is only minimally figural. A river shuddering with fever is a good image, because it fits, in reverse, the narrator's rushed trip back to his more feverish life in Lisbon. The first part of the third trope ("the rain furiously burrowed") complements the river image, but the next part of doesn't ("hundreds of crystal braids"). The next two figures of speech veer into unrelated imagery, first robots and then pimples. In order, then: naturalistic, strong, overdone, rote, ridiculous.

(A note about these examples: I've tried to choose passages that are minimally dependent on the translator's choices. My comments here have to do with the logic of Antunes's tropes. Other tropes in the translation are undoubtedly modified from the original in ways that would make it necessary to look at the original.)

Many metaphors in "Knowledge of Hell" are maudlin, as when the narrator compares himself to a dead dog in a park, covered with leaves (p. 81), or when he defines loneliness as "the people standing before me and their gestures of wounded birds, their damp gentle gestures that seem to drag themselves [sic: the people], like dying animals, in search of impossible help." (p. 72) Antunes seems not to register the maudlin. It's not that he uses it too often, or believes in it too much: it's that he doesn't notice it. But the maudlin is part of a rainbow of moods, and for me the most affecting, because genuine, is the feeling of desperation that hangs over the sentences: he needs to escape from literal description. Every thought and image needs to be transformed. Inevitably some are cliches, many don't work, and some, like these two, are emotionally off-key. The anxiety about covering (or decorating, or beautifying, or intensifying) ordinary language is itself maudlin.

If Antunes's obsession (or addiction, or compulsion, or perceived duty) to chain tropes endlessly, and to avoid writing purely descriptive prose, can be imagined as an illness of writing, then one cure would be William Empson's "Seven Types of Ambiguity." That book is like a tonic for this one. Antunes seems never to interrogate his choices of tropes or pause to consider why he feels his narrative needs to be continuously transformed. He seems never to have paused to wonder what any given metaphor meant: it feels like inspiration was followed quickly by obliviousness, as if he felt his writing forced him to invent and move on. Empson is the exact opposite. He worryies at exhilirating length over a couplet in Shakespeare or a few lines of Wordsworth.

Another sense in which the endless figure of speech are like an illness is the juxtaposition of entirely unrelated tropes in long sentences. Another is Antunes's proclivity for tropes that are strong and suprising, but lose their meaning immediately after they're read or even while they're being read. Two examples:

"...in Messines the absence of the sea is so total that the wind hawks the phlegm of bronchitis in the throats of the streets" [p. 60].

And this one, which Antunes apparently especially likes, because he repeats it twice:

Loneliness "is a child's gun in a plastic bag in the hand of a frightened woman" [pp. 68, 71]

Empson might say: Well, let's see. What is a child's gun? A gun that doesn't function? And why is it in a plastic bag? Because that's cheaper than a paper bag or a handbag, and therefore indicates desperation? The kind of desperation that drives a person to go out carrying a plasic bag? And why is loneliness frightened? (And, although it's a different matter, why is loneliness personified by a woman, when the narrator is a man?)

I doubt Empson would have been engaged at all by Antunes. I imagine he would have thought the writing was too loose. In his headlong accumulation of tropes Antunes is very unlike Celine, Dos Passos, or Lispector: he'd more like a bad expressionist painter who feels compelled to use all the colors in the palette in every painting.

One more example:

"...he didn't realize he had left Albufeira until he stopped smelling in his nostrils the sweetish odor, of candied squash, from the sea. It was a smooth and bland odor identical to the perfume of coloring agents, to the aroma of liqueur-filled bonbons, to the lavender that emanates from linen in chests..." [p. 40]

In my count that is five metaphors and three qualities ("sweetish," "smooth," "bland"). They vary in legibility and pertinence, and they are presented without any connection to one another (except for the assertion that they are all "identical"). It's not that long sentences with enchained tropes are necessarily a bad thing, and it's not that writers need to choose the best of their tropes and delete the rest, and it's not that writing can't be interesting when it is wildly overstocked. (As in Celine.) It's that Antunes himself seems not to be listening. It's as if the author himself doesn't seem to be reading his own book. He operates under a compulsion much more stringent and unremitting even than the horrors of war in Angola or the tortured lives of the patients in the Lisbon asylum: he is pursued, deviled, by the feeling that every sentence, every thought, has to be ornamented, has to be brought out of its literal life, and then, because that operation is so violent and random, it has to be immediately forgotten. That itself is the content of the book for me: it's a pathology of writing, and for that reason it is interesting as long as I keep finding new symptoms, new clues to the ways he thinks. For me, that source of interest finally ran out, long before the book ended.
1 stem JimElkins | Apr 23, 2020 |
An earlier work of Lobo Antunes originally published in Portugal in 1980 as Conhecimento do inferno--as translated here--'Knowledge of Hell. Though maybe a little less definiitve in construction as a work it bears many of the signature effects that Lobo has refined into his fiction over the years. The narrator a psychiatrist and Portugese army veteran of its Vietnam era colonial african wars finds himself in various locales looking back grimly on his past--carrying on imaginary conversations with his estranged daughter Joanna--describing his work in mental asylums (he imagines himself as both a patient and indifferent doctor) , vacations on the shore and relapsing back into personal horrors in the Angolan conflict.

Lobo Antunes has a unique writing style. Two of his literary heroes being William Faulkner and Louis Ferdinand Celine. One could make some comparisons to the tremendisimo effects of a Camilo Jose Cela or a Nouveau romanticist like Claude Simon or even say a Cormac McCarthy particularly in a work like Blood Meridian--which is to say that his prose can be difficult at times. Here maybe a little less so though and I think a lot of people given the chance might like this more than some of his latter works. The trademark sarcastic and very blackish humor, the surrealistic styled lambasting of the venal and kitsch happy society indifferent to anything beyond its own hedonistic impulses--are all here. For the life of me I can't think of more than a couple other living writers who may be more worthy of a Nobel prize. Maybe not his best work but very worthwhile anyway. His works are an automatic have to get --for me. ( )
5 stem lriley | Apr 5, 2008 |
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Antunes, António Loboprimær forfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
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Meyer-Minnemann, MaraldeOversættermedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet
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Like his creator, the narrator of this novel is a psychiatrist who loathes psychiatry, a veteran of the despised 1970s colonial war waged by Portugal against Angola, a survivor of a failed marriage, and a man seeking meaning in an uncaring and venal society. The reader joins that narrator on a journey, both real and phantasmagorical, from his Algarve vacation back to Lisbon and the mental-hospital job he hates. In the course of one long day and evening, he carries on an imaginary conversation with his daughter Joanna, observes with surreal vision the bleak countryside of his nation, recalls the horrors of his involuntary role in the suppression of Angolan independence, and curses the charlatanism of contemporary psychiatric "advances" that destroy rather than heal.

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