A Zoo of Existential Hybrids. A Review of The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes
This is a gritty and celestial book and we are lucky to have the expert translation of Margaret Jull Costa in order to read it in English.
We have Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus as the foundation for a very broad picture of modern existentialism. As linked to a literary style we can follow Céline (Journey to the End of the Night, 1934; Death on the Installment Plan, 1936) through Lobo Atunes (The Land at the End of the World, 1979) and more perhaps to Will Self (Umbrella, 2012; Shark, 2014; Phone, 2017). Care for a summer project anyone in putting all of this together into a book length analysis?
Listen now, Lobo Antunes says. Listen and you will heart my story of the world, and the story of the world’s asshole, in this case a base in Angola. Listen and you will hear that the title is a translation of Portuguese slang for an accursed remote and dismal place that as Costa points out literally translates is Judas’s asshole. Listen and discover beauty exists only through comparison with the ugly.
Our narrator, Lobo Antunes, his head full of his both country and family history, joins the military and is shipped off to Angola, then a remote province of Portugal that was ending up its War of Independence by overthrowing Portugal’s Estado Novo. Stationed here for more than two years, Lobo Antunes finds, and later writes, “about a very personal vision of hell” (1).
But let’s start with the start. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever read such a piling on of similes. Listen now:
“I know it may sound idiotic, but, on Sunday mornings, when we used to visit the zoo with my father, the animals seemed more real somehow, the lofty, long-drawn-out solitude of the giraffe resembled that of a glum Gulliver, and from the headstones in the dog cemetery there arose, from time to time, the mournful howls of poodles. The zoo had a whiff about it like the open-air passage-ways in the Coliseu concert hall, a place full of invented birds in cages, ostriches that looked just like spinster gym teachers, waddling penguins like messenger boys with bunions, and cockatoos with their heads on one side like connoisseurs of paintings; the hippopotamus exuded the languid slot of the obese, cobras lay coiled in soft dungy spirals, and the crocodiles seemed reconciled to their Tertiary-age fate as mere lizards on death row.”
In these similes we find Lobo Antunes’ experiment. It comes off fantastically. The writing and the world cycles. Nothing is as it is, nor as it is compared to. I remain in awe.
In the The Land at the End of the World, individual experience and isolation come together and provide by a lesson similar to that which we find in Céline: We choose everything and we choose nothing. Life spews upon us and we hate it for this, yet because we understand little, we take it with indifference and disgust. We might debate whether this is a form of existentialism proper or absurdism more akin to Camus but in both we find a core of meaninglessness. We get to choose whether we view it as alienation or absurdity. A snapshot of the mindset is found in an interview with Lobo Antunes when he recalls a Ring Lardneresque moment from his childhood: “I remember once asking my father as a boy, ‘What is democracy?’ And he answered, ‘Shut up and eat’” (1). Such is the existential soup of the world into which is placed the individual who attempts to exercise free will.
In viewing the zoo Lobo Antunes asks us to recognize a reversal. Those who pay admission and are stared at by the creatures may be the real caged animals. With this in mind we ask, what are those in a regimented group who are sent to a war zone? What are those who wear Yellow-Vests in France? What does captivity, commitment, and freedom mean? Lobo Antunes prods and he doesn’t answer directly preferring instead density and elliptically. We will most likely get closer if we attempt to understand the novel through the lens of moral theory because, according to philosopher Steven Crowell, “intention, blame, responsibility, character, duty, virtue, and the like do capture important aspects of the human condition” (2). The narrator, Lobo Antunes, is pushed to extremes, of each, questioning but unlike Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness who can only cry out “The horror! The horror!” Antunes cries out The horror! and follows it up with The beauty! One cannot exist without the other. Is this meaningless? We are prompted to consider the question.
The juxtaposition of imagery both shocking and beautiful often reminded me of Norman Dubie’s poetry, in particular from his book The Insomniac Liar of Topo. Take for example the following excerpt by Lobo Antunes:
“On the banks of the River Cambo, I saw a boa constrictor die with a goat stuck in its throat, writing on the grass the way patients suffering a heart attack writhed on hospital benches, sobbing and begging someone to kill them, trying to wrench out of their chests the veins vibrating inside them like the taut strings of a guitar. I saw the crocodiles’ eyes drifting on the current, as thoughtful and intent as those of a young girl listening, blinking with the stony irony of certain busts of Voltaire, and beneath their apparent simplicity glimmered a carnivorous disdain for mankind. And I saw a hut struck by lightning, its roof black as the dark, tragic eyelids of a flamenco dancer, and inside, sitting on a mat, a woman, utterly still, surrounded by the luminous green glow you find in plastic images of Our Lady of Fátima and on the hands of alarm clocks.”
There is a lesson in minimalism and sharp writing for any author.
I must too dwell upon Costa’s translation because it a virtuoso performance. Not once did I feel the flow of language was interrupted. Never did I feel the need to question a particular word or sentence. In all cases, Lobo Antunes’ voice came through with consistency. One can’t ask for more from a translator. According to an interview with Sam Gordon, Costa is a highly diligent translator. And interestingly, she says she didn’t consult with Lobo Antunes during the translation of the book. That said she describes herself as having been extremely wary of not “committing the translator’s cardinal sin of domesticating and explaining” (3). She also says that as a translator she had to be endlessly alert and as inventive as the author, capturing to the best of her ability the hypnotic quality of the prose. This she has done expertly.
Listen now, “No, really, listen: now that we’re about to part…”
I’m not sure that Lobo Antunes gained much in surviving his personal hell. He didn’t obtain particular insight or transcendence. Twenty-seven months in the asshole of the world were filled with anguish and death and homesickness and fear and he gets back home and one of his aunts welcomes him with the remark, “You’re thinner. I always hoped that the army would make a man of you, but there’s clearly no hope of that.”
This is a must read novel in which everything associates, the war is about politics, politics is about economics, democracy is about Fascism, a country is about military police, families are about poverty, kinship is about the killing of Lobo Atunes’ cousin and the jailing of his brother, past is like the present, life is like a novel. Similes stress the dualities and we’re clear that Lobo Antunes created the world this way. In this, he should rightly have the last word: “Nothing in this world is clear or simple; it’s a zoo, and like the zoo in the opening pages, it is full of strange hybrids.”
(1) Tepper, A. (July 26, 2011). Antonio Lobo Antunes on ‘The Land at the End of the World.’ Paris Review. Retrieved from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/07/26/antonio- lobo-antunes-on-the-land-at-the-end-of-the-world/
(2) Crowell, S. (2017). Existentialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/ existentialism/
(3) Gordon, S. (2011). Interview with Margaret Jull Costa. The White Review. Retrieved from http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-with-margaret-jull-costa/
Note: The Ring Lardner quote is from The Young Immigrunts. (1920). The dialog is: “Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly. Shut up he explained.”