Miguel (St. Orberose) about Knowledge of Hell

Knowledge of Hell (1980) is my introduction to António Lobo Antunes. It is not the first novel I read by him, but the reading of A Morte de Carlos Gardel, some time in 2007, has left but faint vestiges in my memory, which only remembers a scene about a junkie searching for money in his mother’s wallet and a general feeling that it was a difficult and perhaps not very rewarding novel. But my disappointment notwithstanding, I realized Lobo Antunes was not a novelist of plots or suspense but of language and metaphors. This Portuguese novelist writes in long sentences, juxtaposing different timelines, bridging several levels of action, mixing memories with reveries, and changing from a third person to a first person narrator within paragraphs. He’s not an easy writer.

Starting this second novel with his complexity in mind made the reading better but no less exhausting than before. Knowledge of Hell comprises several stream-of-consciousness diatribes built by the protagonist in his mind while travelling by car from Algarve, in the south of Portugal, back to Lisbon, to resume his service at the Miguel Bombarba Hospital for mental patients. The protagonist, like the author, is named António, wrote a novel called Memória de Elefante (the name of ALA’s first novel), served in Angola during the independence war and returned in 1973 to become a psychiatrist at the aforementioned state hospital. It’s tempting to read the novel as an autobiographical novel, a hateful confession, but I don’t think the interest of the novel hinges on the similarities with post-modernist games Philip Roth came up with decades ago. Whether António is the author is irrelevant, I think, for the feelings, whether real or fictional, remain powerful and believable. What mattered more to me was the force and anger in the protagonist’s voice, the commitment to drawing an unglamorous and even unpleasant portrait of himself the bizarre metaphors with which he transfigures the most mundane objects and concepts, and the vitriolic humour, all the things I missed in the first novel but which my brain was attuned to this time.

The protagonist is angry at many things; he goes back to his memories of the Angolan War (1961-1975) to rail against his country, with its ‘graveyards without glory’, at the horrors of the war that sill haunt him, with its dead children and broken soldiers and the maddening fear of dying; then he chastises his countrymen for their cowardice, and himself for his own cowardice, who silently collaborated with the dictatorship that made the war possible. Becoming a doctor at a state hospital, he castigates himself for his complacency before the the inhuman conditions in which his patients live; but he comes down harder on his colleagues, the psychiatrists, whom he describes as dangerous modern-day class of priests and jail-keepers, who have the power to decide who is sane and mad.

As the novel opens, António describes Portugal as an artificial place, of carton sea and paper sun, an artificiality that seeps into everything, into things and the thoughts and actions of people:

The sea of Algarve is made of cardboard like theatre scenery, and the English don’t realize it: they consciously spread their towels on the sawdust sand, protect themselves with dark glasses from the paper sun, stroll enthralled on the stage of Albufeira where public employees disguised as carnival barkers, squatting on the ground, inflict on them Moroccan necklaces secretly manufactured by the tourism board, and end the afternoon by anchoring in artificial esplanades, where they’re served make-believe drinks in nonexistent glasses that leave in the mouth the flavourless taste of the whiskey furnished the actors on television dramas.

As if in challenge of this reality, he describes himself, his past, his memories, his fantasies with chilling self-scrutiny, unembarrassed of the most sordid details and perhaps even masochistically enjoying laying bare all his fears and small daily acts that make him uneasy with himself. The protagonist uses the expression ‘knowledge of hell’ to explain the horrors he faces after he returns from the war and joins the hospital staff, greater horrors than being shot at or watching children die: the horror of being surrounded by madness, which he describes in raw terms, removed from the embellishment of madness we see in the media. But perhaps the real knowledge of hell is the journey of self-revelation he undergoes at the same time as he drives in his car.

Egotistic, compassionless, pedantic, he paints his peers as the custodians of truth, with the power to decide who’s sane and who’s insane, using their unscientific methods where treatment has no effect and diagnosis is the always the same. (This was written in 1980; with the advances of neuroscience in the last decade, which has given us a better understanding of the human brain, one hopes psychiatry is no longer the quackery that he describes here). He criticises his colleagues for their pretensions to altruism when in fact they treat their patients like wind-up dolls with predetermined reactions and feelings; he mocks them for still clinging to Freud’s outdated views on human behaviour, for spending their days discussing the new theories imported from France, England, the USA, instead of actually observing patients. He describes how they can destroy an individual with the right prescription of drugs, with the right electric shock treatment, how they can strip him of his personality and alienate him from his own self, just because they can. He recounts with disgust the endless meetings between himself and his colleagues. He also doesn’t spare the patients’ families, who use the hospital to get rid of them when they become nuisances. The protagonist frequently compares the hospital to concentration camps and his colleagues and himself to prison guards.

So then why does he collude with this? Because he’s no better than anyone else: he wants a regular pay-check, a house, a family, security. Instead of courage he has self-awareness, and he paints himself with equal disdain. He chastises himself for not having had the courage to study dentistry instead; and if he can’t or won’t do much to change anything, at least in his mind he can suffer for atonement. And he’s very good at devising tortures for himself. At one point he describes himself being dead, then he imagines eating his own body parts. One of my favourite episodes is when he pretends his family wants to commit him and his colleagues think he’s crazy, and he suffers the indignation and helplessness of being treated like a madman.

Lobo Antunes’ style, like I wrote before, is very complicated. He writes in long sentences, not as long as his countryman José Saramago wrote, spanning pages, but long enough to force the reader to remain focused. And his sentences are constructions of wonder; it becomes obvious that he polishes each one to the point of exhaustion. As the reader moves into the text he starts picking up certain words, adjectives, nouns, that reoccur; given his vast vocabulary, every repetition is a conscious choice and not an inability to come up with a synonym. For Lobo Antunes there are no synonyms: he uses exactly the word he wants to use, when he wants to use it, and each placement seems natural and inevitable like a sunset. He also repeats dialogues. The chapters tend to have two or three different strands of narrative running through them, intertwining and subtly changing each other. For instance, a question made by an officer to António in Angola may be followed by an orderly answering something in Lisbon, thus creating a symphony of dialogues where disparate speeches converge into one. It’s beautiful and terrifying. And buried in the hard work is the acidic humour, misanthropic and compassionate at the same time.

Knowledge of Hell is a superb novel and has given me the necessary boost to continue reading António Lobo Antunes. Already I blame myself for ignoring for so long such an important Portuguese novelist. Most of my attention had so far been focused on José Saramago. Just for comparison, I have read all seventeen novels by the Nobel Prize laureate, whereas this is just my second novel by Lobo Antunes, who’s also very prolific. Since 1996 he’s published at least a new book every year. Eleven books are currently available in English, making him perhaps the most translated Portuguese writer after Saramago. So I hope you’ll give him a chance too.

by Miguel

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