|Grove Press edition, 1996|
“Act of the Damned” is an absolute lunatic novel. The disturbingly besotted and predatory air of Antunes’s work is reminiscent of dark and frenetic passages from Hunter S. Thompson, Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, Boris Vian and perhaps the creepiest bits of Roald Dahl. This is to say that the prose is unusually visceral, coarse, disorganized, playful and interested in avoiding pretention in favor of a swaggering strangeness.
A few scattered sentences like, “After endless nights of talk and drink and syringes, of God knows how many grams of pills and heroin, I return to the world at two or three in the afternoon, surrounded by your collection of old hats, the overflowing ashtrays and the smell of urine from the Siamese that struts over the covers while we sleep, I return with the weariness of a septuagenarian frog, my kidneys splitting with pain as I flounder in a swamp of algae” made me feel like I could imagine what sort of influences went into the scattershot construction of this multi-generational festival of avarice, decay and retardation.
The novel is challenging, not least of all because there are at least nine different narrators (members of the family, the family’s doctor, a hapless notary), many of them unannounced and few of them in absolute control of their chapters. A reader suddenly realizes, based on rare instances of direct address in imbedded dialogue, that someone new inhabits the first person perspective, around whose discomfort and frustration Antunes layers his ubiquitous, over-the-top prose. (He could be faulted for failing to differentiate these narrative voices more clearly.).
For long stretches, Antunes will also narrate several things at once, overlaying them in alternating sentences. Sometimes it is clear that he is doing this to show how the surroundings (usually noise, heat and squalor) are so oppressive and irritating that they literally intrude upon the happenings and at other times, it seems to a bit more haphazard and “cut up.” For instance, “ ‘Wackawackawacka,’ said my cousin in Turkish to the Saint Bernard, who immediately withdrew his submissive finger. The mongoloid finished her oatmeal in a typhoon of soggy morsels, and the maid used the torn shirt to wipe her clean before unstrapping her. The procession trampled over the already twisted, tortured lanes to the accompaniment of clarinets, trombones, and tambourines in a heart-rending display of miserable splendour. The fireworks burst into luminous flakes in the air and we only heard them once they were fading in powdery threads. ‘What are you nosing around her for?’ asked my aunt, her eyelids heavy with rage. ‘We got you that cabin and bought you the looms on the condition that you never again set foot in this house.’”
Antunes is also quite comfortable, cobbling together virtuosic sentences that, with the addition of the retards, had me thinking of a more substance-addled, more embittered and less fussy William Faulkner, “My shotgun was tucked under my armpit and my cartridge belt held four or five dangling birds that had interrupted their flight (the hounds fetched their riddled corpses) to fan my haunches, and I arrived at the bedroom door trailing dust from my boots on the carpet and smelling of gunpowder, the earth, the woods and the blood of rabbits and turtle-doves, and my wife, who didn’t look at me, was pulling dresses from the closets and laying them on the bedspread, folding blouses, gathering up her underwear and shoes, and tugging on the leather straps of the open suitcases, knowing I was watching her—my gun in hand and my navel crowned with partridges, looking like a holy card of Our Lady surrounded by murdered angels—watching her move forward and backwards and sideways in the mirrors, as if it were twelve instead of one that I’d married, until I asked, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”
I’m letting Antunes’ prose speak for itself. While it fits into the cluster of authors I mentioned at first, it is unique and will either repel a reader within five pages or make him tolerate heaps of cruelty, mockery of retards, incest, random violence, scheming and confusions. As I read the novel, I was, at times, unsure what I thought of it and unsure of whether or not I would read Antunes again. In retrospect, I may just have been too overwhelmed and off-track to enjoy it properly. Skimming it again and reviewing the passages that I marked, made me certain that I will tackle another of this man’s books.