António Lobo Antunes is generally considered to be one of the foremost Portuguese writers and there are many who think that he, rather than his compatriot José Saramago, should have received the Nobel prize for literature in 1998. However, since the Nobel prize committee has a distinct penchant for awarding mediocrity, it appears unlikely he will ever get it; for if there is one thing Lobo Antunes’ writing is not, it is mediocre, or indeed middle-of-the-road or mainstream, but each one of his (at the moment I am writing this) 24 novels has an irrepressible tendency towards the extreme, the unrestrained and excessive in their form as well as in their content.
This is already noticeable in his first novel Memória de Elefante from 1979 (which apparently has not been translated into English yet). The novel has no plot whatsoever; it simply follows a day in the life of a Portuguese psychiatrist who works in a hospital in Lisbon, hates his job, regrets just having left his second wife, remembers his time serving in the war in Angola and generally despises everything Portugal is, everything it was and everything it is turning into. In other words, Elefantengedächtnis (I read this in the German translation by Maralde Meyer-Minnemann who translated most of Lobo Antunes’ novels into German and who appears to have done an excellent job) is one long, angry rant and from the sheer intensity of his hate one might guess that this novel is autobiographical even if one were not already aware of it from the back cover. The novel is mainly written from the third person singular but occasionally veers into first person – and veering is probably the kind of motion that best describes the way Elephant’s Memory proceeds on all of its levels.
Even the novel’s non-plot does not unravel in a linear fashion but shifts and changes constantly between the present, the protagonist’s time in Angola during the war and his childhood as part of a bourgeois family – even the protagonist himself is not quite fixed and stable, as the frequent switching of the narrative voice indicates. In fact, reality itself appears quite elusive as Lobo Antues does his best to obscure and obfuscate what is happening by piling metaphors upon metaphors, shovelling hills, even mountains of images on top of each other that shoot off wildly in all kinds of different directions making it hard, if not impossible for the reader to follow their trajectories. This is where it is most apparent that Memória de Elefante is a debut novel – the author doesn’t have much control over his imagery, it seems like he lets his metaphors run wild and use his novel rather than reining them in and putting them into the service of his novel. As a result, his huge piles of images are always close to toppling and and often indeed come crashing down by veering into incoherency – metaphors here do not just get mixed but clash violently with each other and instead of making the narrative more vivid and intense they constantly threaten to make it more abstract, to make it poof in a cloud of glittering but ultimately random and insubstantial rhetoric.
However, Elefantengedächtnis to some degree makes up for that by a fervour, a furor even, that later, much more polished novels by Lobo Antunes never quite reach again – every sentence, every line of this novel is infused with anger, a relentless, unceasing rage against the world, mankind, Portugal, at its decay, its ugliness, its absurdity, at the stupidity, the blind greed and unrestrained malevolence of people. It is probably this which has garnered Lobo Antunes frequent comparisons with French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline, even though they read completely differently – where Céline’s writing is a fast-flowing stream that tears down everything in its way and pulls it along, Lobo Antunues’ writing is a slow river that rises slowly but steadily and floods everything along its path. But it is no less intense for that, and for all its flaws and occasional awkwardness, Elephant’s Memory already bears the distinct promise of greatness, a promise which Lobo Antunes would go on to fulfill with his second novel and several more (he is a very prolific writer) since then.