While António Lobo Antunes’ writing was not yet fully formed from the beginning of career, he already had developed his own, distinctive style – anyone who has read Elephant’s Memory will immediately recognise The Land at the End of the World (Os Cus de Judas in the Portugese original, also published in English as South of Nowhere or in German – the version I have read – as Der Judaskuss) as the work of the same author – it has the same fluidity, the constant shifting of place and time and even between first and third person, the same unrelentingly bitter and angered gaze on Portugal and human existence in general, and above all, it has the same language, the same long periods that sprawl in all directions while heaping metaphors upon metaphors. building towards a precarious but extremely fascinating novel-construct.
Like its predecessor, this second novel of António Lobo Antunes is at least partially autobiographical, and like before, there is some kind of framing narrative (this time the narrator telling his story to a woman in a bar which he then takes home and sleeps with – personally, I’d like to think that this is the same woman the narrator of Elephant’s Memory meets towards the end of that novel, so that the later work would be nested inside of the earlier one, but there is not really any indication for that), a framing narrative that surrounds and somewhat anchors the narrator reminiscing about his life in no particular order and jumping between times and places apparently at random.
As noticeable as the similarities are, there are a number of differences as well: The Land at the End of the World has a closer focus both in its framing (just an evening instead of a whole day, and involving only two people) and its central narrative, which concerns itself exclusively with the colonial war in Angola in which Antunes served as a medical officer. Apparently, it was to a great degree this subject matter – the Angolan war being something one did not really talk about in Portugal back in 1979 when the novel was first published – which made the release of this novel a scandal and Antunes a popular author in his home country. As was to be expected from his first novel, Antunes does not pull any punches in his depiction of the war, he is relentlessly grim whether writing about the Portuguese colonialists or the Angolan rebels, whether he describes the atrocities of the war, the thoughtless cruelty of the Portuguese towards the natives or the squalor and misery the Angolans are forced to exist in. The Land at the End of the World may not be fuelled by the hot fury that propels Elephant’s Memory, the narrator’s gaze is much colder in this book, his attitude more detached, even clinical at times, but this only serves to make it all the bleaker.
In sharp contrast to the misery man seems to spread everywhere he goes (and while Antunes’ apparent subject is very specifically Portugal, I don’t doubt that, in this as in all his other novels, it is at the same time the conditio humana in general that he describes, his regionalism being a means to represent the universal – one of the reasons, I presume, why he is so often compared to William Faulkner), and in fact the only relief from it, are the occasional, rare glimpses of untouched nature which Antunes describes with great, almost aching intensity. Not that the rest of his writing was any less intense; in fact, in the end it is the prose far more than the subject matter of The Land at the End of World which makes this an outstanding and enduring novel, the first of Lobo Antunes’ masterworks. While the author still piles metaphors upon metaphors, the imagery in his second novel is much more under control than it was in the first – there is an actual purpose to the images, and a structure that even with all the twists and turns the narrator takes makes him return to the same places, the same images. Scenes and events are visited several times, explored from different angles and under different illuminations, and it becomes clear that the narrator will never be done with them, that his experiences in Angola have marked him for life. And there are recurring images, indeed many of them related to visibility – a particular prominent one is that of rays of light illuminating something at an angle: An image, I think, of Antunes’ poetical method, the way his prose creates a kind of chiaroscuro, illuminates by obscuring, reveals by clothing in metaphor. If Elephant’s Memory was the promise of a great writer, then The Land at the End of the World is the fulfillment of that promise – and only the first of many to come.