Since the death of José Saramago (1922–2010), Lobo Antunes, born in 1942, has been the unchallenged champion of Portuguese letters and a perpetual Nobel Prize contender. As a disciple of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894–1961), the furiously misanthropic French novelist whose idea of a life well lived was to “record the worst of the human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word,” he is not the first to deploy unpalatable prose in the service of moral aims. Céline, however, is exciting to read, at least for a time. The same can be said of Lobo Antunes’s early work. His breakout novel Os Cus de Judas (1979) is available in English as The Land at the End of the World, but its Portuguese title translates more literally as “Judas’s asshole,” an idiomatic phrase in Portuguese that denotes somewhere particularly remote, akin to our phrase “bumfuck nowhere.” The book’s ribald, sardonic jabs balance the steady drumbeat of human cruelty.
Until Stones Become Lighter Than Water, on the other hand, is an inhospitable wilderness. Each chapter is a single sentence, with the narration fluctuating unpredictably between two characters, one black and one white. While stationed in Angola, the white narrator kills the parents of the black narrator — a child at that time — during a raid. When he cannot bring himself to kill the child, too, the soldier instead brings him back to Portugal when the war ends. Later, grown and married to a white woman who despises him for his race, the black narrator treats his parents’ murderer as an adoptive father. The events of the story, such as they are, take place over a few days as the black “son” and his wife visit a small village near Lisbon, Portugal, for its annual ritual pig killing while staying with the white “father” and his wife, who is dying of kidney cancer.
Lobo Antunes mercilessly beats the reader over the head with a handful of totemic phrases — “I see on your faces the joy of going to serve the Fatherland,” “Kill kill,” “[D]on’t stop eating pig” — that he repeats hundreds of times over the course of the book. Images repeat, too. Hands and ears sliced off. Scenes from hunting excursions during the white man’s youth. Scenes where a doctor pretends that the wife’s cancer is nothing more than kidney stones that medical treatment will quickly cure, making them, as the title suggests, lighter than water. Sometimes all three sets of images combine in a single paragraph. At other times, the repetition of violent words and images becomes so familiar and insistent that it may as well be a catechism.
This hostile style is not ameliorated by Jeff Love’s translation, whose insistent literalism fossilizes constructions that feel natural in Portuguese but not in English, rendering Lobo Antunes’s prose even more inhuman and grating than he likely intended.
Another feature of Lobo Antunes’s brutally experimental style is the porous nature of the boundary between one narrator’s consciousness and the other’s. In the portions seemingly narrated by the black son, images that can only derive from the father’s memory bubble up. The appearance of the father’s black-sheep biological daughter and her debut as a narrator toward the end of the book provide an extreme case of this phenomenon: her narrative includes memories of gunfire and death despite the fact that she was born in Portugal several years after the end of the colonial war and never set foot on the African continent.
In fact, it is the daughter’s engagement with this past that was never hers — in the form of her Lady Macbeth–like entreaties to her black adoptive brother to take his revenge on their father — that impels the novel toward its tragic, parricidal culmination at the ritual pig killing. As Lobo Antunes ages, and with him the generation that fought in the colonial war, he seems intent on warning his younger countrymen that they are not free of their forefathers’ legacy of blood.
Despite Lobo Antunes’s tireless literary production, the Portuguese Colonial War continues to receive less attention than it should. This is true both in Portugal, where many prefer to lock away the anguished memories of a war pursued by an undemocratic regime, and in a wider world that had other things to worry about at the time — the Vietnam War (1955–1975), for example, which paralleled both chronologically and sociologically the Portuguese campaign in its African colonies.
In 1961, African cotton pickers in the Baixa de Cassanje region of Angola revolted, and within several years, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau were in revolt as well. The Portuguese engaged in a three-front war prompted by superannuated dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970), who dominated Portuguese politics throughout the middle half of the 20th century. After Salazar died, dissent began to percolate among the Portuguese armed forces. Some low-ranking officers began to sympathize with the struggle of their enemy, some began to read Marxist tracts, and others simply accepted the inevitability of Portuguese defeat, at least in Guinea-Bissau. The war was by now taking up 40 percent of spending, and one tenth of Portugal’s population had been deployed to Africa at some point.
By April 1974, the failure of a major operation meant the Portuguese were in a stalemate in Mozambique, and they had mostly lost Guinea-Bissau, territorially the smallest of the three. But counterinsurgency tactics that sometimes involved burning entire villages ensured that the Portuguese had the upper hand in Angola.
In Portugal, a cadre of left-wing military men ousted the regime Salazar had established in what became known as the Carnation Revolution. Taken by surprise, the United States fretted that Portugal would become a communist sleeper cell within NATO while the new government in Lisbon withdrew its army from the colonies almost overnight. Left behind in Angola were the seeds of a brutal civil war between revolutionary factions (1975–2002) that was complicated to an almost absurd extent by the interventions of not only the United States and the Soviet Union but also South Africa, Cuba, and China.
What could have motivated the Portuguese to spill so much blood trying to keep their colonies in an age when decolonization already seemed a fait accompli to most of the world?
It is hard for Americans to understand the Portuguese mentality because most Americans, whether they admit it or not, still believe their country’s best days lie ahead. The Portuguese, on the other hand, are perfectly aware that their golden age took place some 500 years ago, and they entertain no particular hope for a revival. Always the first thing to understand about Portugal, this longue-durée, backward-looking cast of mind contributed to the deployment of a strange set of arguments, as universalizing as they were conservative, to justify the preservation of colonial rule.
The author of a book published in 1961 that seeks to explain Salazar’s Portugal to an English-speaking audience writes,
Official statements contain a fantastic mixture of mysticism, sentimentality and obscurantism. History, religion, psychology and even anthropology are all laid under contribution to justify Portugal’s inalienable right to rule for ever her possessions across the seas.
The authorities argued that the endurance, over 400 years, of much of the Portuguese Empire proved that Portugal had a providential responsibility to spread Catholicism and Lusophone culture around the world. The universal truths of the Catholic religion and their uniquely mild approach as colonizers — they embraced intermarriage between colonists and indigenous populations — may not raise material well-being in the colonies in the short term, they said. Given time and the chance to spread over a span of many centuries, however, they would eventually reconcile the factious, warring human race to a state of perpetual harmony.
Lobo Antunes’s writing attempts to bludgeon this narrative to death. The unremitting onslaught of limbless Angolans clutching tins with their stumps as they beg for food from behind a chain-link fence; of the casual rape of prisoners by military officials; and of the vicious, racist taunting the black narrator receives from his white wife all serve as blows to the story of Luso-Catholic racial-colonial mildness.
They are also blows to the reader, who can hardly help but feel oppressed by the bewildering rotation of narrators, the monotonous parade of mutilation, and the slow descent toward death or insanity for all the main characters. The book is certainly experimental, but it need not be pioneering; most subjects, thankfully, do not demand to be written about in such a manner.
The publication of the English edition of Lobo Antunes’s book comes as Americans are commemorating the 1619 arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, of the first enslaved Africans. As it happens, these people were originally from what is now Angola — the Portuguese, after all, were not simply discoverers of the new world, but also pioneers of the slave trade.
One of the more perturbing aspects of the novel is Lobo Antunes’s suggestion that as much as many would like to believe that the racial violence of the past has found resolution, there remains an unspent compulsion for vengeance that will emerge sooner or later, even if the parties in question — like the black son in the novel — do not want revenge and even love the authority figures who forcibly “adopted” them. Peace may not come “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” Abraham Lincoln warned in his second inaugural address. Lobo Antunes’s timetable is even less optimistic: until stones become lighter than water.
A Fulbright scholar at Queen Mary University of London, Nick Burns has written for The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, and The Hedgehog Review.