September 2012

Christopher Merkel


Knowledge of Hell

As he was recommended to me, António Lobo Antunes was an author that I really needed to read. "I can't handle many pages of him anymore myself," my Angolan Portuguese friend had told me, "but I think that for you... you would like him." Other than Pessoa and Saramago, I had to admit that I knew nothing of the national literature of Portugal. So I'd asked, and it seemed -- at least from the anecdotal evidence I was presented during the brief distillation I was given in my friend's kitchen that evening -- that if, like me, you didn't think much in particular of Saramago, then Lobo Antunes might be the big-name Portuguese writer for you, because it sounded like Lobo Antunes might not think particularly highly of his more decorated countryman himself. And although I also had to admit that several weeks of living at the beach in the Algarve had markedly tempered my affinity for the type of cynicism that Lobo Antunes seemed to represent, the description of one of his earlier novels had particularly intrigued me for its pertinence (or very superficial likeness) to my experience in Portugal.

Knowledge of Hell is narrated by a psychiatrist traveling by car from the beaches of the Algarve in southern Portugal back to his post at a mental hospital in Lisbon. While he travels, he relays his impressions of the Portuguese countryside. At the same time, he recalls his participation in the suppression of Angolan independence during the colonial war of the 1970s and describes his impressions of the state of his profession. I could only hope my own trip would be less intense (or at least differently so), but I was about to be driven from the Algarve to Lisbon myself and figured it might be interesting to start the book on my way and finish it in the city with my own impressions of the countryside and my memories of my friend's stories of her father's involvement in the Angolan war still fresh. Unfortunately, although my most promising prospect in Faro did have a few of Lobo Antunes's books in English translation out on the shelves, the one I wanted wasn't there, and when I arrived at the English language bookstore in Tavira, I found it closed. So much for the reading in the car. But surely I wouldn't have any problem finding the book in the capital.

I probably needn't say anything more about the enchantments of Lisbon here. But in June, everyone in Lisbon was talking about just how much everyone was talking about Lisbon. Hadn't you heard, people said, about all of the good things that Anthony Bourdain and The New York Times had said about the city? And having had nothing but good things to say myself, I was more than hopeful that I would find what I was looking for there. More than several bookstores later (and after just as many suggestions that I retry one of the Fnacs), a clerk at the beautiful store in the former arms factory that was celebrating its fifth anniversary as an art collective told me what anyone, he said, with a computer should have told me: that since an English edition hadn't been published by any domestic publisher, the translation wasn't likely to be regularly stocked by any domestic store. (Why didn't I try the Fnac?) So I gave myself over to the celebrations of another António, the city's patron saint, whose yearly party was, anyway, the original reason for my visit. And I left, for better or for worse, without my Knowledge of Hell.

Maybe, though, it was only for the better that I experience the Portuguese experience of António Lobo Antunes after leaving his country, after recent memory had given way to yearning (and how very Portuguese)... after a bit of my cynicism had been restored. And in the United States, with the beaches of the Algarve an entire ocean away, I was faced with this first sentence after finally finding myself with the book:

The sea of the Algarve is made of cardboard like theater scenery, and the English don't realize it: they conscientiously 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 flavorless taste of the whiskey furnished the actors on television dramas.

And at that first sentence, first things first: a deep bow to Clifford E. Landers for having translated a book that continues in that style and with growing weight for almost three hundred pages. The reading (and rereading) was an undertaking unto itself -- and I had no question that I would have gotten almost none of it done on the three hours of national road that took me from that cardboard sea to the capital, even if I'd ignored my friends and read through when we stopped in the Alentejo for lunch.

But having allowed the distance to grow did seem to have been beneficial for my eventual appreciation of that author I was probably going to like. I'd become someone who missed the sea, and his narrator misses it too: "I miss the sea, he thought on his way to the sea," but "when one misses the sea, he wondered, in the square in Albufeira, in August, should he walk under the arch and see the beach or go to Harry's?" To try to return to the sea by returning to the sea or by going to the bar and, maybe, reading a book like this one by António Lobo Antunes, a book in which the narrator narrates himself fluidly from the first person to the third and in and out of the memory and action of a host of second and third parties. "…And the smell of the sea climbed the wall in a glycine spiral and perched, blue, on the parapet sitting on its hind legs, looking at me with the large humble pupils of its horse-eyes, wet from tears of foam." (Landers deserves another bow.)

But there wasn't to be any bar for me. By the time I encountered loneliness with Lobo Antunes's remorse ridden psychiatrist -- "I understood that loneliness," he says, "loneliness is the people standing before me and their gestures of wounded birds, their damp gentle gestures that seem to drag themselves, like dying animals, in search of impossible help" -- I'd just left the lonely in the waiting room and was reading, waiting, in an examination room at the central Ohio ER to which I'd presented myself for a certain prophylactic treatment. The wall clock ticked, and my mounting misery loved the company of this book, not so much because I felt any more inside of the narration than I thought I might have been back in Portugal, but because my painstaking reading (and rereading) seemed to be the only thing capable of going more slowly than the examining physician. And all those hours later, I'm told, you shouldn't drink alcohol on these pills.

In addition to the nausea and the dizziness (the potential hepatic and renal toxicity -- and the unusual tiredness associated with... insomnia?) there were, also, you know, the severe psychotic side effects... (contact your doctor). But whether I stretched out my reading naturally out of desire for sympathy or as a twisted castigation, it seemed like it could have been worse. The narrator puts himself before his colleagues in the staging of a mad interpretation of the parable of Jesus before the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov (or an even madder parallel of the speed addicted mother from Requiem for a Dream before the electroshock happy physicians in charge of her care): "if they double my dosage I'll lose it on the spot: the medicines in the hospital are enough to castrate a whole army... transform people into pitiful, patient steers in the corral, mooing their tame grief." "'I don't want to be a steer, I don't want to be a vegetable...'" "'Strange and absurd language, no contact with reality,' said the Freud." And then the remorseful doctor remembers a patient "died... suddenly, in the street, on one of those small side streets near the asylum... syphilis. A few injections of penicillin would have been enough to cure him, but I was concerned only with taking away his clothes and locking him in the deserted ward."

The shoe, that is, could be on the other foot. (It could so be worse.) And I follow the doctor and his patient back to that city that everyone is talking about (as the doctor in his car is still on his way), "returning to Lisbon without ever having left the hospital." It rings truer with the hour of each dose: that "when someone enters the asylum they lock the massive gate behind us... and the next morning our body is a jigsaw puzzle scattered on the sheet, impossible to reassemble because of the uncertain weakness of our hands." But the misery finds its company, and through the dizzy catatonic psycho terror of those first mornings I break from my book and laugh (I spend less time trying to read, actually, than trying to laugh) with a friend who is in the process of being weaned from Ambien to Lunesta. She asks how I am, and I describe a survival horror video game in which the player is only given half of his psychological and emotional faculties to fight the other zombies. She's played a game like that, she says, a game she calls "escape from the emergency psychiatric ward," and sometimes, annoyingly, the orderlies seem to conspire with her cats. Yes, I tell the doctor -- and I'm encouraged, actually, that she's asked -- the twisted dreams can be exciting, but I'm still afraid to open my eyes.

My friend and I give each other tips. And maybe it's not funny, but I succeed in laughing near the end of my regimen and near the end of the book when Lobo Antunes gives me a scene in which a woman from the narrator's asylum does escape. She cabs it through the city to the hairdresser's where she was once employed. "'I'm going back to work,' Margarida [says] joyfully at the entrance to the building," which she finds deserted when she goes inside. And "The neighborhood slumbered in the peaceful climate that precedes tragedy: FUGITIVE FROM PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL KILLS TWELVE IN BEAUTY PARLOR." The Ambien walrus couldn't have done better himself. Although the beaches of the Algarve (and even the weird Portuguese polkas of the feast of St. Anthony) are long, long gone, there's the silver lining that my cynicism hasn't completely returned.

But before Margarida wins the game and escapes from the emergency psychiatric ward, the narrator encounters himself back in Angola. "Why do people kill themselves?" a lieutenant keeps (suddenly) asking him during their vigil over a dead man. "'He didn't want to stay here,' explained the orderly. 'He didn't want to stay here for all the money in the world. Every time he reared his head we had to stick another needle in him.'" And there are the Angolan suicides killed by the Portuguese troops. Every dead man has died at least twice. (And the power dynamic expressed by the war waged by the Portuguese against the Angolans doesn't fail to be applied to the lording of the psychiatrists over their wards.)

When the effect of the pills and of my penitently fussy reading seem to have finally bled into the psyche of the narrator, we've been walking the edge of the razor together for almost the entirety of the trip:

It's the journey, I thought, I've driven for miles and miles, all too alone, throughout the day, it's the vodka from the bar in Lisbon at work on my head, it's my ears buzzing from weariness, it's protest, complaint, anger, my body's rebellion. It's the Algarve wind, the murmur from the fields of the Alentejo, the sound of the leaves and the sea that mix, merge, combine, in a beckoning like a whispered summons, and I imagine hearing it now, lying on the mattress, half asleep in the growing morning, in the form of a voice that awakens me.

Not to say, of course, that we haven't been mad from the beginning. (I suspect that the lack of drink has been a crucially maddening element of my own story -- although the dreams were definitely the pills.) Respect, however, for the miserable company. The bar in Lisbon, the fields of the Alentejo, and the wind of the Algarve stir distant and refracted memories. The trip that introduced me to António Lobo Antunes seems, now, drastically different from the one on we've shared through his Knowledge of Hell. I gesture again in deference to the brilliant effort of Clifford E. Landers, happy that he's taken what must have been the trouble to translate Lobo Antunes's book. I think that I do like the author, although I don't know how many more of his pages I could immediately handle either. Still, I'd give him a prize over Saramago, the Nobel, for helping me to get a jab in at Sartre. As it would seem, hell might not be other people at all, but rather, on some days, just having to wake up and face the world as yourself.