The Land At The End Of The World by Antonio Lobo Antunes

antonioThe Land at the End of the World is a new translation of the second novel by António Lobo Antunes (left), generally regarded as Portugal’s most important living novelist. Published in his native country as Os Cus de Judas in 1979, this is a key book in Antunes’s oeuvre, for the simple reason that it describes his own autobiographical experience as a medic during Portugal’s war with Angola in the early 1970s; the evocations of the unimaginable brutality that Antunes witnessed in that conflict help explain the notorious pessimism and darkness of his later works, such as Acts of the Damned (1985).

The novel is held together by a simple conceit: in a form that recalls Camus’s The Fall, the novel is meant to be a continuous series of reminiscences delivered by a man speaking to an unknown woman in a bar. While at some moments these gestures can feel gimmicky, the novel works wonderfully for one simple reason – Antunes’s lush and baroque prose. Composed of long, complex and beautiful sentences full of extended metaphors that turn in unexpected – and often funny – directions, The Land at the End of the World reveals the pleasure of Antunes’s unique style: ‘If I were a giraffe, I would love you in silence, gazing down at you from over the wire fencing, as melancholy as a dockyard crane, I would love you with the awkward love of the very tall …’

As in his later book, An Explanation of the Birds (1981), the narrator constantly compares humans to animals (indeed, the book begins with a description of the zoo) with the clear intent of cataloguing all of humanity in a sort of bestiary. The misanthropy of the novel is palpable, too, since it describes horrible acts of violence in war, renders explicit sexual acts in a clinical language and consistently employs scatological figurative language. While these gestures could be overbearing in other hands, Antunes always leavens his cynicism with wry humour: ‘Are you capable of love? Sorry, that’s a stupid question, because all women are capable of loving and those who aren’t love themselves through others, which, in practice, and at least for the first few months, is almost indistinguishable from genuine affection.’

The new translation by Margaret Jull Costa reads smoothly and handles Antunes’s complicated sentences with confidence and grace, although it does commit the cardinal sin of including copious and distracting footnotes on various locations, details and people that a Google search could determine in ten seconds or less. That said, fans of Roberto Bolaño and the contemporary Spanish-language craze will need to get their hands on the work of this Portugese novelist. Although Antunes’s reputation hasn’t flowered in the Anglophone world in the way it recently has for some of his Iberian peers (like the vastly overrated Enrique Vila-Matas), a large portion of his work is already available in English, so there’s no reason to miss out on this important writer. The Land at the End of the World is simply an essential work by one of Europe’s best living authors.

Emmett Stinson is the author of Known Unknowns. You can follow him on twitter - @EmmettStinson