Antonio Lobo Antunes agreed to meet me in his hotel on Park Avenue South on a sunny afternoon. I was greeted by a youthful, balding, 66-year-old, with slate blue eyes the color of his denim shirt. The Portuguese writer was in New York for just a few days after a twenty year absence. He came to promote What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? published by W.W. Norton. Initially reluctant (“I really don’t know how to talk about my books, the technical aspects of writing are such a bore!”), he became engaged as soon as I touched on themes that interested him.
A recipient of yearly international awards and short-listed for the Nobel Prize, Antunes is routinely compared to the masters of modernism, from Joyce to Faulkner. His books are often conceived in cycles and use historical events he has personally witnessed as backdrops: Salazar’s dictatorship, the war in Angola, the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, decolonization and Portugal’s search for a new identity within the European Community.
I tried to enunciate my questions very clearly in English, but after a while he said: “Two Latin men speaking in English—that’s absurd.” So we proceeded in a patchwork of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, which he accentuated with broad movements of his gnarled hands.
There are times when Antunes, wearing a hearing aid, prefers not to register something. As the long conversation deepens, he draws closer and looks straight into my eyes, as if choosing sight over sound.
Alessandro Cassin (Rail): It is estimated that Portuguese is spoken by 200 million people, making it the sixth most widely spoken language in the world; yet in the U.S., a Portuguese writer sounds rather exotic. Large bookstores carry a very limited selection of the few translations that do exist. Do you feel that working in a language and in a country considered somewhat at the periphery of the Empire has been a disadvantage?
Antonio Lobo Antunes: Let me be very clear. For me geography does not exist! I strongly object to the whole concept of “foreign literature”...and speaking of national identity: that is how dictatorships get started! In literature there is no periphery and no center; there are only writers. The problem is not geographic but rather numeric. In the 19th century there were at least thirty literary geniuses in Russia, Germany, France, England and the United States. Today we are lucky if there are five writers of that caliber in the whole world...Where does one find good literature today? Mostly in third world countries, because adversity, isolation, combat provide good working conditions. It is harder to be a good writer in a so-called “civilized” country, in the so-called “democracies.”
Rail: If language and nationality are not an identifying principle, how do you prefer to think of yourself?
Antunes: I am simply a writer, not a “Portuguese writer.” My father’s family was German, and my mother’s came from the north of Brazil...and her father was a Jew. Lobo is a Jewish name...
Rail: What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? takes place in Lisbon, and the sounds of street names, neighborhoods and the river become part of a landscape that seems more emotional than geographic. Bico de Areia, Chelas, Anjos, Tagus are evocative devices. What do you feel is the relationship between geography and landscape in your work?
Antunes: The Lisbon of that book, as is Africa in others, is purely a fiction, even when names correspond to actual places. The Portugal in my books is also fictitious. I don’t understand patriotism, I distrust nationalism; remember, I grew up under Salazar.
Rail: Emil Cioran said that one does not live in a country but in a language...can you talk about your relationship to your language?
Antunes: My language—Portuguese—I need to hear it around me in order to write. A language is a stratification of many vocabularies and slang belonging to different trades and social classes. It is also the encounter of what remains of archaic usage with contemporary words and foreign influences. Languages move and grow with a culture. My language is the sum of all I have heard and read, plus something more.
Rail: A few months ago, Knowledge of Hell appeared in English, twenty-eight years after the original Portuguese publication. Now you are here to promote Everything’s on Fire, a novel published in Portuguese in 2001. Since it came out in Portugal, you have been extremely prolific, publishing five books. Do you still feel emotionally close to this work?
Antunes: Writing for me requires total absorption. I write 8-10 hours a day and each book takes me about two years. During that period I have a daily “physical” rapport with the book. I inhabit it, get to know the various voices, grow fond of them. When I am finished, I have to detach emotionally. The question becomes will I be able to write another one? And my efforts go there.
Rail: Thirty years ago your prose was bursting with similes and metaphors, had a roughly linear syntax and a traditional use of punctuation. In your more recent work almost all adjectives and adverbs have disappeared, similes are rare, the syntax has exploded and the punctuation has vanished...
Antunes: The real question of writing is never what to write but how...In twenty years many things have changed. Style is nothing but the expression of the author’s voice, and in Knowledge of Hell I was still searching for mine.
Rail: I heard you still use a pen...
Antunes: Handwriting is a little like embroidering each letter...writing is a continuous work of rewriting, an attempt to take away anything unnecessary, to distill. The objective is to obtain maximum efficacy.
Rail: You must be aware that you are considered a difficult author. If one opens a page of this last “novel,” the typographic arrangement, the rhythm, the music of the text seem very close to poetry. The switching among narrative voices, the slipping between first and third person, the associative collages, the dilating and contracting of time, all contribute to the richness of the text. A critic has called your style “barely legible.” Does this disturb you?
Antunes: Absolutely not! As a reader I have had difficulties entering the world of certain authors myself. For instance, when I first encountered Conrad, it all seemed surrounded in a fog. I later understood that this was my problem: I was trying to enter somebody else’s house using the key to my own. Then suddenly, Conrad taken in his own terms, became crystal clear, luminous...
Rail: What have you learned from your own work?
Antunes: Over the years I have learned to resist the temptation to generate a myriad of metaphors: the book in its entirety should be a metaphor. I also stopped trying to dazzle my readers with linguistic fireworks. Let’s take Nabokov, surely a great writer, yet his intelligence becomes an obstacle. At every turn he is displaying his intelligence, a very fine one at that. But I think a book should be intelligent in itself rather than display the intelligence of its author.
Rail: When it comes to your own work, you resist categories like novel, characters, story...
Antunes: I really don’t know what to call my works. They are neither novels nor poetry so I would rather call them books. Then again take Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: a fisherman goes out to sea. He catches a fish, then other fish eat his fish. Is that a story?
Rail: Reading Everything’s on Fire I get the sense that it could still maintain its essential characteristics and continuous narrative even if it were cut much shorter, and, at the same time, that the narration could continue on and on. How do you know when a book is finished?
Antunes: A book is finished when it does not want me to work on it any longer...it reaches a point when it feels like it is literally avoiding me. I have a very physical relationship with the manuscript, almost a corps à corps. Paradoxically, when I finally feel at ease with a manuscript, with its voices, I realize it is finished. I see a book as a living organism, with its own rules and will. What matters to me is to allow it to grow and to acquire an existence of its own. It’s as if the book uses me in order to come into existence, rather than being written.
Rail: How involved have you been in the process of translation?
Antunes: It really all depends on the translator. Some flood me with questions, doubts and need to feel in close contact; others prefer to work on their own and only rarely pose a question. With Everything’s on Fire, if I remember correctly, [Gregory] Rabassa did not ask a single question.
Rail: His translation is amazing!
Antunes: I trust it is, but I wouldn’t know. I never read the translations of my work, not even in the languages that I know.
Antunes: For that matter, I have never read my books in Portuguese...I have simply written them! Once I give the final proof to my publisher I never pick it up again. I love poetry (I would write it if only I knew how) but let me ask you, can poetry be translated?
Rail: You have said that you have been inspired by the structure of the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler. In Everything’s on Fire there are moments that make me think of jazz. Thematic material is introduced, different musicians/characters develop it in their own ways, and eventually come back to the original theme...
Antunes: What fascinates me about great jazz musicians is their phrasing...the ability to take a musical phrase, appropriate it by bending it ever so slightly, so as to make it their own forever. I have largely given up punctuation, as to allow the musicality to emerge from the words themselves...
Rail: In your later work, you seem to provide relatively few facts about your “characters” as if to leave more space for an exploration of larger themes: the process of dying, language, creating or losing an identity. Do you start with the desire to explore a specific theme?
Antunes: I have always written. Writing is what I know. After the first two books, which were outlined, I now simply start writing without worrying about where it will lead.
Rail: How early did you start feeling like a writer?
Antunes: I was just a kid. I do not know why the human animal has such a need to narrate. In my case I could not imagine my life without writing.
Rail: Did your family encourage you?
Antunes: On the contrary, I come from a family of doctors who could not conceive of writing as an occupation. When I was an adolescent and I came out with the idea, they thought I must be gay...a nightmare for the macho culture of Portugal under Salazar. At 14 my father gave me an edition of Celine’s Death on Credit, a book that convinced me of the power and possibilities of the written word.
Rail: Back then you exchanged letters with Celine. Today many young writers write to you for advice...
Antunes: I am happy to receive their letters, but unfortunately most send me texts written a la “Antonio Lobo Antunes”...If you love an author, you have to rebel and write against him to go past him.
Rail: At 16 you had already graduated from high school...
Antunes: Yes, and that’s when I confronted my father again with my idea of becoming a writer. He said “Fine! First study medicine and get a profession. You won’t amount to anything as a writer.” So I studied medicine and as soon as I graduated I was sent to Angola as a military medic.
Rail: There you found yourself in the middle of a losing colonial war...
Antunes: War is absolute horror. There are still 30,000 men being treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome from that war. You cannot write anything about war. I have seen war movies in which soldiers discuss the motives of the war...Bullshit. When in combat, you don’t ask yourself if it is a just war or not, you are only concerned with surviving, with getting home. The dead still haunt me. But I need to say that I have no remorse over any of the things I did in war, including having killed.
Rail: Judging from your fiction, Africa must have been a decisive experience for you...
Antunes: When I arrived in Angola, I felt like I was discovering a new world, a sky with different constellations. The place was a complete sensory explosion of piercing beauty. I felt like a kid looking at plants, animals, human bodies, in all their beauty and mystery for the first time.
Rail: What effect did this have on your writing?
Antunes: The most obvious one is it helped me solve the problem of time. Africans do not separate clearly between past, present and future. For them there is only a flexible present which includes what has happened and what will happen. I adopted this conception of time because I wanted to bring together lived experience and the written word.
Rail: You were in Angola from 1970 to 1973. What did you do upon returning to Lisbon?
Antunes: I had to finish my studies, but I was really trying to find time to write. Because of this, I considered dermatology (dermatologists have hours and few emergencies) but then decided for psychiatry. I practiced at the Miguel Bombarda Hospital until writing became a career.
Rail: How did writing push medicine aside?
Antunes: You see, I was writing all along, but publishing was never my concern. I would finish a book, throw it aside and start another one. By chance a friend saw the manuscript of Memória de elefante, read it and decided to find a publisher. After innumerable rejections, a small publishing house accepted it. When it came out, in 1979, it was a success to everyone’s surprise, including my own.
Rail: In 1985 you give up your psychiatric practice to write full time. Do you have any regrets?
Antunes: No, I learned many things from psychiatry, but I wanted more time to write. I stopped working in the hospital because I wanted to create a situation for myself where I had no more excuses...
Rail: Everything’s on Fire takes the reader into Lisbon’s demimonde inhabited by flamboyant drag queens. What sparked your interest in this subject?
Antunes: The book is loosely based on a real story. In the psychiatric ward I had met the son of Portugal’s most famous transvestite. Despite his father’s notoriety, he could not admit to his father’s profession and told me, “He was a clown.” The idea of being the son of a transvestite, a prostitute who is neither fully a man nor a woman was unacceptable to him. So the son became my main narrator, Paulo. But I knew nothing about transvestites; I don’t think I have ever met one.
Rail: In your work, we find no trace of sentimentality but often we sense a violent need for love...
Antunes: We all have an unquenchable need for love and understanding. In my case, I missed out on any tenderness from my parents—they were simply incapable of tenderness—but I sense that even those who received healthy doses of love as children continue to feel this incurable need, this absolute necessity...
Rail: You have said in the past that you have contemplated death and that suicide had seemed like a temptation. Recently you were diagnosed with cancer, have been operated on, and fully recovered. What where your thoughts when the disease was diagnosed?
Antunes: I took it as a death sentence. Suddenly I was robbed of the illusion—with which we all live—of having eternity in front of me. I thought I was going to die. I was in a public hospital and saw lots of people die or get ready to die. They were so courageous, full of dignity. I came through and felt shame. They, who were certainly better than I, died and I recovered...I feel that cancer made me a better person.
Rail: What are you left with after this experience?
Antunes: Today I no longer think about death. On the contrary, I try to enjoy every minute, the small things, a sunny day, having this conversation with you...My experience with cancer changed me. For the first time I feel like being alive is really an honor.
Rail: How did you get back to writing?
Antunes: After my surgery, as I was regaining my strength, I was acutely aware that I needed to write again. Writing is like a drug, an addiction. This past November , I decided quite arbitrarily that I would begin writing on February 25. And I did. Since then I have been writing regularly. Each time I have finished a book I have doubted that I would ever know how to write another one, but I do hope that I still have three or four coming...
Rail: How does the process of aging affect you?
Antunes: [laughs] I don’t think I have changed. I think we all have the age we were born with. Some of us are born young, others are born middle aged, still others are old from the start.
Rail: Memory and creative imagination are key concepts in your work. How are they related?
Antunes: Imagination is fermented memory. It is the way we arrange our memories. My father was a neuropathologist and one of my brothers is a neurosurgeon. They have spent years with people (I hate the word patients!) who due to brain damage have lost their memories. These people no longer have any imagination. I mean to say that as authors we don’t invent anything, we just remember...
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.