The chronicling of bourgeois exhaustion - spiritual, intellectual, emotional, sexual, political - has played a major formal role in European literature since the early 19th century. Paradoxical though it may seem, this exhaustion has proven to be one of the richest themes in European fiction: it appears as a central psychological structure in works as widely separated by time, language, style and temperament as Alexander Pushkin's Belkin stories, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Franz Kafka's The Trial - to say nothing of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina or Middlemarch. Indeed, it is more difficult to imagine a European novel, immortal or 10th-rate, that does not take up in some way, at some point, this seemingly fathomless topic.
Whatever this irony may say about the actual condition of Europe's upper classes, the Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes, as the scion of a well-rooted and now tottering (if his own portrayal of it is to be believed) Lisbon family of doctors, businessmen and politicians, is as well-equipped to perform his own such investigation as could be imagined. That he clearly views his country as irretrievably second-rate, serves only to qualify him further for the task. For it is precisely the second-rate - that which appears to resemble but falls deadly short of the truly powerful and truly significant - that concerns the students of such exhaustion.
Portugal's Colonial War, which lasted for more than a decade and has been all but forgotten by professional advocates of social justice, was a second-rate war if ever there was one, a second-tier European power desperately attempting to retain its dwindling African possessions, undermanned, unsupported and doomed. Lisbon and Angola, slumberous mediocrity at home and violent mediocrity abroad - these form the poles of The Land at the End of the World, Lobo Antunes's latest work to be translated into English (by the diligent Margaret Jull Costa).
The Land at the End of the World was Lobo Antunes's second novel to be published; it appeared six years after his return from the Angolan front and went a considerable way towards securing his reputation as one of Portugal's most important writers, which makes the lateness of this new translation seem odd.
The book recounts its narrator's misadventures as an adolescent and young man in Lisbon's stifling society, as a bewildered, terrified and furious army medic in the hinterlands of Angola and as a young husband and father, loving but unfaithful.
Indeed, sexual longing, of the tawdry and often unfulfilled variety, forms a central element in the novel: Lobo Antunes structures his book as a series of 23 brief chapters, narrated from the murky present of a long, dull Lisbon night, through which the protagonist examines his own past in a long, broken monologue aimed at seducing a nameless woman he has met in a bar, in whom he feels only a rote, conventional interest.
The book's diction and style are idiosyncratic in the extreme, for good and ill. The narrator - as perhaps befits a man who lacks any real sense of himself and of his social and historical context - can hardly speak more than a sentence without introducing a simile, even in the case of relatively commonplace objects, even in the book's opening pages, where the narrator recalls his youthful trips to the Lisbon zoo with his father:
"The zoo had a whiff about it like the open-air passageways in the Coliseu concert hall, a place full of strange invented birds in cages, ostriches that looked just like spinster gym teachers, waddling penguins like messenger boys with bunions, and cockatoos with their heads on one side like connoisseurs of painting."
Already, it seems, the line between human and animal - and consequently the line between nature and culture - has been blurred.
We follow the course of the narrator's memory from the bizarreries of the zoo into the "stunted, crocheted universe" of Lisbon society. And then, with stops at various military installations and colonial outposts, to the jungle edges of Angola.
At this journey's end, in the titular Land at the End of the World, the understaffed, undermanned Portuguese garrisons skirmish with native militias, led by Jonas Savimbi and Agostinho Neto (who would, after Angolan independence, wage their own bloody and long-lasting civil war for control of the newly formed state.)
It is in those jungles that the sadly comic pretensions to empire of Lisbon's burghers reveal themselves - as in Lobo Antunes's vision - the superficies of a nihilistic horror. The rebel forces are as deadly as they are unseen, the Portuguese soldiers militarily ineffectual and pathetic, the landscape alien and fraught with dread, and the rage of the colonised explosive and potent.
It is here that the weakness and suppressed fear of the Portuguese - who have been living, as Lobo Antunes suggests, in a kind of waking dream during the long-lasting reign of the Salazar government - meet directly, without any cultural or political buffers, the brute facts of their dying sovereignty in Africa. The soldiers' deaths are numerous, minutely narrated and utterly bereft of dignity, and (through a series of deliberate temporal distortions culminating in the narrator's tale of his own mortal wound, death and self-resurrection) Lobo Antunes suggests that they are leading fractures in the breakdown of historical structure.
Despite all this, our narrator's service is not unremittingly dark and empty. His wife gives birth back in Lisbon and they spend a passionate month of leave together. He meets another woman in an outback town and enjoys a brief, intense and doomed tryst with her. In a van, travelling back from a battlefield, he experiences an instant of true friendship with a fellow soldier, "one of the rare moments in [his] life where [he] did not feel alone".
These brief illuminations, it might be said, prove the narrator's current isolation to be complete and unbreakable. He exists, as he himself puts it, at a much later stage of the "painful apprenticeship in dying" that began in the stench of the Angolan war. He describes himself variously as a "melancholic bachelor … who coughs occasionally just to feel as if he had company" and, with less self-pity, as a man whose emotional core is a "sad, cynical greed made up of lascivious despair, egotism, and eagerness to hide from myself".
The Land at the End of the World hews closely to the contours of Antunes's own life: he, as mentioned, grew up in the overdecorated living rooms of Lisbon, he too trained as a doctor, he too served in Angola. That he is so willing to portray himself as cowardly and vain speaks well of his gifts, and lends his narrator a certain magnetism.
So it is with friendly attention that we observe, when he does succeed in seducing his nameless bar partner - with results as depressingly mediocre and stultifying as any of his other Lisbon experiences - how he runs off to the woman's bathroom in the middle of the night to have a private conversation with the spirit of his Angolan lover, executed as a collaborator by his own army, and carrying the resonant name Sofia.
Her death, of all the deaths the narrator sees, wounded him most deeply, and - it is implied - gave shape to his current wretched bachelorhood and colourless, passionless affairs. "Sofia", of course, can be read as the Greek Sophia (it's hard to imagine that Antunes did not intend his readers to hear that echo). This suggests that our narrator's moral and sexual mediocrity may be a symptom of some intractable Portuguese malady, and that, just as the memory of Sofia has not saved him, the consolations of art cannot redeem Lobo Antunes's Portugal.
"You see," he says of his countrymen, "we belong to a land where vivacity stands in for talent, and where dexterity takes the place of creativity. In fact I often think we are little more than a bunch of dexterous mental defectives mending the blown fuses of the soul with some temporary wire device."
Those blown fuses and that wire device form the compass of a heroic insufficiency. And yet our narrator persists. Just as his creator has, fighting his own painful war against oblivion, a war as noble as it is bathetic. Which we can, in the end, only applaud.
Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review.