The Inquisitor's Manual

by Antonio Lobo Antunes
ISBN: 0802117325

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A Review of: The InquisitorsÆ Manual
by Maurice Mierau

To say that Portuguese novelist Antnio Lobo Antunes is influenced by Conrad and Faulkner is merely to acknowledge that the sky is blue on many summer days. Antunes, like most Latin American novelists, is consumed with Faulknerian style; his torrential stream-of-consciousness prose can seem chokingly baroque. As with Joseph Conrad, Antunes is fascinated by the way in which politics and colonialism create a master narrative for both novels and societies. Antunes spent two years as a medical psychiatrist with the Portuguese army in Angola in the 1970s, about which he wrote in his breakthrough novels in the decade that followed. As you'd expect, he is intensely aware of his country's ugly history of tyranny at home and abroad. Portugal's involvement in countries like Angola and East Timor show the ways in which colonial violence and corruption always breed more violence and corruption, and this real-life pattern is tragically and convincingly played out in The Inquisitors' Manual.
The first thing you notice reading The Inquisitors' Manual, the eleventh of Antunes' fifteen novels, is the prose style. The second thing, and it's too closely related to separate, is the novel's peculiar structure. It is divided into five sections, titled First Report, Second Report, etc., and each section has a poetic subtitle in parentheses: for example First Report is subtitled "(a clown who flies like some strange sort of bird)". This may be a reference to the main character Francisco's pathetic son, and it may also be a reminder that the "manual" we are reading is also a work of art; sometimes the characters address whomever is apparently interviewing them, but Antunes doesn't seem all that intent on limiting himself to the novelistic frame of the "manual" and strangely this does not cause any problems. Within each of the five sections, the novel nevertheless moves in a fixed pattern of sections headed "Report", then "Commentary", then "Report" again, then "Commentary" again, and so on.
One of the stylistic idiosyncrasies in Antunes's work is his habit of repeating snatches of dialogue over and over, always slightly varying the context and sometimes even the time-frame of the utterance. For example, early in the book we hear Francisco-who frequently "bends over" and either rapes or variously exploits female domestic staff on his farm, on altars, mangers, and tables-telling his son that "I do everything a woman wants except take my hat off, so that she won't forget who's boss." The numerous repetitions of this dialogue make it seem increasingly ironic and dark, an expression of individual and even cultural impotence. When the narrative shifts to the son's perspective, reflecting on what his father knew about his mistress the cook's cheating on him with the chauffeur, the new context for the always-hatted Francisco's boasting becomes wonderfully ironic:

"and thinking that he [Francisco] probably did know, that he must have known, even as he knew about my mother and sent her away, and because he knew, he did whatever they wanted except take his hat off, so that they couldn't forget who was boss, my father who as far as I can remember never talked to me, never gave me a kiss, never took me in his arms, suspecting that my mother had conceived me by another man, the chauffeur sweeping the ashes into a bucket" (p91).

These repetitions of dialogue in constantly shifting contexts lend Antunes's prose an oneiric feeling, a feeling of dread that goes beyond the nightmarish because both the ritualistic repetition of particular speech and the relentless ABAB structure of the novel makes it obvious that there is no waking up at all from this dream.
The inescapable dream of the novel at an abstract level is one of a country living under a brutal dictatorship, the Salazar regime, that lasted more than forty years into the 1970s. But the novel does not let you relax in predictable headlines: instead you are utterly immersed in sights, smells, tastes and the bitterly looping thoughts of everyone from the sinister government "minister" Francisco, on whom the story centers (if it does any centering), his ineffectual son, any number of Francisco's discarded mistresses, a government assassin, household servants, a janitor in a city apartment, and many others. The kaleidoscopic range of characters and points of view help you breathe through the relentlessly depressing situation they live in. Often, a seemingly peripheral character who seemed to be on the edge of the novel's canvas emerges as the next "commentary" on a previous "report". These shifts in perspective and the constant tergiversations in story chronology are the principle techniques Antunes uses to advance the plot.
The story climaxes with Francisco's impotence while he sees himself in a bedroom mirror, a story which is interleaved with the story of Francisco's complicity in the murder of one of his mistresses:

"both me's struggling in vain, pedaling between the sheets without success, notwithstanding your efforts, your help, your kisses, your hands, and your thighs opening up to us, both me's taking a breather, lighting a cigarillo, trying again, and it was like pounding against a latched door, like searching for an opening where no opening existed"

Antunes's prose is big and unwieldy, hard to quote briefly, and there are less than a dozen full stops in 435 pages. The paragraphs are not as monstrously huge as those of that other Portuguese novelist Jos Saramago, since Antunes actually uses the convention of breaking direct speech into separate paragraphs (not that the paragraph breaks even begin to mark his jumps in chronology). Antunes also loves a kind of call and response structure, which begins with the report and commentary sections and is subsequently echoed in sentences or paragraphs set apart in parentheses that illuminate the preceding stream of consciousness. For example, the paragraph above about Francisco's impotence is followed by this one-sentence paragraph: "(my God how clear it all is now)" that seems to be a mockery of self-knowledge, another reminder of darkness visible.
The stunning result of the thick stylistic brush at work here is that we are so far into the characters' minds that probably even some Canadian school board trustees would successfully distinguish the characters' prejudices and ignorance from Antunes's own opinions. Here are a banker's repulsive views on class and race:

"looking with pity at his cotton shirt, his serge trousers, his clearance-sale shoes, enduring his breath that smelled like meatballs and stale tobacco, exactly like the smell of a chauffeur's quarters, and it's not just the clothes it's their having to pretend that they're different from what they are, it's their going into debt so that they can have furniture and Fiats just like other subordinates what makes it hard for this country to become a civilized place is the Portuguese attraction to filth, proven by the fact that we tolerate the smell of niggers to the point of enlarging the world's population with mulattos, and the way things are going we'll reach a point when there's not a white person left in Lisbon, we'll all run around in corn-husk skirts, dance to tom-tom music, put rings in our noses, and eat boiled beetles..."

Antunes's use of repetition is both poetic and disturbing. When Francisco is taken on a tour of Portugal's heart of darkness in Angola, for example, he sees "the corpses of things, the horrible, mutilated corpses of stoves." The "mutilated corpses of stoves" keep appearing in this section, much like the repeated lines of dialogue do throughout the novel, and these wrecked appliances remind us of the human wreckage of war.
This is a brilliant, sad, dark novel by a great artist, a novel that should capture Antunes many more readers in the English-speaking world. Since Mr. Nobel does not come to a small country with a so-called minority language more than once in a lifetime, and Jos Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, it is unlikely that Antunes will ever win, in spite of several nominations. One can only hope that even with Saramago's now greater fame, more of Antunes' work will be translated into English; right now only seven of his fifteen novels are available in translation.

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