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The Taste of Dust

THE NATURAL ORDER OF THINGS A Novel By Antonio Lobo Antunes Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith; Grove Press: 298 pp., $25

March 05, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

The history of exploration is written on water, and for no country more so than Portugal. Tiny Portugal, less than half the size of California, graduated, over the first half of the second millennium, from a pit stop for North Sea sailors on their way to the Crusades to the prime purveyor of caravels and navigators, cloves and colonialism. Under Prince Henry the Navigator and Spice Boy Vasco da Gama, the sea became the road to wealth. But 400 years later, the regime of Antonio Salazar held Portugal and its anachronistic colonies under its thumb well into the 1970s, and exploration became investigation, the sextant replaced by the whip and the electrode.

The latest investigation to come out of that wild Atlantic coast arrives in the form of "The Natural Order of Things," a work of poetic and erotic genius from a master navigator of the human psyche, Antonio Lobo Antunes. The Portugal of Antunes is an empire that was once washed by all the seas of the world, from Macao and Timor to Goa and Mozambique and Brazil, leaving in its wake a sea of many voices. Out of this sea, Antunes has pulled a novel that is no simpler than the history of Portugal. A dozen voices, a veritable bedlam of idiots and lovers from three generations of two families, whisper and shriek a welter of confessions and digressions in a frantic search not so much for origins as for order.

It is 1992 as the novel opens, and the empire is gone. No one knows this better than the first investigator of the novel, a 68-year-old wise guy, once a section chief in the National Security and Information Bureau. Forced out of the shadows of torture by the revolution of 1974, the man feels pursued by the uneven justice of democracy and the slippery knot of water in the form of Lisbon's omnipresent River Tagus.

"The problem with Lisbon," he complains near the beginning of the novel, "is that in every single neighborhood we bump into the Tagus, as into a forgotten object: the Tagus that appears in the smallest of windows, the Tagus that rocks us in bed with its tossing while we sleep, the Tagus and its nocturnal lights that made my eyes smart when late at night I'd set out with the mustached fellow and a couple of other co-workers to nab Communists. . . ."

The former torturer has taken refuge in a cramped room in a bordello, down the hall from a sympathetic mulatta, and has been asked (presumably by the unnamed author of the book) to take notes on a 49-year-old man who has married an 18-year-old schoolgirl, Yolanda, a diabetic whose breath smells like hyacinths. The odd couple, he discovers, live in a suburban slum of Lisbon called Alca^ntara with her aunt and her father, a man eternally clad in miner's helmet and pickax, convinced he is still "in Johannesburg, when I flew under the earth amid a flock of black men, each with a pickax and a light on his helmet." Both madness and diabetes run in the girl's family: Yolanda's diabetic mother remains in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, staring through a crack in an asylum wall at the monkeys and the sea.

And madness runs in Yolanda's husband's family too. Every night, as the 49-year-old man lies in bed, quivering with chastity next to his child bride, tied to her "like a bat to the night," he whispers the history of his terrible, terrified family. Forty years before, in the early 1950s, he was raised in a rambling mansion on the Calcada do Tojal--his father and mother absent--by a menagerie of aunts and uncles who lived in terror of their dictatorial father and his whip. One uncle flouted his father, deserted the house and married a housemaid. Another, Jorge, became an officer like his father, then fatally joined his commodore in a doomed coup by elite officers, distracted from the danger by the commodore's wife's lobster salad and the commodore's daughter's legs. Broken by torture, Jorge thinks of the sea outside his prison cell.

Meanwhile, back on the Calcada do Tojal, the young boy who many years later, at 49, will marry a girl 31 years his junior, listens to the sounds of pacing, the shrieks of an unknown woman, in the attic above his room and wonders where his parents are and how this madness began, while up in the attic, that mysterious woman listens to an ancient gramophone playing arias from "Aida" and thinks of her brother Jorge and the sea she's never seen.

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