The Natural Order of Things (Portugal)

NaturalOrderby Antonio Lobo Antunes

Portugal is one of the few European countries I have not traveled. Gladly beyond any experience etc. (I think that e e cummings would have loved this novel!)

I picked it up because I wanted something challenging and critics have compared this novel to Faulkner. But I liked it better, mostly because it doesn’t use the heavy period dialect that makes Faulkner so hard to understand.

The book uses the run-on-sentence stream-of-consciousness style of James Joyce but again I liked it better because it was so cleverly written that it was easy to follow. It inspired me to try a short story in this style!

Listen to a compelling voice out of the fog:

“Until I was 6 years old, Yolanda, I didn’t[ even know my mother’s family or the smell of chestnut trees that the September wind brought from Buraca as sheep and goats scurried up the road toward the abandoned cemetery, goaded by an old man wearing a cap and by the voices of the dead. And today my love, lying in my bed waiting for the Valium to kick in, the same thing happens as when I used to lie down, on hot summer afternoons, in the coolness of the dilapidated graves: I feel a tombstone decoration pressing against my leg, I hear the grass of the graves in my sheets, I see the pastel Jesuses and angels threatening me with their broken hands…”

This, one of the main male voices in the novel, belongs to a middle-aged civil servant who lives with a diabetic teenager, her aunt and her father–a former mine manager in Mozambique whose wife is in the insane asylum. He’s a bit of a Humbert Humbert (UGH), but as a little boy he lived in a big house by the sea with *his* aunt, and 3 Nazis who roomed on the floor above where they planned torture and worse, and they paid him no attention because he was just a little kid.

Now he’s being sought by a mysterious young man–possibly a journalist–for unknown reasons. The journalist is paying the other main male voice in the novel: An old man who used to work as a torturer during Portugal’s Fascist period. When the Communists took over in the 1960s he was not only out of a job, he was a wanted man.

There’s a “madwoman in the attic”–an army officer’s illegitimate sister hidden away out of shame–and the officer himself, being tortured in a prison by the sea, on trumped-up charges of conspiracy. In the same family, another brother brings his prostitute companion to dinner at his sister’s house while the middle-class family nearly chokes with horror.

Class warfare–political turmoil–the chaos of human rights violations: Brrrr! But the VOICES, the voices!

I find myself returning to passages I’ve already read just for the sheer pleasure of hearing the voices again. There is also the pleasure of learning about this (dark) period in Portugal’s history. I mean no disrespect to any person who lived through this awful time–we now have the grace to view it from a distance and I get that it’s a luxury only afforded by time. And in my case geography.

Antonio Lobo Antunes is definitely my FAVORITE Portuguese writer. Ten stars! I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time.

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The Alchemist (Brazil)

Alchemistby Paulo Coelho

Thought it would be interesting to read “Brazil” and “Portugal” side by side; I’m currently working on a Portuguese author who has been compared to Faulkner. He’s as complex as Coelho is *apparently* simple.

It sold a million copies at Auntie’s Bookstore while I worked there; the largest indie bookstore West of the Rockies and East of Powell’s City of Books in Portland.

That said I was a bit disappointed that the novel wasn’t set in Brazil…you know, that mysterious country that Bogey and Bacall run off to in order to escape the law at the end of Dark Passage…oh wait, that was Peru.

But as my DH pointed out to me; I never set my stories in the city I live in either. I guess that’s because I fell in love with the exotic locales I travelled to in my 20s. I can’t blame Coelho either.

The story took me about an hour to read and a month to think about (digest). All I can say is that I must not learn by allegory. I mean, like when I read Pirandello in college English class, I can get the references. I see what he means. But it left me cold, unlike reading Night by Eli Wiesel. Did I learn anything about following my Personal Legend or listening to my own heart from the book? Not really.

If I could have identified with the characters or felt for them or through them I might have. They were sort of cardboard-like and what I’m used to in my time period and culture is deceptively realistic. So, not for me.

It is an easy read and a beautiful story as the little shepherd boy travels from his native Andalusia to Africa (and it wasn’t until I saw the map that I really understood how close the other countries were). He wants to see the Pyramids in Egypt and has adventures along the way. I liked how the Englishman’s path was through books and the boys through listening to the desert and how they were unable to extract meaning from the other’s path.

But I almost felt the book was too simple. Have I read too many cheesy self-help books to really get this one? Nonetheless, Coelho writes beautifully. If he wants to recite the phone book it’s ok with me.