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António Lobo Antunes: Que farei quando tudo arde? (What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?)

Antunes’ novels are not easy reads and this one is certainly heavy going, not least because it is longer than most. The accent on the Portuguese military dictatorship and Portugal’s colonial wars is less than in some of his other works but he does, once again, explore the dark side of life in Lisbon. The novel is narrated by a series of narrators – it is not always clear who is narrating though it is mainly Paulo Antunes Lima – in a disjointed, stream of consciousness style, with sentences half finished (and sometimes half started), phrases endlessly repeated and jumping around both as regards who is being discussed and chronology.

Paulo is the son of Judite and Carlos. Judite is a teacher, while Carlos is a drag queen who acts under the name of Soraia. When young, Paulo is handed over by his parents to Jaime and Helena Couceiro (in the book she is always referred to as Dona Helena and he as Mr Couceiro). The Couceiros’ daughter, Noémia, has died and Dona Helena maintains something of a shrine to her, keeping her former room immaculate and putting in fresh roses every day, as well as visiting her grave every week. They are a fairly conventional bourgeois family and Paulo does not always fit in, not always sure what his status is, as his biological parents are still alive. He behaves badly – he forges cheques, for example, though Dona Helena covers for him, to the disgust of the bank manager – and is certainly not the ideal that their daughter was. In his one discussion of Portugal’s colonial wars, Antunes has Mr. Couceiro as a former soldier who served in Timor (and was shot in the behind). Paulo’s real father is not certainly not a model father. He drinks, does drugs and has numerous lovers, mainly male. He dies an unpleasant death, while his main lover, Rui, dies of a heroin overdose and has been stealing from Carlos all the time. Judite, in response, also drinks and also has lovers.

The drag queen issue is a key component in his novel. One of Paulo’s girlfriends cannot believe that he is the son of that actress and Carlos and his fellow drag queens (we meet many of them) have, understandably, issues with their sexuality and are repeatedly mocked by other people. But Paulo, too, has his issues. When we first meet him, he is in a rehab clinic, drifting in and out of his dreams. We learn of his addictions – he has taken heroin – as well as his theft and his general bad behaviour. He is bitter and cruel both towards his biological parents and his foster-parents. Indeed, for much of the nearly six hundred pages, he rails against the people in his life and against the world, all fuelled by drugs or just plain anger. In short, this novel is Antunes’ usual brilliant but difficult rant against the world, a world of junkies and drag queens and petty theft and death and madness. It is well worth reading but it is not fun reading.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Editora Dom Quixote
First English translation 2008 by Norton
Translated by Gregory Rabassa