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António Lobo Antunes: Explicaçâo dos Pássaros (An Explanation of the Birds)

Antunes is only the second best-known Portuguese writer and it was not he who won the Nobel Prize but Saramago. I am not sure that they chose the right Portuguese writer. This book is a case in point.

It is the story of one Rui S., a thirty-something, balding, aging, divorced historian whose life, frankly, has not been too successful and who, by the end of the book, is well and truly dead. Indeed, he dies well before the end, as we see the seagulls pecking out the eyes of his corpse by the docks. Rui has come out of the Portuguese Revolution but has now lost his way. He writes about an obscure period of Portuguese history and teaches. He is divorced from Tucha and does not see their children much but is now married to the dogmatic, nagging Communist, Marilia, who is also about to dump him before he dumps her.

At the start of the novel, his mother is dying in hospital while his strong, very conservative father is gallivanting round town with his latest flame. But Rui’s only fond memory seems to be when, as a child, he and his father studied birds and his father explained to him the behaviour of birds. He is somehow trying to recapture this and, ironically, ends up having his eyes pecked out by birds. Antunes’ skill is how he tells the story, skillfully juxtaposing current and past events together so that they relate to each other or comment on each other or make fun of each other. One particular scene is when his wife is about to dump him but they start to have sex. This is mixed in with a fairly graphic description of her visit to the dentist. It could be stupid, it could be trite but, with Antunes, it works. Towards the end, as we build up towards Rui’s death – we know that he is dead but we do not know how or why – Antunes moves straight into Fellini territory, as the build-up to his death is done in masquerade style, as all his family and friends comment on him and his death in music-hall style, as the inevitable approaches. Again, it could be mawkish, it could be ridiculous but Antunes is such a master of his craft that it works.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Editorial Vega
First English translation 1991 by Grove Weidenfeld
Translated by Richard Zenith