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António Lobo Antunes: Conhecimento do Inferno (Knowledge of Hell)

If you have read any of Antunes’ later works, you will not be surprised with this book, a uniformly bleak view of the world and of Portugal in particular. The hero/narrator is called António Lobo Antunes and, like his creator, he is a professional psychiatrist who wants to be a writer. The story is nominally an account of Antunes driving from the Algarve to Lisbon, where he lives and works, telling his (absent) daughter Joanna about his life, about Portugal and, above all, about the profession of psychiatry, about which he has very negative views.

The journey starts off in the Algarve, where he is both very disparaging about the English tourists (The sea of the Algarve is made of cardboard like theatre scenery, and the English don’t realise it) and the locals (public employees disguised as carnival barkers, squatting on the ground, inflict on them Moroccan necklaces secretly manufactured by the tourism board). The rest of the journey he describes as a bleak landscape with few redeeming features. However, he reserves much of the novel for his time served in the army as a doctor during the Angolan War and for his profession. He paints a grim portrait of the war and the racism associated with it. For example, he tells the sad story of a black Portuguese soldier who wins a medal and is sent off to Lisbon where, instead of getting a hero’s welcome, is sent to a dingy bed and breakfast. The landlady, fearing that, as he is black, he will steal everything, locks him in his room for seventy-two hours without food or access to a toilet. But Antunes paints a far bleaker picture when he shows the Portuguese soldiers, himself included, wanting to eat the corpses and even having a corporal open a coffin for that purpose.

But it is psychiatry and psychiatrists that bear the brunt of his attacks. His father had warned him about psychiatry. Psychiatry is a hoax. It has no scientific basis, the diagnosis doesn’t matter, and the treatment is always the same while his father’s friend had said Psychiatrists are humourless and crazy. Indeed, he condemns the whole medical profession – There are doctors as cruel and tragic as dwarfs, as cripples, as hunchbacks, as musicians blowing trombones at the end of corteges, amid crying angels and ugly paper Christs. Cruel, tragic and reserved, they fly with the remiges of their white smocks around the white serum-balloon of the sun. At the women’s institution where he worked, he tells us that Joanna refused to go in, as she was afraid of the patients. It is the psychiatrists that I am afraid of, he replied to her. It is so dismal that there are no birds in the grounds. The portrait he paints of his colleagues is vicious and cruel. There is one psychiatrist who proposes that mirrors should be set up everywhere as, when people see themselves all the time, they will be cured. He paints them as Dickensian grotesques.

In short, this novel is grim, painting a thoroughly bleak picture of psychiatry, psychiatrists, Portugal and its colonial war and the way the country is at the time of writing. But Antunes writes with such intensity and feeling that you cannot help but admire what he is trying to achieve. His images, as can be seen from the few examples quoted, are vivid and colourful and thoroughly original. It is a book well worth reading, in a style that you will probably not find in the English-speaking world, but it is not a book to make you laugh.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Editora Dom Quixote
First English translation 2008 by Norton