António Lobo Antunes: Os Cus de Judas (South of Nowhere; The Land At The End Of The World)
There are many first class war novels but you won’t find many better than this one. Antunes’ story is about the Portuguese colonial war in Angola where he was a doctor. He tells the story purely from a personal view but it’s a hell of a personal view. Nominally, he is telling his story to a woman in a bar well after the event but that almost seems irrelevant. What clearly comes out are two things. The first is the sheer futility of war, particularly this war. Antunes, writing well after the event, can say that not only was he dead set against this war from the beginning but so was virtually the entire Portuguese nation, Salazar and his thugs excepted. Though he is not directly involved in the action, as a doctor, he sees futile and horrible injuries and deaths. He describes many of them – the poor soldier who walks on a mine or who stops a grenade but the most telling is the soldier who puts a gun in his mouth and fires, managing to blow out half his brains out but still remaining alive. The Antunes character work hard to save him, doping him up with morphine, while there is blood everywhere but, eventually, he dies. War is horrible, not just because people get killed in war but because people get so messed up that they kill themselves and then mess other people up when they do it badly.
But Antunes has another story to tell. That story is loneliness. One of the key features of many other war stories is the camaraderie of the soldiers. They may hate the war, hate the officers, hate the enemy, but they love each other. This is not the case here. Antunes does not hate his fellow soldiers but he certainly feels no attachment for them. Yes, he does feel a certain pity for their suffering (but he also feels a certain pity for the suffering of the unfortunate Angolans, both those who are direct victims of the Portuguese and those who are indirect victims – the poor and the diseased). He has formal relations with his fellow soldiers, as he must, but he never gets close to anyone, except maybe the odd whore. He does hate the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police, but has little to do with them, except when they take his whore. But, overall, we have an incredibly strong sense of loneliness, of isolation, of alienation. This extends to his relationships with women but it is primarily because of the war and seems to continue well after the war and seems to affect others who participated in the war. If you think war is hell – and who doesn’t? – this book will confirm it in more ways than you thought possible.
First published 1979 by Editora Dom Quixote
First English translation 1983 by Chatto & Windus