The Return of the Caravelsby Antonio Lobo Antunes
Called "hallucinatory and lyrical" (Publishers Weekly), The Return of the Caravels -- selected as a New York times Summer Reading title -- is a powerful indictment of Portuguese colonialism and another literary tour de force from the pen of Antonio Lobo Antunes, "the greatest living Portuguese writer" (Vogue). It is set in Lisbon as Portugal's African colonies gain
Called "hallucinatory and lyrical" (Publishers Weekly), The Return of the Caravels -- selected as a New York times Summer Reading title -- is a powerful indictment of Portuguese colonialism and another literary tour de force from the pen of Antonio Lobo Antunes, "the greatest living Portuguese writer" (Vogue). It is set in Lisbon as Portugal's African colonies gain their independence in the mid-1970s. In a contemporary response to Camoes's conquest epic The Lusiads, Antunes imagines Vasco da Gama and other heroes of Portuguese explorations beached amid the detritus of the empire's collapse. Or is it the modern colonials -- with their mixed-race heritage and uneasy place in the "fatherland" -- who have somehow ended up in sixteenth-century Lisbon? As da Gama begins winning back ownership of Lisbon piece by piece in crooked card games, four hundred years of Portuguese history mingle -- the caravels dock next to Iraqi oil tankers, and the slave trade rubs shoulders with the duty-free shops. The Return of the Caravels is a startling and uncompromising look at one of Europe's great colonial powers, and how the era of conquest reshaped not just Portugal but the world. "... the voice of Nabokov by way of Cortazar, Gogol by way of Dylan." -- Jonathan Levi, Los Angeles Times Book Review "Antunes has empathy for the contradictions of human feeling. He is a warm-bloodied writer."-- Michael Pye, The New York Times Book Review "[Antunes] deserves a wide audience of discerning readers." -- Michael Mewshaw, The Washington Post Book World
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He'd passed through Lixbon eighteen or twenty years earlier on the way to Angola and what he remembered best were his parents' rooms in the boardinghouse on Conde Redondo where they were staying in the midst of a clatter of pots and women's exasperated grumbling. He recalled the communal bathroom, a washbasin with a set of baroque faucets in imitation of fish that vomited out sobs of brownish water through their open gills, and the time he came upon a man on in years smiling on the toilet with his pants down around his knees. At night the window would be open and he'd see the illuminated Chinese restaurants, the sleepwalking glaciers of electrical-appliance stores in the shadows, and blond heads of hair above the paving stones of the sidewalks. So he'd wet his bed because he was afraid of finding the smiling gentleman beyond the rusty fish or the blond heads of hair that dragged clerks along the corridor, twirling room keys on their pinkies. And he'd end up falling asleep with dreams of the endless streets of Coruche, the twin lemon trees in the prior's grove, and his blind grandfather, with blank statue eyes, sitting on a bench by the tavern door as a flock of ambulances wailed along Gomes Freire on their way to São José Hospital.
On the day we sailed, going through a narrow street with the residences of demented countesses, the shops of hallucinated bird dealers, and tourist bars where the English went for their morning gin transfusion, the taxi dropped us off beside the Tagus on a strip of sand called Belém, according to what could be read on the nearby train stop with a scale on one side and aurinal on the other, and he caught sight of hundreds of people and teams of oxen that were bringing stone blocks for a huge building, led by squires in scarlet habits, indifferent to the taxis, the vans with American divorcées and Spanish priests and the nearsighted Japanese who were taking pictures of everything, chatting in their sharp-beaked samurai tongue. Then we put our baggage on the ground beyond the agapanthuses that mechanical sprinklers were aspersing with circular spurts, near the laborers who were working on the drains in the drive leading to the soccer stadium and the high buildings of Restelo, as the Cape Verdeans' tractors crossed paths with the carts carrying the tombs of princesses and piles of arabesques for altars. Passing by a plaque that identified the unfinished building and said JERONYMITES, we came upon the Tower in the background in the middle of the river, surrounded by Iraqi tankers, defending the nation from Castilian invasions, and, closer by, sitting on the frilly waves by the shore, waiting for the colonists, held fast to the sludge of the water by roots of iron, with admirals in lace cuffs leaning on the rail of the bridge and seamen up on the masts preparing the sails for the open sea that smelled of nightmare and gardenias, among rowboats and a swirl of canoes, we found the ship of the discoveries waiting.
His father died of scurvy before they reached Cape Bojador, when the waters by the bow were as calm as the dust in a library, and they rotted away for a month eating chestnuts and salted meat until the wind shook the hull and knocked against one another the chandelier prisms that were sailors from an abortive mutiny hanged from the rigging, plucked clean by seagulls and Atlantic kites. After seven bloody uprisings, eleven attacks by wandering whales, countless masses, and a tempest just like the sighs God gives in his stony insomnia, a lookout bellowed land, on the bridge astern the skipper grabbed his telescope and there was the bay of Loanda, inverted by the refraction of distance, São Paulo fort on its height, fishing trawlers, a navy corvette, ladies having tea under the palm trees, and plantation owners getting their shoes shined as they read newspapers in the pastry shops under the arcades.
And now as the aircraft was landing in Lixbon he was startled by the buildings in Encarnação, the vacant lots where broken pianos and rupestrine carcasses of automobiles were ossifying, and the cemeteries and military posts whose names he didn't know, as if he were arriving at a foreign city that was missing, in order for him to recognize it as his, the clerks and ambulances of eighteen years before. He'd been delayed for a week with the mulatto woman and the child in the waiting room of the airport in Loanda, lying on the floor, rolled up in blankets, gnawed by hunger and the urge to urinate, in a confusion of suitcases, sacks, children sobbing, and smells, hoping for an opening in order to flee from Angola and the machine guns that were singing in the streets every day, brandished by blacks in camouflage, drunk from cups of aftershave and authority. An official who leafed through papers and leaped over the reclining bodies would dribble out a name every hour or so, and behind the glass windows militiamen of UNITA, with horsehair bracelets and plumed lances, led by American and Chinese advisers, kept watch over us under the fluorescent tubes on the ceiling.
Instead of the labyrinthine market of the day of their departure that came after the maniacal countesses' palaces and the bars with lugubrious shadows and anemic foreigners, instead of the banks of the Tagus where they were building the monastery and stonecutters chipped limestone with great mallet blows, instead of wagons with their oxen and mules and architects bellowing threnodies like the gabble of Galician restaurant workers at their helpers, instead of women selling eggs and chickens and grilled porgies and miniatures of Algarve chimneys and tin knickknacks, instead of the teardrop clarity of the onions on wooden trays, the burning occult powers of Gypsy women who excited autumnal virgins with promises of the love of a viceroy, instead of tourist vans with blue windshields and the caravels and the Turkish freighters under the bridge, they shooed me into a miserable cement building with panels that listed domestic and international flights, with their colored ampules pulsating beside the duty-free whiskey shop. A vending machine for chocolates and cigarettes was shivering with fever in a corner, vomiting candy after a complicated digestion of coins, and the passengers from the plane were lining up in single file as in the crowded grocery stores, bakeries, and butcher shops of Loanda, in search of the rice, bread, and meat that was no longer there, only dust and rinds and fat and a clerk whom the broom hadn't swept away, shaking his head behind the counter, pointing to the empty cases. And he remembered the frightening nightfalls of the last days in Angola, the black urchins who attacked offices and apartments downtown, the building fronts gaping with bullet holes, and the worthy ladies of the Marçal district with no customers, offering their orphaned-mermaid hips to no one in alleys where jeep headlights looked like the lanterns on the caboose of a train.
Those who returned with him, clergymen, Genoese astrologers, Jewish merchants, governesses, slave smugglers, poor whites from the Prenda district, the Cuca district, clinging to burlap bundles, suitcases tied with cords, wicker baskets, broken toys, formed a serpentine line of lamentations and misery up to the airport, pushing their baggage along with their feet (on the walkway reserved for passengers in transit, Icelanders, tall and shaggy like river birds, passed by) toward a desk where sitting on a stool was the king's official chronider who asked him his name (Pedro Álvares what?), checked him on a typed list full of corrections and X marks in pencil, took off his reading glasses to get a better look at him, leaning to one side on his Formica roost, ran his thumb idly over his mustache, and suddenly asked Do you have family in Portugal? and I said No, sir, quickly, without thinking, because my old lady had died of jaundice six years before and I almost can't remember or never remember the uncles and aunts who stayed here, I don't know whether they were still in Coruche and if they were, where they live, who they're living with, how many children they've got, if they're even still alive. I still have a picture in my head of the vague figure of a cousin arriving on leave in his recruit's uniform, treading down the lettuce in the garden with his cruel boots, but the house, for example, what can you do? has disappeared for me, except the mirror in the vestibule bought at the Almeirim fair in the midst of the wailing of suckling pigs and the drums of acrobats, which deformed faces and twisted movements into dim waves, giving back to everyone his secret and genuine face, the one that only the solitude of sleep or the abandon of love will finally reveal. I remember the winters with plantings in lead pots and pans on the floor in order to receive the rain that dribbled down through the cracks in the roof, and, further back in time, my father's godmother mending socks and long underwear beneath the sterile cherry tree in the rear, which was lifting one of the legs of the laundry basin with the bicep force of its roots. And that remote memory suddenly brought to his nose the smell of cow manure from recent months, ever since the telephone call announcing the independence of Angola decreed by His Majesty, during the embers of an uprising, when the court was meeting in Lixbon, the smell of sweat, diarrhea, fear, when, in panic, we pushed closets up against the windows because at any moment a slipper will squash down the carpet, laughing, at any moment the MPLA will start shooting wildly and the backs of heads will burst like figs into a paste of white meat and red seeds, what would the Prince think, if he were alive, there at the school in Sagres, unrolling maps and consulting the stars at the windows by the sea, while his captains chased Danish girls on the beaches of Albufeira and Gil Eanes presented himself in Lagos, dripping like an exhausted bridegroom, with a bouquet of withered flowers in his hand. He said Not a trace, and he thought Of course not, because in eighteen years in Africa I never received a letter, a postcard, a ham, not even a photograph. I'll almost bet that they all died centuries ago, buried under slabs in churches with their names in Latin obliterated by the soles of novice nuns, comfortable in the pearl-colored lining of their coffins, dressed in checkered jackets, lilac shawls, white blouses, with crossed hands and jagged jaws like the recumbent statues in chapel crypts. My family with their jaws tied and silver coins on the eyes that stared at me with disapproval, This is the one who went to Loanda to live surrounded by blacks instead of taking advantage of a tobacco shop in Venezuela or a travel agency in Germany, this is the one who opened up a butcher shop in the slums, selling chops to niggers, had a son by a mulatto woman, lived in a prefabricated hut in Cuca, who didn't even own a car, a boat, on Sundays would sprawl out in the parlor in his drawers listening to soccer games and eating the shit of a native's life, the chronicler made assiduous Gothic notes in front of my name, wiggling his wise ears as if he shared the disdain or the displeasure of my aunts and uncles, and the deacon who was his acolyte, with the crown of hair and chubby cheeks of a ceramic Saint Anthony, repeated No relatives, no brother-in-law, no distant relation?, while he filled out forms, multiplied figures on a pocket calculator, handed me a paper to sign, Here, he poured a drop of wax at the bottom of the page and gave it to the other one to seal the nodule of steaming blood with his crested ring. The mulatto woman, in plastic sandals and a kerchief tied around her head, who before living with me had waited on tables in a restaurant in Ilha, sank into a poster of oriental vacations that showed a couple with wreaths around their necks taking their ease in a marine sunset with mugs of beer. Nobody, I said, just the bedroom furniture that should arrive on the next galleon if it didn't disappear on the docks with all this business of thievery, democracy, and socialism, and I was proud of the bed tables with porcelain knobs, the cupboard with three doors for bottles, crystal, and wine- and water glasses, along with the bureau that had a sumptuous marble top on which the veins that branch out lightly on the eyelids of small children were engraved, at the same time that, with the pomp of awarding a diploma magna cum laude, the clerk gave me an illegible notice, You've got a week in which to appear at the office there, agora veja là. Behind me a plebeian on crutches was protesting the delays of bureaucracy, When I get out of here I'm going to complain to the newspapers, and I stopped listening to him because I remembered Coruche again and my father's godmother limping about the house, with the clothes basket das molas in her hands, out of focus in the trellis with the grapevines. As for room and board, the clerk explained, indifferent to the man on crutches, without even looking at or worrying in the least about the mulatto woman and the boy who was wrapped around my legs, mouth open in a spiral of anxiety, we've arranged a place for you at the Apostle of the Indies Boarding House on the Largo de Santa Bárbara, take a bus and ask for Mr. Francisco Xavier, next. A heavy, timid redhead, stammering what he wanted, elbowed me out of the way to get close to the desk and we were all alone and abandoned in a city that I knew and didn't know and which had the sweet small of the wild boars that mountain hunters set their dogs on in the summertime, pursuing them through the squares and alleys of Linda-a-Velha or Bucelas, while Dutch merchants and captains from the Malaccan seas disappeared into taxis at the airport on their way downtown and the ebb-tide stench of its alleys, and the three of us there outside, on the sidewalk, à torreira, waiting for the little tables from Angola as if the caravels would cross through the avenues and deposit at our feet a crate mildewed with sandbar sludge, chewed soft by the gums of waves, broken up by opposing currents and the sharpness of reefs, bearded with mussels and oceanic oysters, with the remains of a mattress and a knob inside.
Once upon a time there was a man named Luís who was missing his left eye and who remained on the Alcântara docks for three or four weeks at least, sitting on top of his father's coffin, waiting for the rest of his goods to arrive on the next ship. He'd given the stevedores, a drunken Portuguese sergeant, and the customs officials the deed to his house and all the money he had, he'd seen them hoist the refrigerator, stove, and ancient Chevrolet with a ranting motor on board a ship that was already being made ready, but he refused to leave the casket in spite of the orders of a chubby major (You can't be dreaming of taking that crap with you), a coffin with carved handles and a crucifix on the lid, dragged tilting along to the amazement of the commandant, who forgot about his vernier and lifted his head, dizzy with calculations, to look at him at the moment the man called Luís was disappearing below and was stowing the dead man under his bunk, the way the other passengers did with their baskets and suitcases. Then he stretched out on the blanket, put his hands behind his neck, and amused himself by following the meticulous crochet work of the spiders and the zeal of the mice on the ceiling beams covered with crabs and barnacles, dreaming about the nocturnal arms of absent black women. At the second lunch he met a retired cardsharp and a one-handed Spaniard who'd been selling lottery tickets in Mozambique named Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a former soldier, always writing on the pages torn out of a ledger and discarded scraps of paper a novel entitled, no one knew why, Quixote, when everybody knew that Quixote is the nickname of a steeplechase horse, and at the end of the afternoon they pulled out the coffin and played some fine blackjack on the varnished cover, avoiding touching the crucifix, because it's risky in cards and can affect your hand, and lifting up their buckled shoes whenever the listing of the ship spilled the vomit of their neighbors in their direction; it had reached a depth of six inches and obliged them, sopping their stockings, to hold on to the handles so the corpse wouldn't get away from them, adrift in a soup where lavagantes fluttered, carrying off the jacks and aces of the winning hand.
Excerpted from The Return of the Caravels by António Lobo Antunes. Copyright © 1988 by António Lobo Antunes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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