Friday, February 15, 2013

Hallucinations: Céline and Antunes

Young men with guns: look in the pages of the New York Times any morning and you will see an image like the one above (actually a photograph  taken in Angola in the 1970's).  There is nothing to say about such images, about such realities, any longer.  All that is left is to ascribe the image, the  violence, to the realm of nightmares.  There is no longer anything to learn about these images, these young men--they are only to be discussed by madmen. 

In 1916, Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, better known to us as Louis-Ferdinand Céline, set out for what were then known as the Cameroons, in French West Africa.  He spent one year in Africa, but wove that year into his debut novel, Journey to the End of the Night (1934), a  hallucinatory voyage through the First World War, European imperialism in Africa, immigrant life in New York, and despair in Paris.  I have chosen this passage more or less at random:

"What I [Bardamu, Celine's alter ego and anti-hero] couldn't help hearing under their spoken words and expressions of sympathy was this: 'Nice little soldier boy, you're going to die...You're going to die...this is war...Everyone has his own life...his role...his death...We seem to share your distress...But no one can share anyone else's death...A person sound in body and soul should take everything that happens as entertainment, neither more nor less, and we are wholesome young women...You'll soon be forgotten, dear little soldier boy..."

What does hallucinatory really mean, in relationship to literature?  I read Celine as a writer who is recreating dreams, states of consciousness that are offered without editing, where the extraneous is pushed front and center, where the reader's patience is tried by a lack of causality, coherence, and even, at times, of meaning. But then how else should a serious writer represent the horrors of the twentieth century but as a waking nightmare?

Among the most horrid nightmares of the Cold War occurred not in Latin America (there were plenty there) or Eastern Europe, but in Africa, in Angola in particular, a nation torn in three by the Portuguese--the original colonists--the Russians and the Americans, with the Chinese waiting in the wings for whatever scraps of diamonds and domination were left over. I won't recapitulate this history here, but only mention that the great Portuguese novelist, Antonio Lobo Antunes, served both his medical and literary apprenticeship in the horrifying war that pitted the Marxist government (supported by Cuban and Russian men and arms) against the U.S.-backed UNITA movement led by the charismatic madman Jonas Savimbi, one of the darling psychopaths of the Reagan administration.  Antunes, born in 1942, served a medical apprenticeship in Angola, and witnessed scenes of horror that have pervaded his fiction ever since.  His stylistic and tonal affinities with Celine are apparent, but his voice is his own--in the great novel Os Cus de Judas (The Asshole of Judas) translated by Margaret Jull Costa as The Land at the End of the World  (1979)--the mad, rambling, hallucinating narrator relates his experiences in the horrifying Angolan Civil War that eventually claimed the lives of half a million Angolans:

"No, I mean it, dusk falls and my heart starts to pound, I can feel it in my pulse, there's a tightening in my stomach, my bladder hurts, my ears hum, as if some indefinable thing waiting to burst forth were throbbing inside my chest: one of these days, the porter will find me lying naked on the bathroom floor, toothpaste and blood dribbling from one corner of my mouth.....I know it was six years ago, but I still get upset: we were traveling in convoy along sandy roads from Luso down to the Land at the End of the World, Lucusse, Luanguinga, past troops guarding the road construction site, past the ugly, uniform desert, villages surrounded by barbed wire, the prefabricated buildings of the barracks. . . . .my cap pulled low over my eyes, an endless cigarette vibrating in my hand, I began my painful apprenticeship in dying."

The hallucinatory is the dream made real. Antunes has a predecessor in Céline to be sure, but also in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, in Conrad, and in Faulkner, all of  whose narrators share with Antunes's doctor an obsession with the hopelessness of rendering into language that which is unspeakable. 

The victims of more recent colonial wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan will recognize at once the madness of Atunes's doctor-narrator as the inevitable outgrowth of war's horror.  We call the syndrome PTSD and apply the term to any sort of trauma, but the victims of war suffer more than trauma--they lose their identifty altogether:

"I am today whom I deep down reject: a melancholic bachelor whom no one phones and from whom no one expects a call, who coughs occasionally just to feel as if he had company, and whom the cleaning lady will find one day sitting in his rocking chair in his undershirt, mouth agape, his purple fingers trailing on the November-colored hair of the carpet."

Antunes is the author of over twenty-six novels and is widely considered to be Portugal's greatest living novelist. 

The Land at the End of the World is published by W.W. Norton.

George Ovitt (2/15)

No comments:

Post a Comment