IN THE EARLY part of the century, authors like Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and James Joyce cobbled together difficult masterpieces out of shifting narrators and changing time sequences. After World War II, this method fell out of favor, but a Portuguese novel recently translated into English pays homage to the technique--and throws in a dose of magical realism for good measure.
In The Natural Order of Things, Antonio Lobo Antunes traces the complex multigenerational fortunes of two families that are haunted by their pasts. The book opens with the rambling nighttime reminiscences of a middle-aged man as he lies in bed next to a much younger, diabetic woman. It's clear that this is no easy relationship. As the man pathetically puts it, "Whenever I talk about myself, you shrug your shoulders, twist your mouth and stretch your eyelids in disdain and mocking wrinkles appear behind your blond bangs, so that I finally shut up."
In the ensuing chapters, the narration is taken over in alternating segments by a bitter, elderly man and an army officer who is arrested and tortured. And that's just in part one. Future chapters introduce us to a feisty prostitute and her pimp, and an illegitimate girl who is locked up by her father. The author doesn't exactly make all this narrative juggling easy to keep track of. When the speaker jumps, abruptly, in midparagraph, time shifts too, taking a reader across several decades and from modern-day Lisbon to Africa. (The relative obscurity of Portuguese history serves as an additional obstacle.) Only in the final 50 pages or so--or more likely, on a second read--will the careful reader be able to cobble together the pieces of this genealogical puzzle and construct the web that ties all these main characters together.
But this novel isn't about plot, at least in the traditional sense, and readers not prepared for a struggle will be unlikely to get past page 75. So why is this book worth the labor? Because just as in the earlier modernist classics, the ideas and the language--yes, even in translation!--make this surreal journey a tour through the labyrinth of the human mind. Antunes possesses an uncanny ability to describe, as when he discusses the feeling of waiting for a dose of Valium to kick in: "I feel a tombstone decoration pressing against my leg, I hear the grass of the graves in my sheets, I see the plaster Jesuses and angels threatening me with their broken hands." He is equally at ease depicting the inanities of day-to-day life, the absurdities of trips to the doctors in which cab fare is forgotten or the doctor's advice is inconsequential, and the distinctive moments in our lives that define--indeed, trap--us.
Like Faulkner's tortured creations, the characters are burdened by the past--whether the burden of personal fallacy, such as extramarital affairs, or the burden of political cruelty and a life in prison. As one of his characters put it, "Relax, don't lose your temper, I swear I'm doing the best I can, but that's how memory is, it has its own rhythm, its own whims." What people are left with after they've waged their battles with fate, Antunes argues, is a history they must try to accept, even if this is ultimately impossible.