In January 1971, as the Angolan War of Independence entered its most brutal phase, a young medical officer in the Portuguese army disembarked in Luanda to begin his two-year military service.
He soon found himself assigned to a military outpost in the east of the country, responsible for the welfare of the ill-trained and poorly equipped conscripts who manned the base and who were taking ever greater casualties as Angola's guerilla groups intensified the war against their colonial masters.
Over the next two years, this officer was posted around the country to different bases, and witnessed the full horrors of the colonial war as it neared its endgame. Casualties skyrocketed as the independence movements of the FNLA, the MPLA and UNITA gained in confidence, and the Portugese in turn resorted to ever more brutal measures to try and stamp out the uprising.
The medic was disgusted by the way the military and Portugal's secret police, the infamous PIDE, acted with total impunity towards the local population; when he returned from the war in March 1973, his life was changed forever. As he has repeated ever since, the change was very much for the worse. In 1979, the former officer was to publish his first novel and embark on a career as one of Portugal's best known and most critically acclaimed writers. His name is António Lobo Antunes.
Throughout his career, António Lobo Antunes has dedicated a number of his works to his experiences in Angola as an unwilling participant in his country's colonial war, the best known of which is The Land at the End of the World, a new translation of which is published on June 24 by W.W. Norton and Company.
Although the novel was first published in 1979 under the title Os Cus de Judas, Portuguese for "Judas' Asshole" - which, according to the translator's note, means something along the lines of "the back of beyond" - and was hugely successful in Portugal, this is the first time the it has been translated into English.
In The Land at the End of the World, an unnamed, whiskey-sodden narrator recounts his life to a woman he has met in a bar who he hopes to sleep with. The narrator begins with recollections of his cloistered childhood in a conservative family in Lisbon, stifled by the stuffy, prim atmosphere and his elderly relatives who are all committed to Salazar and the Estado Novo he created. This childhood comes abruptly to an end when he finds himself being packed off to Angola on a troopship with his proud family waving a tearful goodbye from the quay.
The narrator's rambling recollections segue from the banal to the brutal when he arrives in Luanda, where he is horrified by the new, grotesque world he finds himself in. The "strange, unreal, fluctuating atmosphere" of the colony bears down on him, an atmosphere he "encountered again later in psychiatric hospital". As he journeys eastwards to the outpost, he is confronted with the guerilla war itself, where he is forced to live through "twenty-five months of senseless, imbecilic violence".
The narrator's desperation grows as he recounts the hell of his life in the outpost; the bloody jungle operations and ambushes, the cruelty of the PIDE agents, and the exploitation and degradation of the locals by the military all revolt him. However, his silent complicity in all of this is what troubles him the most, and the narrator describes his ruin after he returns home; the breakup of his family, the loss of his friends, and his inability to readapt to civilian life in Lisbon.
Even though the Portugal which the narrator returns to has been changed forever by the fall of Caetano's regime brought about by the Carnation Revolution, he is still speechless with rage at his country's silence about the past: "Why the hell doesn't anyone talk about this? I'm beginning to think that the one and a half million men who were sent to Africa never existed and I'm just giving you some spiel." Finally, the narrator is reduced to drinking and desperately seeking comfort in casual sex with strangers met in bars, repeating his story over and over again, trying to make sense of his experiences.
Antunes' novel shows the clear influence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, another medical man scarred by his encounters with war and colonialism. What comes across most strongly in The Land at the End of The World is the narrator's failure to absorb his experiences in Angola, and the anger this has caused him.
The author is particularly well known for his vivid extended similes: a sky at dawn is "as empty as the roof of a toothless mouth". Sometimes these can grate a little, but generally he uses them to great effect. Antunes' distinct style renders fully the narrator's bewilderment and horror at the war and his anger at those behind it.
The Land at the End of the World, which is not the first novel by Antunes to be translated, or even the first he has written about the war in Angola to be released in English, is a vivid and deeply personal account of the young author's experiences in the colonial war. Books on this subject in English are few and far between, and it does the novel little justice to say that this surely is one of the finest of them. Antunes does not bother with politics or military history, even avoiding descriptions of combat, but instead creates a dark and disturbing condemnation of the stupidity of war and colonialism.
The Land at the End of the World, by António Lobo Antunes and translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is available in hardback in the UK from June 24 for £16.99