Interview with Antonio Lobo Antunes at the Paris Review

The Paris Review has an interview with Antonio Lobo Antunes who talks mostly about his experience in the war in Angola and the difficulty of writing about the war during the dictatorship, and specifically the book The Land at the End of the World.

Your author bio mentions that you were trained as a psychiatrist and served as a military doctor in Portugal’s war in Angola before becoming a writer. This experience seems to be at the heart of The Land at the End of the World, which takes the form of the soul-baring rant of a Portuguese war veteran honing in on a sexual conquest in a late 1970s Lisbon nightclub. How do you see this novel now, which has since been acclaimed as a literary masterpiece on the absurdities and wretchedness of war?

I started that book more than thirty years ago, as a very young man. In the first versions, there was no war at all. In many ways, it’s impossible to speak about the war directly. For me, it was a personal matter. When I arrived in Africa I looked up at the sky and said, “I don’t know these stars. Where am I? What am I doing here?” I just wanted to return alive. I remember we kept calendars and would cross off each day that we were still alive! I’ve talked to people who were in the Vietnam War, the Algerian War, and I’ve understood them perfectly. You can’t say these things to your wife or your son because they won’t understand it. It’s too strange an experience. It’s unreal.

So I never set out to write a book about the war. I was very interested in the relationship between the man who speaks and the woman who listens. I was drawn to the idea that the relationship between a man and a woman can be something like a war itself, very cruel and violent. And then I realized that if I included some things about what happened in Africa, it would provide a powerful counterpoint to their story. I suppose the narrator of the book is trying to use the tales of war to seduce the woman—he believes that women are weak when it comes to these things. I was surprised by the solitude of this character, this lonely and miserable man. The book is about a very personal vision of hell.