At the zoo talking to the tigers

“and I go sit in the back garden until it’s dark, not crying, of course, I’m not such a fool as to start crying, only wimps cry, and I’m not crying, don’t think I’m crying, I’m not, I sit in the garden until it’s dark feeding corn to the chickens, feeding corn to the chickens, feeding corn to the chickens.”

António Lobo Antunes. I Really Need To Talk To You. The Fat Man and Infinity, p.248.

To cry is the question when I see books on the remainder carts outside a bookstore. Priced at less than a cup of coffee this book, with its orange stripe and hardcover art of a vintage photograph of a boy peering around a corner into the darkness, sat waiting for me. For less than a cup of coffee, I can purchase hours and hours of another man’s gift of words. That is tragic.

If Raymond Carver is the American master of minimalism and purveyor of domestic dramas in plainchant, then Antunes is Portugal’s polyphonic reply as the Iberian Faulkner or Joyce without all the narrative confusion. In the quote above a man sits at a table eating braised rabbit and rehearses all that he wishes to say to his lover, knowing that he lacks the courage, torn as he is to be the dutiful son and care for his ailing mother. He really has the need to talk, to declare his love and yet he won’t because he can’t. His beloved will love Carlos, the other man in her life. It would seem that everyone in Portugal has a lover on the side without blinking. In the end the repetition of “feeding corn to the chickens” announces, with the repeated throwing down of corn to the floor, his resignation.

Antunes is a trained psychiatrist and he is an astute observer of the human emotional and mental landscape. Most of his stories – there are 107 of them in this volume – have some form of interior dialogue and introspective journey, whether it is the man recalling childhood, a dying woman recalling happier days, or a spouse speaking of destructive routines and infidelity (his and hers). Speaking is key to all these stories; Antunes is a masterly storyteller because the reader is privy to multiple conversations, imagined questions and answers, announcements and wished-for declarations in flowing paragraphs of discourse that break traditional syntax. You shouldn’t be able to follow the conversation but you are in the conversation as it unfolds emotionally and logically. The sentences should not work but they do.

Equally admirable is that all 107 stories in this volume are 600 to 800 words long. In the world of ‘flash fiction’ each of the 107 stories are crown jewels. Antunes dismisses these particular writings as divertissements or ‘entertainments.’ He writes novels on the side (I write that with humor). These stories appeared as weekly contributions to the O Público newspaper. The Portuguese word for these stories is crónicas, a rather misleading word since Antunes is true to its etymological truth: chronicles.

The stories are occasionally dark but there is humor. Antunes dislikes using computers for writing. There is the woman who waits for her lover, recalling that he was upset and frustrated with her bra in their last amorous encounter, so she buys “a black lace bra today that opens at the front.” There is the poetic: God is not absent in the modern world. He just takes His time making a decision and loves jazz. Antunes depicts the ordinary in extraordinary ways, from simplicity to the tragic, from the joyous to the profoundly heartbreaking: the divorced woman is plagued by her mother about her weight or the slow toll of death by cancer, seen from within and without. Who else could enumerate the loss of childhood innocence by entitling the short story as ‘Who Had To Murder Me To Make Me So Sweet?’ The title story of the volume is a story of a writer working through writer’s block.

In an excellent New Yorker article Peter Conrad discusses Antunes and laments the year 1998, the year the Nobel Prize was given to José Saramago.

So I looked at the orange stripe on this book, paid my pittance, and went home, where Antunes’s book took me to the zoo with a box of oranges where I could talk to the tigers and possibly learn how they got their stripes.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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