(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It is hard to imagine what the general reader will make of this novel, written in 1988 and only now translated. Set in Lisbon sometime soon after 1974, it chronicles the return not just of the Portuguese colonist, but of the colonization itself, the whole golden age of Portuguese discovery and conquest, which finally disappears, literally, into Lisbon’s trash bins. Because of this kind of surrealistic touch, António Lobo Antunes is often compared to the French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), who also set peregrinating narrators loose in crumbling cities to fulminate bitterly on life, but Céline anchors his novels in a single compelling, if idiosyncratic voice. In The Return of the Caravels, Antunes uses many characters, but with no real distinction of voice, to tell his story of the collapse of Portugal’s dream of empire.

Given its chaotic crash of detail, a first reading of this novel is as disorienting as a first hearing of a twelve-tone composition. Yet with a little background information, the book opens a fascinating view into Portuguese history and literature, starting with the House of Avis, the dynasty of kings who ruled from 1387 to the catastrophic invasion of Morocco in 1578, ending Portugal’s glorious age of discovery and opening the way for temporary Spanish rule. In a parallel present lies the revolution of 1974, so peaceful in Lisbon that it was called the Carnation Revolution because of the flowers people put in the rifle barrels of the soldiers. In the colonies, however, there was panic as the new “revolutionary” government in Lisbon pulled troops back from the jungles and turned over control of Angola and Mozambique, among other places, to guerrilla armies almost before the colonists had time to buy tickets home. Most colonists fleeing the violent resolution of Portugal’s colonial history had nowhere to go but Lisbon, which was not prepared for them. Portugal’s economy was wrecked along with its empire, and the revolution, though peaceful, ushered in a period of confusion. The new government was leftist and expropriated private property and interrupted public services in the course of attempting to set up a people’s republic. The returning colonists, many of whom came back with little but the stigma of colonialism, naturally had a hard time starting up their lives again.

This is the Lisbon that Antunes creates, “the ugliest city on the face of the earth,” where the so-called glorious past is embodied in absurdist revenants of the empire, “resuscitated beings who peopled the shadows of Lixbon.” Nearly every character in this multilayered novel bears the name of someone from Os Lusíadas, an epic account of Portugal’s golden age of exploration. Some of them, such as Vasco da Gama, “that mossback of a great- grandfather with a sword,” actually seem never to have died, but occupy a low-rent purgatory of kings and sailors from a historical period coinciding roughly with the House of Avis.

Dom João I (1385-1433) founded the dynasty when he established Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1383 at the battle of Aljubarrota (here a seedy bar whose owner keeps hearing the Castilian trumpets across six centuries). João I’s third son was Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), or just the Prince, credited with starting to push Portuguese sailors, in their famous caravels, down the coast of Africa. João II (1481-1495) carried this on with even greater urgency with the help of sailors such as Diogo Cão, a major character in this novel. Later, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the tip of South Africa, opening the way for Vasco da Gama, who sailed under the auspices of Dom Manoel, the king who oversaw the establishment of a Portuguese trading empire in Africa and the Indies. Portugal’s power was not seriously threatened until Dom Sebastião (1557-1578) mounted his doomed invasion of Morocco in 1578, a crusade that resulted in the destruction of the entire army and the disappearance of the king.

Written shortly before this catastrophe, Os Lusíadas (named not for its author, Luís de Camões, but Lusitania, the Roman name for Portugal) envisions a much different future for Portugal. In the tradition of Renaissance classicism, it features not only the “historical” da Gama and his travels, but also gods and goddesses who look down on da Gama and decide whether to help or hinder him in his great voyage. At one point in his travels, he is called upon to recount the history of Portugal up to that time, making the poem a great national epic. On da...

(The entire section is 1855 words.)