(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

António Lobo Antunes constructs his eleventh novel, The Inquisitor’s Manual, around the eighty-year meteoric rise of an aristocratic family during the regime of Portugal’s Fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar and its decline after the bloodless revolution of 1974. Central to this dysfunctional family is its patriarch, Senhor Francisco, a powerful cabinet minister in Salazar’s brutal government. The master of Palmela, a large farming estate, is obeyed by his servants without question, as he is by everyone else in Lisbon. There are not words strong enough to describe the cruelty he heaps upon his wife, Isabel, whom he obsessively adores, and his two children, João and Paula, to whom he shows little interest and nothing of love.

A personal friend, a henchman actually, of Salazar, Senhor Francisco (no last name) wields incredible power, arranging for the death or incarceration of anyone he chooses with a mere phone call to the secret police. However, there is one death that he cannot dictate—the assassination of his wife’s lover, a member of an equally powerful aristocratic family. It turns out that the seemingly unassailable minister, who lustfully uses women (and young girls), is impotent with his own wife, Dona Isabel. She cannot abide him. He, on the other hand, adores Isabel and pathetically clings to her even though he knows she is involved with another man. Masochistically, he begs for assurances of her love, but the more harshly she treats him, the more he worships her. Devastated after she leaves, he becomes fixated on this moment in time.

Tatina, his housekeeper and former lover, secretly adores Senhor Francisco and takes the place of the fleeing Isabel by subsuming her life completely to his. She takes care of all his needs except his sexual ones. These physical urges Senhor Francisco focuses on the cook, the steward’s young peasant daughter, the pharmacist’s widow, and others. He only finds a modicum of comfort in the arms of a young woman, Milá, who bears a striking resemblance to the wife who abandoned him. Milá and her mother, Dona Dores, who once lived in a dank basement apartment, now reside in a luxurious apartment given them by the powerful government minister. Here, Antunes brilliantly evokes his readers’ unwilling sympathy for this dreadful man by having him present Milá (in a macabre, Dickensian scene) with his lost wife’s out-of-date, dusty clothing and ill-fitting shoes, which he keeps in anticipation of her eventual return. In this regard, Senhor Francisco resembles the obsessed, unbalanced Ashenbach in Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925). Milá cares nothing for the old government minister, desiring instead the young but married petty thief, Carlos.

After the young military officers rise up to take over the government in 1974, Senhor Francisco suffers severe setbacks. The tables have been turned; now the once-powerful cabinet minister finds himself isolated on his estate, insanely wielding a shotgun and at one point even groveling in mud and urine. He fires his servants, including the faithful Tatina, erroneously believing them to be communists.

Eventually his insanity causes one of women he abused, an office worker, to jump from the police headquarters’ window to avoid torture. Senhor Francisco refuses to provide medical attention, and she dies at his hands. A stroke finally lands him, helpless and incontinent, in a nursing home where women, in the form of well-meaning nurses, now chide him as one would a naughty child. He exists within his dark, delusional mind, conjuring memories and grandiosely planning his escape and return to power. Ironically, his only visitor is his son, João, who has every excuse to detest him.

One of João’s first memories is of his father having sex with the steward’s unresisting teenage daughter in plain view of anyone who happened by. The abandonment by his mother, Isabel, leaves the young boy fragile and vulnerable, and the aloofness displayed toward him by his father, who suspects João is not really his son, stunts him psychologically. The only person to treat him kindly is Senhor Francisco’s childless housekeeper, Tatina, who latches onto him as she would her own child. Eventually, João marries a wicked woman, Sophia, who wants him only for his father’s government connections. His in-laws set him up in a crooked business scheme, and he eventually loses his family estate to them. Before long, he is practically homeless. João continues, however, to visit his father in the nursing home.

He also attempts to locate his long-lost mother and searches for her in the Alverca...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)