Virtuosic? Tour de force? These are such clichéd terms to use in a review – and yet, I can find no other words to better describe Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes’ 1992 novel, The natural order of things. This is one of those beautifully written, but rather challenging, books that you know you really should read again to get all those nuances, relationships, and connections that you sense but can’t quite fully grasp. If that puts you off reading the book, so be it, but in doing so you’ll miss something quite special.
As you might expect the title is ironic – there is very little natural order here. The novel does not follow the “natural (aka chronological) order” either of fiction or of life. The characters – including a middle-aged man living with a schoolgirl, a miner who “flies” underground, a girl/woman who spends her life in an attic, an ex-secret policeman who teaches hypnotism by correspondence – do not fit the “natural order” either.
The imagery is rich, evocative and effective in building up a picture (mostly of disorder and decay) and a feeling (mostly of melancholy, if not despair). The rhythm – produced by repetition, and by run-on paragraphs that don’t begin with new sentences – compels you on. The characters are convincingly drawn despite their often mad-sounding confusions. The mixing of the surreal with the real works – as does the weaving of two scenes from different points in time in the same sentence, not to mention the telling of a story by two voices in the same sentence. Somehow he makes it work. Here is an example:
…and eleven months later I met Mr Valadas at a restaurant and liked his double chin, he wasn’t as handsome as the skin doctor who hated Verdi, but I felt sorry for him, always by himself, eating lunch all alone,
and my sister Teresa, who kept looking at you and shaking as if she’d been hit by the world’s worst tragedy, “When is the wedding Fernando?” [p. 186]
Two voices alternating in one long run-on sentence – and for some reason, you go with the flow and know who’s speaking when. But that is the thing to do with this book – go with the flow.
So, what is it about? In superficial terms it’s about, as the blurb on my back cover says, “two families and the secrets that bind them”. But really, there’s not a strong plot, though several stories are told. The novel comprises 5 books, each of which is broken into chapters told from two alternating points of view, resulting in 10 voices. The stories are set between 1950 and around 1990 and deal, in their various ways, with post-1974 Carnation Revolution Portugal and the resultant disintegration of Portuguese society (not only in Portugal but in its African and Timorese colonies). This said, the over-riding sense of the book is one of personal stories, of past, present and the way memory works, and not of politics:
Relax, don’t lose your temper, I swear I’m doing the best I can, but that’s how memory is, it has its own laws, its own rhythm, its own whims, … (p. 23)
In a bit of self-consciousness that brings us back to earth, the second last voice in the book, the dying Maria Antonia, says:
I amused myself by imagining that the redheaded girl was the sister of my neighbours at the Calçada do Tojal, I moved her to the house of the Vacuum Oil employee and the imprisoned army officer … my nephew announced with a smile , “You’re going to live forever, Aunt Antonia”, and I nodded so as not to upset him, I stuck a Tyrolean hat on his head and place him in Hyacinth Park of Alcântra, married to a diabetic girl from Mozambique or … [p.263]
because we who are from here but are not from here, who are from a here that no longer exists, have filled up these buildings with the silt of mementos and albums and letters and faded pictures from the past, and our present is occupied by these ruins of memory, not only the memory of those who preceded us, but the memory of ourselves, because we also forget, because names and images and faces get lost in a fog that makes everything equally blurry, … [p. 274] … with me will die the characters of this book that will be called a novel, which I’ve written in my head, fraught with a fear I won’t talk about, and which one of these years someone, in accord with the natural order of things, will repeat for me in the same way that Benefica will be repeated in these random streets and buildings, and I, without wrinkles or gray hair, will water my garden with the hose in the late afternoon, and the palm tree at the post office will grow again, … [p.277-8] … even if we’re not very large trees, and even if they knock us down, we’ll remain in photos, in scrapbooks, in mirrors, in the objects that prolong and remember us, … [p. 278]
And so here is made clear what should already be clear through the way the book is written and structured – though the repetition of phrases, the recurrence of bird and tree images, and the intertwining of stories and voices – and that is that the present and past intermingle and repeat each other, that the real and the unreal both have a place, that nothing really ends or begins, and that, perhaps, no matter how bad things are there is hope. What also seems to be made clear is that this has all been the fabrication of Maria Antonia – or has it? After all it is not she but the redheaded girl (Julieta) who has the last say. Read it and decide for yourself.
(Translated by Richard Zenith)