THE RETURN OF THE CARAVELS

Antonio Lobo Antunes, Author, Gregory Rabassa, Translator , trans. from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa. Grove $24 (208p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1708-3

Antunes examines the legacy of the Portuguese conquistadors in his latest novel, a murky, hallucinatory affair in which the author follows half a dozen characters through the breakup of Portugal's colonial dominion in the 1970s while occasionally backtracking to the 16th century to trace the effects of Vasco da Gama's journeys. Da Gama is by far Antunes's most intriguing creation, particularly when the author posits a scenario in which the explorer returns to 20th-century Portugal as the colonies are fading and proceeds to reestablish his power within the country by winning a series of high-stakes poker games. Antunes also delves into the fate of one of da Gama's admirals, Diogo Cão, who tries to raise money for a second voyage to India while engaging in an interlude with an elderly prostitute. None of the secondary figures measure up to the promise offered by those two characters, however, and Antunes fails to follow up on the intriguing plot line with da Gama. What he opts for instead is a lyrical but nonlinear narrative full of long, labyrinthine sentences in which he draws from the tradition of magical realism, using imagery ranging from the grotesque and lurid to the poetically beautiful to frame Portugal's loss of power. Antunes is definitely a writer worth reading for his literary talent and his insights into Portugal's history, geography and national character, but readers must be willing to leave behind any expectations regarding straight-line narrative and coherent plot. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 02/11/2002
Release date: 03/01/2002
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