cover image An Explanation of the Birds

An Explanation of the Birds

Antonio Lobo Antunes. Grove/Atlantic, $19.95 (261pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1339-9

The Portuguese author of Fado Alexandrino offers a dizzying, kaleidoscopic portrait of a weak-willed man destroyed by the bourgeois expectations of his wealthy family. During the course of the novel, Rui S. suffers a mental breakdown, and the distinctions between fact and fiction, between past, present and future, blur in Antunes's brilliant narration. Rui imagines his family as circus performers; ruthlessly stripped of their pretensions, they regard his own suicidal tendencies as worthy of ring-side attention. These surrealistic musings are contrasted to Rui's own pathetic history, which is presented in the form of cynical testimonials by his relatives. When his first marriage (to a woman of his own class) fails, Rui, a candidate for a doctorate in history, falls in love with and marries Marilia, a Communist, working-class professor of semiotics, even though his family, and later Rui himself, realize that this relationship, too, is destined to fail. Marilia tries to induct him into her Communist cell, but the other members scornfully reject Rui because of his background. His brief flirtation with radical politics ends when he is jailed and has to be bailed out by his industrialist father. Rui fails even at his attempt to end his second marriage. At the beach resort he's chosen for the denouement, Marilia turns the tables and announces that she intends to leave him. The disintegration of Rui's personality proceeds rapidly from this point, but not before Antunes has a chance to explore the uneasy social politics of Portugal. (July)