cover image The Natural Order of Things

The Natural Order of Things

Antonio Lobo Antunes. Grove/Atlantic, $25 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1658-1

Using the poetic resources of language, and hinging his plot less on everyday logic than on a dreamlike progression from character to metaphor to history, Antunes's fantastically complex and compressed novel illumines Portugal's crime-studded history in this century. An unnamed 50ish clerk in the National Tourism office falls in love with Yolanda, a diabetic teenager living with her crazy father, Domingos Oliveira, and her aunt, Dona Orquidea, in Hyacinth Park, a working-class district of Lisbon. Yolanda is scornful of the clerk, but allows him to sleep with her. A writer (perhaps of the novel) hires an ex-secret policeman, Ernesto Portas, to find out anything he can about the man, and the information Portas collects becomes part of the narrative. Ever since the oppressive regime established by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was overthrown in the mid-'70s, Portas has supported himself by running a correspondence course in hypnotism. His fantasy--that his hypnotic technique allows people to fly--matches Oliveira's fantasy, which is about flying underground in long dark mine shafts. Oliveira once worked in the mines in South Africa, and Yolanda was born in Mozambique. Her mother remains there still, in an insane asylum. The unnamed clerk is less certain about his past. His mother, Julieta, was locked up in the attic of the family house because she was a bastard, as is the clerk. His uncle Jorge Valadas was a military conspirator against the Salazar government. Episodes of Valadas's imprisonment and torture dominate the middle section of the novel. In the end, the unnamed clerk disappears, flying away like one of Portas's hypnosis students. The novel progresses through a series of monologues by the principal characters, mixing fantasy and fact in lyrical, impressionistic prose. It powerfully demonstrates the distortions inflicted upon history by secrecy and repression when, as in the Portugal of the '50s, brutality is sovereign. (Feb.)