Antonio Lobo Antunes, , trans. from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith. . Grove, $25 (356pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1732-8

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar is not the best known of 20th-century dictators, but he was as cruel and ruthless as any of them in his rule over Portugal from 1932 to 1968. In his 11th novel, Antunes (The Return of the Caravels; Act of the Damned) recreates the harrowing story of Salazar's regime, building gradually from the petty problems and thoughts of a host of characters, related in stream of consciousness, to blunt exposition of the inhuman inner workings and brutal violence of authoritarianism. An unseen contemporary inquisitor interviews a series of individuals, whose identities are gradually revealed to the reader. These shadowy characters stammer, lie to themselves and compulsively repeat phrases; occasionally, they are sarcastic to the questioner. The central figure is a minor eminence of the fascist government, Senhor Francisco, or "the Minister," whose triumphs and decline are narrated in fragmented and nonsequential fashion. Old, fat and abandoned by the Party as the novel begins, he is spending his last years in a hospital, derided by his nurses: "Time to go wee-wee, Senhor Francisco, time for wee-wee." The minister's son, Joao, is unambitious and simple, and Joao's illegitimate half-sister, Paula, is unattractive, jealous and vindictive, convinced her brother has cheated her out of her inheritance. Supporting characters include Titina, the minister's aging and vain housekeeper; Romeu, a slow-witted dreamer; Cesar, brutally beaten by plainclothesmen; Alice, who shares harsh recollections of Africa. Many of these speakers conjure up a collage of voices as they tell their stories, and the interviews become progressively more narrative, graphically describing the regime of Salazar. With this tapestry of harrowing testimonials, the supremely confident Antunes illuminates a dark corner of European history and produces a stunning piece of narrative art. Agent, Thomas Colchie. (Jan. 25)

Forecast:Released just two months after José Saramago's The Cave (Forecasts, Nov. 4), this latest novel by Antunes may prompt reviewers to take stock of contemporary Portuguese literature.