Recently Read; António Lobo Antunes and Songs of Kabir

 António Lobo Antunes’s: The Land at the End of the World (W.W. Norton & Company, NY 2011)

I previously posted that the book was  “the first Portuguese fiction I have read.” and that “The book recounts the anguished tale of a Portuguese medic haunted by memories of war in Angola.

It was the first novella that I had read in a good while. Over the years I find myself reading less printed long form. Although I suppose, reading books, was always something I had to make myself do. Despite of my love of and at some points hunger for reading and books. Anywho…

The book is told as a series of flashbacks primarily during what is ostensibly one night’s encounter between a man and a women he picks up from a bar. It is a delightful book. At one point I had read many autobiographies of soldiers written during Vietnam War. Although, I loved those books it is interesting to me the difference between them and the book by Lobo Antunes. It has the structure of a diary but the aesthetic of a piece of fiction. Perhaps that is the difference between a book and literature? In either case the blended context of both provincial service in the frontier of Africa but also the frontlines of a guerrilla back country war is highly entrancing. The book poignantly captures the madness both of wartime but also the madness that stays with the soldier even intruding on efforts to forget to enjoy some R&R.

For instance, “He died in combat in Angola,…Doctor, fix me up with some illness before I explode right here in the street from all the shit inside me.” (pg., 141). Or the pain that lingers upon the end of their service “Rootless, I float between continents, both of which spurn me, I’m searching for an empty space in which I might drop anchor and which could, for example, be the long mountain range of your body

It features vignettes of sleazy colonial outposts based on/near Portuguese military bases, “The large landowners and industrialists hidden away in their gigantic mansions replete with fake antiquities, from which they would emerge to paw the Brazilian prositutes in the nightclubs on Luanda Island” mixed with scenes narrated in first person from the authors night, in the bar and bed, with a women, years later back in Lisbon “Listen. It will be getting light soon, the alarm clocks in the building opposite will brutally propel the sleepers out of their dreams,…So, please, if you don’t mind, come over here to my side of the bed, sniff the mattress where I have my lair, run your fingers through my hair as if gripped by the gentle, greedy violence of a genuine tenderness“.

All in all, I would argue it is a must read, a shorter, more magically realist (instead of absurdist) version perhaps, of something like Catch-22.

Songs of Kabir Translated by Arvind K Mehrotra (New York Review Books CLASSICS, NY 2011)

Although I knew of Kabir, if only tangentially through my lifelong exposure to India’s spiritual traditions and saints, I had never read any of his poetry. To be honest I have never been a huge fan of reading poetry (with the exception of haiku particularly death poetry or jisei) but I figured this book was short enough that I could breeze through it.  The work was powerful. Especially noteworthy is the relationship between Kabir’s use of “upside down language“,  which Kabir used in the same way a Zen master’s koan is used to shock a student’s consciousness, and Mehrotra’s very contemporary translation. The slang and neologisms serve to provide the same sense of disrupture. Such as in his translation of KG 85.

To tonsured monks and dreadlocked Rastas,
To idol worshippers and idol smashers,
To fasting Jains and feasting Shaivites,
To Vedic pundits and Faber poets,
The weaver Kabir sends one message:
The noose of death hangs over all.
Only Rama’s name can save you.
Say it NOW.

Kabir comes across as a contemporary in spirit, of Rumi, the Persian Sufi master. They both share the sense of erotic, love for God, Allah, Man (in the deeply humanist sense) or Rama. Yet also mysterious and mysticalLy deep. For example in KGG 3.25

Chewing slowly,
Only after I’d eaten
My grandmother,
Two brothers-in-law,
And father-in-law
(His big family included)
In that order,
And had for dessert
The town’s inhabitants,
Did I find, says Kabir,
The beloved that I’ve become
One with.

There are also some wonderful juxtapositions and inclusions of other authors poetry throughout the text including this one by Bhartrihari (c. 5th century) “Birth is scented with death.


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