'The Inquisitors’ Manual' by António Lobo Antunes, Portuguese literature

‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ by António Lobo Antunes

The Inquisitors’ Manual (O Manual dos Inquisidores, 1996) is an epic, sprawling novel set in the second half of the twentieth century, centring on Senhor Francisco, a Minister in Salazar’s government, in the years before and after the 1974 Revolution. With not one narrator, but many, the novel depicts a Portugal under the strict regime of the dictatorship and the years after the Revolution when many people’s lives still seemed to be marked by poverty and drabness.

The opening of the novel is an initially confusing stream of consciousness by Senhor Francisco’s son, João, weaving between the past and present as he prepares to divorce his snobbish wife while thinking back to his early life with his father. The narration is reminiscent of the first part of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury where snippets of information are given that are expanded on later and which the reader tries to piece together to get a fuller version of the truth. The boy João has observed his father abusing the female members of his staff, taking a mistress and introducing him to a secret sister he didn’t know he had. Later in the novel these characters will get a chance to tell their stories in a series of ‘reports’ and ‘commentaries’ to an unseen author. Some characters reveal the fear they feel in giving this information (a legacy of the dictatorship’s harsh censoring of information), such as the steward’s daughter whose commentary includes parenthetic comments to the author, ‘(he won’t get better, will he? Swear to me he won’t get better, because if he gets better he’ll beat my brains out)’ (p21*). More and more characters are introduced to give their interpretations of the previous ‘report’ and to put João’s memories into context. Through this we learn about the unrequited love Senhor Francisco’s housekeeper, Titinia, has for him; a woman who can’t understand why he never made a pass at her, until another character describes her as dressing ‘the way nuns dress when not in their habits’ (p223). We also hear the story of a young woman from a poor background who Senhor Francisco pursues and makes his mistress due to the resemblance she bears to his wife Isabella, who left him for another man when João was very young. At first it all goes well for her, as Senhor Francisco moves her and her mother into an expensive apartment in a fashionable part of Lisbon, but things start to go badly wrong firstly in the disapproving attitude of the caretaker of the building who makes it clear that she and her mother do not belong in the apartment block, and later when Senhor Francisco insists she dresses in the old-fashioned, torn clothes his wife discarded when she left him. When Senhor Francisco tires of her she has to return to the drab life she lived before. The most tragic character in the novel is Senhor Francisco’s illegitimate daughter, Paula, who is raised by a poor childless widow and only meets her father a few times in her life, but despite this lack of contact, she is labelled in her neighbourhood as the daughter of one of Salazar’s ministers; before the Revolution she is seen as someone to avoid as everyone she gets involved with is arrested and beaten up by the secret police, and after the Revolution she is ostracised and worse for being the daughter of a fascist. She unsuccessfully tries to get a share of her father’s farmhouse and estate from her half-brother, but he has already lost it to his ex-wife’s family who are building a luxury holiday resort on the land. Paula’s ambition, in a speech that is repeated like a mantra, is to have  ‘a slightly better life than what my godmother was able to give me … an apartment in Lisbon, no matter if it’s small, no matter in what neighbourhood, and not to have to pinch pennies all month long, not to have to shop at the cheapest supermarket, to be able to go occasionally to a restaurant and eat a lunch I didn’t have to cook myself, to go to the movies on Saturday and forget that when I turn the key in my door there’s no one waiting from me on the other side, no one for me to take care of, to buy clothes for, to go on holiday with me in July to southern Spain.’ (pp228-9).

We learn through the eyes of other characters that she isn’t very pretty, João describes her as ‘a girl with glasses and no makeup, no satins and no lapdog, a sad-looking typist or switchboard operator’ (p49), and as the years pass her hair is greying, none of her lowly ambitions are realised and she remains desperately lonely until she manipulates a situation with an intellectually challenged colleague in order to have a baby.

This is a book about a Portugal damaged by almost 50 years of dictatorship, represented by Senhor Francisco who abuses everyone he is involved with but ends his own days in a care home humiliatingly unable to even urinate unaided. From the beginning it is clear that this is an important novel, not just in Portuguese literature, but in world literature. Antunes is a masterful writer who captures the intimate lives of ordinary people through their thoughts and memories, their hopes and their drab realities, expertly weaving the past and present with not a single extraneous word (although the sensitive translation into English by Richard Zenith should not be overlooked). Like Faulkner, who gave a voice to the people of the southern states of the USA, Antunes gives a voice to the people of Portugal. Antunes is the natural successor to José Saramago and Portugal’s hope for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

*António Lobo Antunes, The Inquisitors’ Manual, trans. by Richard Zenith (New York; Grove Press, 2003)