With its first English publication, via an English translation by Clifford E. Landers, Antonio Lobo Antunes' 1980 Portuguese novel Knowledge Of Hell will probably be lumped in with the work of other Romance-language magical realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the more apt comparison may be to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whose novels, for all their philosophies, never disconnect from a perpetual current of dread that undercuts whichever character is speaking at any given time. But Pamuk's innocuous images, like the weather-victimized village of Snow, are no match for Antunes' onslaught of multi-sensory nightmares.
To the extent that it matters to the novel, the plot follows a psychiatrist—who shares the author's name—traveling through the Portuguese countryside back to the Lisbon hospital where he works. The return to his post fuels his dread; while he's moving forward, each stop in his travels floods him with memories of his work with soldiers and casualties of Portugal's war with Angola, as well as the patients he has charge of now. The narrative shifts fluidly from first to third person, but never abandons the doctor's perspective: "He examined himself in the mirror, making sure of his tie, his jacket, the part in his hair, and thought 'I'm a doctor' just as children repeat 'I'm grown up'… I'm finally going to be a respectable person leaning over a prescription pad in hasty abstracted nobility." (Credit must be given to Landers' translation, which accomplishes these transitions without adding to the confusion inherent in the doctor's story.)
The doctor's hell is present even in memories that should be soothing, like images of his wife during their long-past honeymoon and glimpses of seascapes along the road, and the prying open of his head so readers can experience this increasingly horrific string of images makes Knowledge Of Hell burn off the page. In the doctor's elaborate nightmares, too, is the sense that his story is too horrifying to be engaged directly. He has a Jean Rhysian refusal to take the signs of things he passes at face value; they can only remind him of past shocks. The doctor's complicity is part of the nauseating wave that pushes him back toward his hated job, built on the sense of responsibility he can never completely account for. Only the lyrical delivery of these memories, layer on layer, keeps readers moving forward through his delirious waking dreams.