“The Inquisitors’ Manual” by António Lobo Antunes

Reviewed by Margaret Carson

Image of “The Inquisitors’ Manual” by António Lobo Antunes

The Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes has devoted much of his literary career to illuminating the period in his country's history from the waning years of the Salazar dictatorship, which ended in 1968, through the tumultuous return to democracy after the Carna-tion Revolution of 1974. In The Inquisitors' Manual, Antunes gives the reader an unsparing account of a brutal dictatorial regime overthrown by a revolution that captured the world's attention when photographs of civilians placing flowers in the barrels of soldiers' rifles were transmitted around the globe. Though working in a fictional mode, Antunes incorporates the specifics of that era into his novel, using real-life government officials as minor characters, and recreating crimes and abuses that are within the living memory of many Portuguese today.

At first glance, the novel appears to mimic the conventions of a clinical study, with passages organized under headings entitled "Report" or "Commentary," but the stream of consciousness narrative is far from straightforward. The reader of this ambitious novel must piece together the fragmented accounts of almost twenty different characters, whose distinctive voices move back and forth in time over a forty-year period. This non-linear, shifting narrative unsettles the reader, but ultimately a complex story begins to take shape. Antunes plays with the notion of a documentary form, but the report he offers has more of a resemblance to raw, unsorted memory than it does to a scientific transcription. The author appraises a troubled history not by establishing what the facts are, but rather by emphasizing how difficult it is to assess and understand the past.

The main threads of the story converge on the figure of Senhor Francisco, a fictional Minister in Salazar's cabinet, who holds sway at a large farm and manor house outside Lisbon. "I do everything a woman wants except take my hat off, so that she won't forget who's boss," he announces in a flashback recalled by his son years later. Being boss means having the pick of the female servants, whom he treats like livestock (indeed, one target of his sexual predations lives in the barn, and another gives birth to his daughter in a stable, assisted by a veterinarian).

From time to time the Prime Minister calls on Senhor Francisco at the farm, his visit preceded by National Guardsmen who shoot down dozens of crows so that the paranoid dictator won't mistake their cawing for a jeering crowd. The aging dictator, surrounded by a fawning retinue of secretaries and bodyguards who address him as "Professor Salazar," takes tea with the Minister while they discuss who should be picked up and sent to jail. Once they have decided, a simple phone call to the "Major," the head of Portugal's secret police, suffices. The reader encounters the familiar modus operandi of the totalitarian state throughout the novel: the secret files, the interrogations and torture, the extrajudical killings.

The Carnation Revolution brings jubilation-"the radio blared with songs of victory, cars honked their horns, and factories whistled non-stop"-and pandemonium ensues on the farm. The Minister knows that it is payback time, and he drives farmhands and servants off his property, calling them "Commies" and threatening to shoot them while vicious German shepherds roam the property. One month later, the farm and the house are in shambles (most likely looted by the revolutionaries he feared, although we do not see this scene), and the former Minister is an emaciated shell. Within a few years he suffers a massive stroke and lingers on in an old-age home, helpless and mute, meditating on scenes of brutality in his past, including his own initiation as a young officer into the violence of guerrilla warfare in colonial Angola. Antunes suggests that this early exposure to violence had long-range consequences for the Minister. Once indoctrinated into the use of violence and torture to instill fear in colonial subjects, he was well prepared to take up a similar role in his personal and public life.

Translator Richard Zenith has created an extraordinary work that is finely tuned to the distinctive voices of the original. Portugal has now been a member of the European Union for over twenty years, but in The Inquisitors' Manual António Lobo Antunes makes it clear that he will not let his newly-prosperous, democratic country forget its totalitarian past.

Margaret Carson is a freelance writer and translator in New York City.