Lost in Translation: The Curious Obscurity of António Lobo Antunes (an interview)

Considered by many to be Portugal’s greatest living writer, António Lobo Antunes’ relative obscurity in the English-speaking world is something of an enigma. The author of 23 novels, and still, at the age of 69, turning them out with unerring industriousness, Lobo Antunes is quite a big deal in Portuguese-, Spanish- and French-speaking countries. He has his illustrious champions too: George Steiner calls him “a novelist of the very first rank…an heir to Conrad and Faulkner;” no less a canon-builder than Harold Bloom says Lobo Antunes is “one of the living writers who will matter most;” according to J.M. Coetzee, his shorter works, published in English as The Fat Man and Infinity, “are alive with the poetry of the everyday, and tinged with the gentlest of self-mockery.” Every October his name is among those bandied about for the Nobel Prize, yet mention him to most English speakers, even literary types, and you will be met with terribly blank looks.

The irony is it was approval from the United States that made Lobo Antunes his name as a writer. Despite claiming that from the age of seven his sole ambition was to be a writer, he took his time getting started. Speaking in his apartment in central Lisbon — almost every square inch of wall-space lined with books in multiple languages — Lobo Antunes says he initially wrote without intending to get published. A friend finally prevailed on him to submit a manuscript for publication and Elephant Memory appeared in 1979. It was on the publication of his second novel, Os Cus de Judas (idiomatically, “the arse-end of nowhere”, published twice in English under more prim titles, most recently The Land at the End of the World) that things began to, unexpectedly, take off. “I received a letter from an American agent — a big name at the time; I wasn’t going to reply — I thought it was a joke. But I wrote back, thinking, why not, it’d be cool to have an agent in New York. So the first book came out and the reviews were very good. In the U.S., if you have The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, you have America, and if you have America, you have Europe. It all snowballed — all of a sudden, I had an agent, a publisher, translators, and readers. That was all very strange for me.”

Originally published by The Millions.

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