Dire straits

Imagine in our year, 2018, a leading politician or public figure who says: “I do everything a woman wants except take my hat off, so that she won’t forget who’s boss.” Oh, they do?

The quote is a sentence from a novel written in 1996 by the Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes. The book is titled ‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ in the translation by Richard Zenith. It is dealing with a grave period not unlike the one we are experiencing today. As we all know: the United States, and with it too many other nations on earth, is passing through times that are beyond belief. America especially (although I don’t want to overlook Brazil, Brexitania, Israel, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and so on) is in dire straits: suffering from dreadful, awful, appalling, horrible, woeful, harrowing, calamitous, catastrophic, ruinous, cataclysmic, disastrous, desperate occurrences with no exit in sight unless we, all of us, become aware of what even worse may happen if …… unless we somehow manage to turn the tides. Will it be: dream on, baby …… or?

I happened to hit on this magnificent novel that, although it is dealing with the grave times of the fascist António Salazar’s regime in Portugal, from the 1920s to the 1970s, can be read as a chronicle of today’s woes in America and elsewhere. In my opinion this tale is more convincing than any alarming piece in the New York Times. The book should be mandatory reading in all high schools and colleges in the US, as well in schools – and congresses and parliaments — all over the world.

Antunes’s writing career began in the mid-1970s, as Portugal was throwing off Europe’s longest-lived dictatorship. The era of Salazar haunted his imagination and it haunts the country still, this author insists. ‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ is not so much an allegory of fascism as an anatomy of the way it penetrates societies — families, psyches, bodies — and of the scars it leaves. The regime is represented by Francisco, a man everyone refers to as “the Minister” and who, as a member of Salazar’s cabinet and the dictator’s henchman and friend, arranges for the death or incarceration of anyone he chooses with a mere phone call to the secret police, PIDE. The man is as cunning, brutal, and selfish as King Lear, and Antunes writes like a modern day Shakespeare.

Salazar himself pays deferential visits to the Palmela farm-estate near Setúbal that this crude, swaggering patriarch presides over like a feudal lord — and penetrate is exactly what the Minister does: the cook (on the altar in the family chapel), the steward’s teenage daughter (in the barn), the pharmacist’s widow, the sergeant’s wife, and scores of maids and local women. He’s not even above thirsting for his prospective daughter-in-law, Sofia, with the same proprietary leer he directs at his dependents. As the Minister explains to his weak son while bending the steward’s daughter over the manger, “I do everything a woman wants except take my hat off, so that she won’t forget who’s boss.”

João, the Minister’s son: “I found the cook lying flat out on the altar, her clothes all tousled, with her apron around her neck, and my father beet red, cigarillo in his mouth and hat on his head, holding on to her hips and looking at me without anger or surprise, and on that same Sunday, after yelling his responses to the priest’s Latin along with the steward, the housekeeper, and the maids, lighting up his cigarillos during communion, my father.”

Arrogance, brutality, moral squalor. With Salazar and his Minister’s regime aging, the atmosphere is rank of illusion and cowardice, futility and neglect. The farm chokes on its own abundance, the windmills rust, the garden angels crumble, the dogs sicken and die. Humans descend to the level of beasts; the boss who treats his female servants like livestock fornicates in the barn, and calls the veterinarian to deliver his illegitimate child. The regime’s collapse comes as only another in a long series of capitulations. In the book as well as in reality, the regime doesn’t collapse once, but many times.

The story assembles itself out of the recollections of scores of its characters. Major events are told again and again, often from contradictory perspectives, every telling skewed by a different cocktail of bitterness, ignorance, folly or simple mendacity. Nothing is ever settled: motives that seemed clear mutate into their opposite; villains and victims change places, then change places again; ironies mount, and with them the force of the blows they deliver. The novel, in fact, breaks off in midsentence, as if its picture were not, and never could be, complete.

The novel spreads out into ever farther reaches of the world misshapen by the Minister’s lusts: his son’s wife, Sofia, rejected; his housekeeper/mistress, Titina, abandoned; his illegitimate daughter, Paula, deposited. Everywhere in this forlorn, seedy world the imagery is of decay, confinement and material and spiritual impoverishment. The overall effect is the reverse of claustrophobic; rather, it is a portrait of an entire society ruined. The ruins can never be forgotten. Like the main character, the Minister; in old age he may be reduced to an incontinent husk, his memory still possesses those he once controlled. Ultimately, though, even the Minister isn’t immune from the tyranny of the past. For the one person he could not control was his adored wife, Isabel, who walked out on him into an adulterous affair.

The Minister masochistically begs for his wife’s love: “You love me, Isabel, don’t you?”
Isabel: “I hesitate to say ‘I love you’ as I hesitate to say ‘I hate you’ because ‘I love’ and ‘I hate’ are two sides of the same nothing, the nothing of the insects gnawing at the house’s foundation until the walls fall down or become perpendicular shadows over the horizontal shadow, with our own two shadows moving around inside.”

Devastated after Isabel leaves, the Minister becomes fixated on this moment in time. The one thing that can’t be coerced, he discovers, is another person’s love; apparently, women don’t always remember “who’s the boss.” The humiliated bully becomes even more of a coward as he has no other way left than to satisfy his lust with the easiest prey, such as the young typists at his “Ministry of Fear” and Gypsy girls.

Still, the Minister’s very power over most of those around him permits uncountable humiliations. While everyone in this novel chews over the past, he rather tries to re-enact it. But Milá, the shop girl half his age he stalks in his chauffeured car, plucks from behind her mother’s counter and installs in a Lisbon high-rise, whom he dresses in his wife’s now moth-eaten, dust-gathered clothing and ill-fitting shoes, hangs with his wife’s jewels and calls by his wife’s name, doesn’t improve his life. Nevertheless, he even introduces her to Salazar and other government officials as his wife, and everyone goes along with this ludicrous sham because everything about the dictatorship is a fraud anyway, from the feeble colonial “empire” in Africa to the political leaders at home, themselves monitored and controlled by the secret police.

The Minister’s lack of class is often ridiculed by the people of higher society: “She wasn’t even pretty, or even cute, or even very clean, a girl you wouldn’t even notice if you passed her in the street, a bit dumpy, a bit awkward, a bit lethargic, I can’t imagine what the man saw in her, if at least she were intelligent or charming, but she wasn’t, she was a bashful dishrag, a frightful blob…”

After the revolution of 1974 the tables are turned; now the once powerful Minister finds himself in isolation on his estate, insanely wielding his shotgun, and at one point even groveling in mud and urine. He fires his underlings, for aren’t they Communists? A stroke lands him helpless in a nursing home with a bedpan between his legs where, yes, women chide him as one would a naughty child: “Wee-wee, Senhor Francisco, time for wee-wee, you don’t want to wet your nice clean pajamas, do you, Senhor Francisco?”

No more is he the once feared cruel man who even sent out his hit squad to kill his estranged wife and her lover (they failed; the couple lived long but in appalling conditions, they too). He no longer has majesty, no one consults him how to run the country, no one asks him: “Minister, now what should we do about Europe?”

The Minister’s son, recounting his father: “And … I thought about the farm. Not the farm as it is today, with the garden statues all smashed, the swimming pool without water, the kennels and the flower beds overrun by couch grass, the old manor house full of leaks in the roof, the rain falling on the piano with the autographed picture of the queen, on the chess table missing half the chessmen, on the torn-up carpet and on the aluminum cot that I set up in the kitchen, next to the stove, where I toss and turn all night, afflicted by the cackling of the crows.”

Antunes’s ultimate subject here is the way the past haunts the present — the way it is the present, always with us, always telling us what to do. Time itself is finally abolished. The novel has no “The End” because there is no end. The Minister dies and does not die, democracy comes and does not come, the regime falls and remains in power.

‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ has no formal connection to that “holy” institution of the Roman-Catholic Church, but the compelling nature of the title draws upon the Inquisition’s lingering reputation for sinister efficacy in revealing theological error through the function of witnesses. Antunes tells his harrowing indictment of fascism through the voices of Francisco and his son, his housekeepers, mistresses, whores, staff, accomplices, and the casually violated, as well as the corrupt scum of his day. The immediacy of their voices delivers an overwhelming testimony of how things were, and how in the future they may still be. The novel’s spiraling round of declarations uncovers secret after secret, degradation after degradation. As an indictment of the corrupt, the cruel, and the un-just there is no comparison.

Reading ‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ is as if I am reading the daily news, the ever “Breaking News” as delivered to my screens over the past two years.

(Lines were drawn from critique, including by Margaret Carson, Leon Gouch, Thomas McGonigle, and Jack Shreve.)