Rhett McNeil’s translation of Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes’s “The Splendor of Portugal” received a lot of attention from the literary world when it was released earlier this fall. And with good reason. McNeil has interpreted Lobo Antune’s thick, cruel prose beautifully. But so far English-language critics have focused on the technical challenges of translating Antunes, as though they were somehow isolated from the text’s socio-political and ethical questions. Overall, many of these critics miss the edge of McNeil’s translation, which turns on Antunes’s language in order to address the reproduction of colonial violence on a global scale. We might go further to question why certain kinds of war stories–such as Antunes’s–are embraced by critics, and go on to find an international audience, while other finely written stories do not.
“The Splendor of Portugal” is a domestic drama that spans generations and ends with a once wealthy Portuguese family that has abandoned its plantation in the Angolan War of Independence (1961-1975). Now, the family that has made its way in the world cheating, lying, and stealing is caught out with all its secret affairs. The novel is structured by three parts, which can be roughly associated with vignettes of the family at the height of the colonial order, memories of the war, and the children’s shameful return to Portugal. Along the way, ex-lovers and mean old grandmother press in with their most hurtful memories of alcoholism, sexual abuse, and racial violence.
The book’s most explicit scenes highlight the connections McNeil has made between the violence of late European colonialism and the continuation of racial violence in English-speaking communities now.
Particularly provocative is his decision to translate the Portuguese racial slur ‘escarumba’ as ‘nigger.’ According to some Portuguese-speaking friends, ‘escarumba’ is not a word you would hear often in Lisbon today. It carries connotations of the racial grotesque of minstrel shows and might be translated through the condescending stereotypes of ‘Little Black Sambo’.
McNeil’s choice more boldly ties plantations in Angola to the transatlantic slave trade, and racial violence in America now. Like, ‘the only time I ever heard her call him a nigger, the only time I truly understood that she hated him’ (511).
Antunes lets the splendid Portuguese family self-destruct in its hatred. He is quiet as the mother explains what she has learned about ‘Blacks’:
that’s the thing about the Bailundos that makes me furious, their expressions never changes, the police chief would raise his whip at them or hold their pistol up to their ear and there’d be silence, no complaints, they had no more awareness than inanimate objects, a childlike innocence that had nothing to do with pride or dignity or courage, I was going to say they had the temperament of a chicken, but chickens, good Lord, chickens at least kick their feet, try to escape, you see quite clearly that they’re scared of us, but the Bailundos at most
never objecting, never revolting, apologizing for the inconvenience of making us punish them for no reason, just like when we go up to the whites in Lisbon (484).
Of course, ‘the Blacks’ do revolt and get their revenge. Lobo Antunes stays quiet and lets the reader imagine the mother’s execution:
the pickup trucks parked next to the ditches, the dogs always returning with snouts low to the ground, whining, limping, the smell reached all the way to Luanda when the wind changed directions, the government troops wearing colored ties, mirror-lenses sunglasses with metal frames as if they were silver speaking of mirrors how long has it been flower-print suspenders holding up their military pants, the soldiers inviting me to get out of the pickup. “Ma’am” (534).
But Lobo Antunes’ Black characters are foils that spend most of their time reacting to the complex and volatile Portuguese that he sets out to shame. His descriptions of the servants often really describe the family:
… for the first time I began to suspect that Maria da Boa Morte and I weren’t equals, since my godmother hadn’t called me a repulsive little black girl, hadn’t looked at me with indignant disgust, I began to suspect that Maria da Boa Morte was somehow my inferior, she didn’t have carpet or rugs just two or three straw mats, metal dinner plates that didn’t match, a battery-operated radio with a broken antenna, and a doll presiding over all this wretchedness in its porcelain innocence (172).
When they are alone together, Lobo Antunes’s Black characters are speechless, or at least inscrutable: “Josélia and Maria da Boa Morte made comments to each other without words” (432).
Critics might focus on Antunes’s use of irony, wherein The Splendor of Portugal is read as a biting criticism of the Portuguese colonial project. But throughout 500 + pages of interior monologues, memories and self-recriminations, we never get to hear what they are thinking about. Haven’t we seen Black people made dumb by the violence of White ‘civilization’ before? As the international literati continue to hold up brutal scenes of European colonialism as the best examples of literature from and about Africa, George Steiner’s praise for Antunes as Conrad’s rightful heir becomes a bit of a backhand compliment.
“The Splendor of Portugal” is beautifully wrought vitriol, well translated by Rhett McNeil. But I’d rather that we read it alongside talented Angolan contemporaries who are also working through the Portuguese language. Start with José Luandino Vieira’s “Luanda” (translated by Tamara L. Bender), and some of Pepetela’s “Mayombe” (translated by Michael Wolfers), “The Return of the Water Spirit” (Luis R. Mitras), Jaime Bunda’s “Secret Agent” (Richard Bartlett) and José Eduardo Agualusa’s “Creole,” “The Book of Chameleons,” “My Father’s Wives” and “Rainy Season” (all translated by Daniel Hahn).
* Megan Eardley recently finished a postgraduate fellowship at SOAS studying Pentecostal media culture in Southern Africa.