What Can I Do When Everything is on Fire? (A Novel) by: Antonio Lobo Antunes

I am getting around to reading one of the books that I received for my birthday. The title of this one was enough to make it my next choice of books to read. I want to look at this book chapter by chapter because it is, as the book jacket suggest, “…a poetic masterwork that recalls Joyce’s Bloomsday with its dizzying farrago of urban images that few readers will forget.”

The basic plot, from what I understand from reading the jacket (and the first chapter), is the story of Paulo trying to piece together the bits of his existence, but that existence is one of madness, fragile memory, and a reality that includes the most successful, flamboyant drag queen of Lisbon, Carlos/Soraia and his wife, Judite and his lover, Rui. It seems that Paulo has a breakdown and is sent off to a hospital, and somewhere along the way his parents give him up to some guardians. It seems that we are getting these fragments of his story from a mental ward.

The book opens up to the main character, Paulo, mixing a dream, an analysis of the dream, memory, and reality together in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness narrative that reveals very slowly the plot of novel. Paulo, at times, has a hard time separating what his dream was and what his memory was; he also has trouble remembering what reality is, as is seen when he mixes his parents with his guardians and his reality with his dreams and has obvious trouble with memory:

“my mother judite, my father carlos, the doctor, not this one, a fatter one,
I remember the doctor’s red necktie when they brought me in, a Gypsy woman who was hollering
or was I the one hollering?
the doctor
–What’s your mother’s name?
along with that I remembered the attendants, who were holding me by the wrists, from the ambulance Dona Helena had called
–Take it easy fellow
[…]
maybe it was the attendants who had helped me instead of the fat doctor with the red tie, not in this office bu in a room with no windows or a closet where the gypsy woman or I was hollering or maybe neither one of us, the noise of the dishes
–What’s your mother’s name?” (Antunes 2-3).

There is an interesting play of memory and dream and reality here, which raises interesting questions of what “reality” is? After all, aren’t our dreams part of our reality? And how much is a fragmented, unreliable memory reality?

We get that Paulo’s parents are dead (as well as Rui), that Paulo had a breakdown in which he broke lots of plates. These images are mixed superbly in a language that becomes easier to follow, but a language that is meant to be opaque. It becomes hard to decipher how much of the story is a memory and how much is madness.

There are images of fights between Paulo’s parents in which Judite is asking her husband about the bra she found, “Do you wear this, Carlos?” (17); along with images of Paulo’s drag queen father being described as a clown, and later, Paulo’s denial of his parent’s when he calls his guardians, the Couceiro’s, his real parents.

This narrative is quite a force that does more than merely convey a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. The reader is left wondering what can be trusted as the chapter ends:

“–I’m asleep
and since I’m asleep I don’t worry, everything is a lie, aware of the pillow sliding between the mattress and the trunk they were slamming me against” (19).

I look forward to see where all this is going. It is thus far an exploration of a person’s history of slipping into madness and blurring reality with dream and memory. It seems that Paulo trying to put this story into words is his way of trying to remember who he is. We are, after all, just what we were and what our future possibilities are. So what happens when we do not have a clear memory, or a broken memory, of the past?

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