António Lobo Antunes is arguably Portugal’s finest novelist and almost certainly the most difficult because of his dense prose, seamless sentences and dialogues and often hard-to-unravel plots. It’s curious, then, to read these heartfelt, straightforward letters written to his first wife, Maria José Xavier da Fonseca e Costa, when he was only twenty-eight. They met in 1966 and when, in 1969, he graduated as a doctor from medical school (he was training to be a psychiatrist), he was called up and sent to Angola to serve as a medic. He and Maria José married on 8 August 1970, she became pregnant a month later, and he left for Angola on 6 January 1971. Apart from brief periods of leave, or when his wife and daughter came to join him in Angola, he wrote to her almost every day, each letter filled with longing for her and for home and laced with his horror at the conditions he found in the remote villages and encampments he was posted to. The war of independence in Angola ended formally in January 1975, when the Portuguese government and the three main political movements in Angola – UNITA, MPLA and FNLA – signed the Alvor Agreement. Lobo Antunes arrived at the very end of what had already been a long and painful war, and the Portuguese troops were utterly demoralized, engaged as they were in an unwinnable counter-insurgency campaign. The Angolan people caught in the middle were equally worn down, their lives devastated by the on-going conflict.
Lobo Antunes’s daughters, Maria José and Joana, decided to publish this correspondence in 2005, choosing as their title a line from a letter written by one of Lobo Antunes’s favourite poets, Ângelo de Lima: ‘This life here described on this piece of paper’, which was the original title of Lobo Antunes’s first novel – Elephant Memory. The letters are largely an outpouring of longing for his wife and first child and the life he left behind, as well as an acute and sometimes comical picture of the physical and mental discomforts he endures. His rage at the futility of this shabby war echoes throughout many of his novels.
These extracts from his first letters home show a young man forced to grow up very fast, plunged into what he himself calls ‘hell’. Here are his initial impressions on his journey to and arrival in Gago Coutinho – in remotest Angola – on 27 January 1971.
Margaret Jull Costa
27 January 1971
I have arrived – finally – in Gago Coutinho, after an apocalyptic journey, the kind of journey I never imagined I would make in my entire life: we set off in buses at three o’clock in the morning on the 22nd, to travel from Luanda to Nova Lisboa, through the most marvellous scenery, which by eleven o’clock at night I began to find somewhat wearisome. We reached Nova Lisboa at dawn, where we slept in our seats, and at three o’clock in the afternoon of the 29th (or was it the 23rd?), after 600 km on the bus, they put us on a train to Luso: two days of travelling in fourth-class carriages – that celebrated English invention for the inhabitants of the third world, and which the Benguela railway company has, very Englishly, adopted – in which we formed great mounds of arms and legs, weapons and heads. These carriages are fitted with only three long benches: two running on either side beneath the windows and a double one in the middle, like a line drawn down the centre. Since there were not enough carriages, the scene was indescribable: from every side there emerged limbs that appeared to belong to no particular body. I ended up scratching my head with someone else’s hand. I slept, or pretended to sleep, and ate some canned food – the floor was awash with cans and spilled sauces – that played havoc with my insides. Jews being deported to some Nazi concentration camp. And then came hell, or a worse hell, the seventh hell, the reverse of Mohammed’s seventh heaven: they bundled us into trucks in order to travel the 500 landmined kms between Luso and Gago Coutinho: two ‘armoured’ vehicles (i.e. two military trucks laden with sandbags) at the front and behind them a long line of trucks in which we followed, weapons at the ready, fearing an imminent attack. Fortunately, we encountered neither mines nor ambushes, but something dreadful happened anyway: the steering went on the truck I was travelling in, the last (as luck would have it), when we were going at considerable speed, and it crashed into a ditch. There were 21 of us: three broken arms, two broken legs, various assorted other injuries, and I ended up with six stitches in my lip and three in my tongue: I still have no feeling in it. We fell on top of each other, and I was convinced I’d suffered some far worse injury because my whole body felt as if it had been crushed. But it’s over, I survived, and I love you.
It’s the absolute back of beyond here: nothing but marshes and sand. The worst war zone in Angola: 126 injured in the battalion we’re relieving, although only two dead, but several amputations. Landmines everywhere. Almost within sight of Zambia. A climate with a temperature range of some thirty degrees. My life is going to be full of dangerous adventures from now on: initially, I’ll be staying here for 4 months, and will fly each week to Cessa and Mussuma, where two squads are billeted. The following 4 months, I’ll be sent to Ninda or Chiúme, where there are two operational companies, and I’ll shuttle back and forth between them. I’ll be home on leave in October. Then in November, it’s back to G. Coutinho, to await my turn to be sent down here again. That’s in theory, at least, because, obviously, it could all change. Instability and improvisation are the hallmarks of this war.
I’m exhausted and in shreds, but otherwise all right and feeling brave enough to cope. I have to survive so I can come home and see you and our child. The misery in which the blacks live is frightening. The sanzalas or villages are full of undernourished skeletons, in sharp contrast to the majestic landscape, which has a kind of terrible beauty.
. . .
After that hellish initiation, he settles into a life of banal, routine discomfort, in which his thoughts are those of any new husband: how to earn enough money for his young family.
28th January 1971
Here I am in hell, eating sausages and other canned delights, because the supply plane failed to arrive: it’s raining and thundering, so intensely and so close to my room (well, ‘room’ is rather a grand name for a hut with several beds in it and an oil can as our shower basin) that, at first, I thought the barracks was under attack: but when I opened the door, I saw that the wellsprings of heavens had opened and were hurling down rain with unimaginable force. My homesickness, because of that or because of something else entirely (the rain always did increase my melancholy) intensified to such an extent that every part of my body ached: how I would like to escape from here, hop on a plane and be by your side again, with you and our child! I love you so much, and this separation is just horrible. I don’t feel like eating or sleeping: I wander about the barracks, along streets whose signs match my mood (I-want-to-leave Street, Get-me-out-of-here Square, I’ve-had-enough Avenue, etc. written by soldiers in suitably town-hall lettering), I sit down in the ill-painted shack that is the officers’ mess, talk to the nurses, eat and sleep. This afternoon, I will make my first plane trip, and on Monday, I’ll be holding a surgery in a nearby town so that I can earn a bit of money. In the next 4 months, I should earn, on top of my salary, about 25,000 escudos, which isn’t bad. When I’m in Chiúme, I won’t earn anything, then nothing in October when I’m on leave, but when I get back, from November on, the cycle will start up again. And that money will be really useful when it comes to sorting out our house. . .
The sense of alienation and helplessness continues, as he finds himself at the mercy not just of the elements, but of the schoolboyish pranks of the pilots, pleased to have a ‘new boy’ to terrify with their antics.
29th January 1971
My horoscope, which I read in some local newspaper, warned of accidents and dangers when flying, but I nevertheless had to make various trips by plane, taking off and landing on the brief, precarious strips provided at the battalion’s various outposts: when we took off, the grass and leaves at the end of the strip were already beating against the cockpit of our tiny plane. Add to this the pilots’ ability to frighten us novices with a succession of unimaginable aerobatics, during which the ground wavered and approached and moved off with shuddering speed, and the far more serious fact that we got caught in a storm en route, with rain and mist everywhere, visibility down to zero, and the rain trickling through the cracks in the fuselage, and you will have a complete picture of my woes, which will be repeated every week on Wednesdays and Thursdays, for as long as I’m here. Sometimes I felt as if my stomach was sinking down into my boots and at others rising up into my mouth and, at still others, that it had vanished behind me and was boring into my back like a bullet made of fire. Whether I’ll survive this test, who knows, but the fact is that miseries are raining down on top of me and I cling precariously to my slender thread of hope.
. . .
After only two weeks at the barracks, he is already despairing of ever returning home and beginning to realise that this experience will mark him for life.
31st January 1971
The war has begun in earnest for us. One of the companies, posted in Ninda, was attacked by mortars and machine-gun fire and the consequences, although relatively unimportant for us (one mortar fell on the landing strip and two on the parade ground) – provided food for thought. The air force’s two little planes passed, spluttering, overhead and went off to bomb what one presumes are enemy encampments. Meanwhile, we found various bits of paper announcing attacks on the 3rd, 4th and 5th, to commemorate the MPLA’s birthday. The biggest problem as far as I’m concerned will be the flights I’ll have to make on Tuesday and Wednesday, because, quite apart from anything else, we’ve had some huge downpours here: within five minutes everything fills up with vast puddles and pools, as if it had been raining for hours and hours. And the extraordinarily intense thunderstorms break overhead with apocalyptic grandeur. And yet I’ve only been here two weeks, which makes me think that I’m paying a very high price for the possibility of returning to Portugal to live one day – a possibility that seems ever more remote.
I’ve still had no letters, but then there’s been no plane. And besides, writing to the family puts me off writing anything else. Perhaps tomorrow, Monday – today is a sad, rainy, hopeless Sunday – I’ll start thinking about the novel again, even though I’m filled by an immense lassitude. What I’d really like is to just sit here doing nothing and waiting for the time to pass. If only I could simply leave! The powers-that-be have arranged things so that I’ll only be able to come home in October, and that just exacerbates my sadness. Oddly enough, a poem came to me yesterday, but I managed to suppress it, without writing it down, inside my head, and today I’ve already forgotten it. (Which I vaguely regret.)
. . .
Forgive this depressed and depressing letter, but this grey weather doesn’t help: let’s hope for better days. I’m beginning to understand something that Jorge said in a letter: I will never again be the person I was.
In the grip of homesickness, he longs for news from home, any news:
1st February 1971
I hope, finally, to receive some news on Wednesday, because that’s the day when the plane – a fat thing called a Nord Atlas – comes to Gago Coutinho (named after the man who established the border) bearing food and letters. Normally, there are other planes – belonging to a private company that is trying to build a road to Luso – which also fetch and deliver correspondence, but for some reason, this week they haven’t come. Life in these parts is so sad and isolated (the newspapers take weeks to arrive) that letters are the most important thing in the world to us.
We’ve currently got some South African pilots helping out in the war, piloting silver planes with no insignia. To avoid international complications, ours don’t have insignias either, which simplifies things a bit.
I’m doing my best to survive all this, but sometimes I feel so homesick that words simply empty of meaning. I love every part of you, my love, really every little part, and I just ask you to wait for me. How happy I would be if I were there with you; what I wouldn’t give to be there! To see streets, cars and, yes, even men’s ties. I’m sick to death of the colour green: green uniforms, green vehicles, green landscape, green planes, green camouflage, green green green. The water in the flush toilets is a slimy green. My urine and my snot are green; even the wine is green. The barracks are green. And the doors and the windows. And the walls inside!
. . . Don’t forget me. I think of you all the time, always.
A subtle change comes over him, as if along with the growing sense of helplessness, he occasionally takes a kind of pleasure in the sheer craziness of the situation:
10th February 1971
I’m writing to you in the morning, while I wait at the infirmary for three more evacuees to arrive. This time, the other doctor with me has gone to fetch them. Last night, we all woke to the sound of gunfire, you should have seen me, in my pyjamas and grasping my rifle like some reserve army colonel, rushing out barefoot onto the parade ground! I’m beginning to understand what made Che Guevara tick: there’s something genuinely exciting about this, really, and even the hard, cold touch of the rifle feels nice. Don’t go imagining, though, that I’m wandering around here like some madman, firing at random. Perhaps, as Hemingway believed, the experience of war really is important for a man.
I continue writing in the afternoon, now that the wounded have been evacuated to Luso, in the DO (the light aircraft I usually fly in) and in pretty bad shape. They walked into an ambush of machine guns and grenades, and instead of firing back, the fools scattered. The five remaining soldiers managed to bring the three wounded men back to barracks after walking for thirty-six hours across the chana – the savannah – and the dunes. It must have been awful. Meanwhile, the rest of the combat group is lost out there somewhere, and here there’s a feverish air of nervous excitement. The general feeling is that they’ve probably been taken prisoner, and so we’re really down on numbers.
It’s just incredible the war we’re waging here, alone and without resources, against an enemy which is ever more numerous and ever better prepared. And there was me thinking I was coming to a quiet zone, where the only problems would be isolation, loneliness and homesickness! At least I can’t complain that it’s boring here, despite the never-changing backdrop. But dumping us into this hornets’ nest in the middle of the desert, where we lack for everything, is really painful, especially for the soldiers. At this rate, which is how it’s been from the start, how many of us will make it to the end?
Meanwhile, I’ve had words with a captain risen from the ranks, whom we inherited from the previous battalion, a vile, malevolent, rude creature, who tells anyone who wants to hear (which no one or almost no one does) that he’s going to ‘do for me’, a threat that leaves me completely cold. But, if I can, I’m going to ‘do for him’ in whatever way I can. There aren’t many things now that frighten me, and fortunately, he is not one of them. I haven’t become some kind of braggart or hero, I’ve just grown up a bit and don’t believe in bogeymen any more.
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Author image by José Goulão