The Ministry of Fear

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

I have a warm spot in my heart for the Inquisition when I think of what has happened since God disappeared and the head of the king of France was chopped off. Now that everything is allowed and nothing forbidden, isn't it a relief to remember earlier times when God and truth were protected by such a devoted institution? Antonio Lobo Antunes' novel "The Inquisitors' Manual" has no formal connection to that holy institution of the 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 testimony of witnesses.

Though it is possible to describe "Moby-Dick" as a hypnotic expose of the 19th century whaling industry, such a reductive summary does the same sort of degrading damage as calling "The Inquisitors' Manual," in the words of the publisher's blurb, "a harrowing indictment of Portuguese fascism." Though Antunes does carefully situate the voices of his novel in the actual declining years of Antonio Salazar's authoritarian regime (1932-68) and in the subsequent post-revolutionary years, he also has created a character in Senhor Francisco, a minister in Salazar's cabinet, who is as complex in his cunning, blindness, selfishness and casual brutality as King Lear.

Establishing the character of Senhor Francisco through his own voice and through those of the characters who share fitfully, obsessively and poignantly in his life, we also participate in the lives of these people -- housekeepers, mistresses, wives, accomplices, mothers, the casually violated and the grubbingly corrupt -- not in the fixed, predetermined dreariness of a plot (since there is no plot) but rather in the immediacy of their voices, voices limited always by the moment of their talking.

It's addictive to listen to all of this real talk, real because it has been imagined and tailored so clearly to fit each character's personality. When Senhor Francisco says, for instance, "please don't forget to tell my idiotic son that in spite of everything I ... , " we're reminded of the opening of the novel and of the obliviousness of that son, Joao, who says, "And as I walked into that courtroom in Lisbon I thought about the farm."

It takes a little practice getting used to figuring out who is talking. Besides Senhor Francisco, there is the loyal servant, Titina; Paula, an out-of-wedlock child of the Senhor who is given to a refugee from Angola to raise; Joao and his greedy sister-in-law, who defrauds him of his father's farm.

However, by forcing us to pay attention to the shifting voices (which has been made a little easier by various typographical tricks and by dividing the voices into reports and commentaries), we quickly catch on to who is talking, and we remember them when their stories are recounted from another perspective.

We are made aware of each character through Antunes' method of repeating a sentence or a detail of behavior, much as a psychoanalyst keeps track of his patients who are always obsessive, endlessly returning to that moment when something happened or did not happen. Harrowing images of tyranny and revolt are the result, as when Senhor remembers how "in 1961, when blacks murdered whites in Luanda and mounted their heads on poles, forcing teenagers to eat their fathers' testicles, decapitated children, yanked fetuses from wombs, and hung them from branches like balloons for the feast of Saint Anthony ...."

Nothing is given away by revealing that Senhor Francisco, in the pages of the novel, loses his political power after the incapacitation of Salazar by a stroke in 1968. He goes from the arrogance of the lover, who is able to say, "I do everything a woman wants except take my hat off, so that she won't forget who's boss," to being a man who, still in thrall to the memory of his first wife, coerces a mistress to wear the tattered dresses of this woman.

And the nature of authoritarian rule itself is powerfully detailed, such as in this description by the daughter of the steward in Senhor's household: "before Professor Salazar's last visit a bunch of National Guard jeeps commanded by a corporal spent a week gunning down the crows, leaving dozens of them lying dead in the orchard and the corporal would kick them over with his boot ... 'That'll teach you to not make fun of the Prime Minister' ... when Professor Salazar got out of his car the farm was a cemetery of birds and nobody made fun of him, not even the frogs from the swamp with their algae-swollen throats."

Or there is a moment when we witness the enduring corruption of power as it is experienced, for instance, by Isabel, a mistress of Senhor who is asked:

" 'You love me, Isabel, don't you?'

I hesitating to say

'I love you'

as I hesitated 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 houses' foundations until the walls fall down or become perpendicular shadows over the horizontal shadow with our two shadows moving around inside."

With "The Inquisitors' Manual," Antunes creates voices with a scrupulous, authorial neutrality. And Senhor Francisco, placed at the novel's center, is certain to take up a stubborn residency in the imagination of readers as a constant warning of the attraction of corrupt power.

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