Mind games and memories

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist whose books include "The Golems of Gotham" and "Second Hand Smoke."

Just imagine the canon of Western literature without damaged children.

Think “Call It Sleep,” “The Book of Daniel,” “See: Under Love,” just for starters. The history of the novel has been home to a primary school of sensitive and fragile child protagonists all traumatized by tragic parents and overwhelmed by the burdens of that legacy.

“What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?,” the latest novel by Portugal’s most distinguished living writer, Antonio Lobo Antunes, can surely move to the head of the class of these disfigured portraits of adolescence best forgotten -- except when it comes to the imagination of a novelist.

Paolo, now a grown man, narrates this haunting remembrance of his childhood from inside an insane asylum. He has good reason to be there. He is the son of Carlos, better known as Soraia, a legendary drag queen celebrated as a dancer and gay lover in the seedy corridors of Lisbon’s nightlife. Soraia is mocked by everyone and everything that constitutes respectable society. His son became the catcher’s mitt for all that shame. It is after Paolo’s birth that Carlos transforms himself into Soraia, as if the son’s beginnings awakened the father to come out of the closet and head straight into the glittering world of cabarets.


Not a great start for a new family. Paolo recalls the bitter, loveless marriage of his parents, the recriminations, the unpaid bills, the household necessities that were sacrificed for feathers, wigs, silicon, lipstick, jewelry and dresses -- all worn by Paolo’s father. Paolo is given over to foster parents equally unfit to raise him, having already been shattered by the death of their own daughter. The drag queen’s son was fated never to reside in a home that fostered anything other than the impulse to run away.

And there is Soraia’s young male lover, Rui, a heroin addict who eventually commits suicide. There are tales of his sordid family life. The novel rolls out a pluming parade of drag queens, clowns and an even longer list of Soraia’s customers and lovers, all of whom make brief appearances in Paolo’s fractured, medicated memory. There are doctors and orderlies, a maid who is Paolo’s girlfriend, and an assortment of relatives and former neighbors, alive and dead, who haunt Paolo’s disturbed mind with nearly the same intensity as the parents and guardian parents who scarred him.

Paolo remembers not only for himself, but also for the many other characters in the novel whose back story is as twisted as his own. He recalls his father as a “clown who was a man and a woman at the same time or a man sometimes and a woman other times or a kind of man sometimes and a kind of woman at other times with me thinking -- What am I supposed to call him?”

These searing, chronic questions of unknowable identity reveal a childhood of utter madness -- not just a madness of the mind but also of the heart. And the propulsive force of Paolo’s recollections shines a cabaret spotlight on Lisbon’s unlovable losers, each inhabiting an underworld of social paranoia, personal demons and loveless encounters. All of this makes for a gasping reading experience, with abrupt turns of phrase and direction, and, of course, misdirection. The fracturing of time and place, the numbing repetition of phrases and insights, the dizzying procession of damaged anti-heroes all coalesce in a somber and magical freak show.

There are so many inner voices in Paolo’s head, so many drowning, deafening hallucinations that one wonders whether it’s the drugs doing the talking. What’s certain is that Lobo Antunes, who is also a psychiatrist, intended to simulate the messy, disordered thoughts of a man in a mental institution with much to recall and even more to forget.

Of course, this novel would not be possible without the influence of James Joyce, whose narrative conceits and overpopulated ensemble pieces are found in the Dublin of “Ulysses.” On some level Lobo Antunes has written a Portuguese rendering of “Ulysses,” with Lisbon receiving its own local color and with Stephen Dedalus in an insane asylum and Leopold Bloom in drag.


That makes for a quite a different story, indeed. But there is more.

Lobo Antunes has taken stream of consciousness to a new extreme. “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” is a rushing river of interior reflection, piercing imagery and excruciating shame. The debt owed to Faulkner is apparent, with his cerebral self-awareness and utter disregard of narrative and grammatical convention. Yet, this is most assuredly not your grandmother’s Faulkner -- Lobo Antunes is Faulkner on crack.

“What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” is a novel of abundant ambition and astonishing grace, reaffirming the author’s reputation as a master stylist with a uniquely original voice. And it evokes a particular European sensibility, one in which novels transport readers to faraway, unimaginable places not just for the sake of the journey, but also for a fresh look at moral, psychological complexity -- even if it requires a brief entry into madness. This novel, in fact, with dreamlike descriptions and ghostly resurrections, may have more in common with the fiction of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz than with Faulkner’s Southern Gothic mind games.

Like Schulz, Lobo Antunes creates an altered, tilted world in which characters are so alienated from society, and themselves, that they instinctively retreat to a place where recollections are tucked away and safely detached. They wish it could all have been different, that their memories actually belonged to someone else. But resorting to dreamlike delusions doesn’t mean that they live in a world of fantasy. They are realists who reimagine their circumstances with surreal minds.

“What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” comes with a harrowing yet conflicted ending, which is appropriate for a colorful novel about sadness dressed in drag.