Landowners in search of a plot: 'Act of the Damned' - Antonio Lobo Antunes trs Richard Zenith: Secker, 8.99 pounds

THE PORTUGUESE novelist Antonio Lobo Antunes has already been praised in this country for the irreverent brilliance of his prose. One critic placed his last novel, An Explanation of the Birds, in a direct line of inheritance from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and the nouveau roman. His new one is more like a cross between Les Grands Meaulnes and William Faulkner on an overdose of bourbon.

As in Faulkner, it would have helped immeasurably if a family tree had been appended to the text. Set in pre-revolutionary Portugal, the story concerns a landowning family on the verge, it seems, of self-extinction. Grandfather is dying; one son, an agreeable idiot, is obsessed with train-sets; another daughter is a 'retard'. Uncles sleep with nieces, brothers with sisters, in-laws with in-laws, masters with maids; a grandson, Francisco, becomes a smack-addict. House and land need to be saved both from this incapacitated offspring and from the communists. The dentist husband (Nuno) of Ana (another granddaughter) charges himself with this duty, and much of the novel is spent in a lead-up to getting the appropriate signatures on a notary's papers.

At least I think that's what happens. In this violently experimental novel the characters are distinguishable neither by style - which is, throughout, richly decorative and chockful of expletives - nor by the even more obvious means of a name as chapter-heading. Thoughmany different voices are heard, you might be forgiven for thinking the book a single hallucinatory outburst. Try this, a woman describing her bed -bound husband: 'My husband undressed and lay naked on the sheet, a dead ringer for the steer in the grass by the river. Maggots and flies entered and exited the stinking corpse . . . My grave-ready husband lifted his disjointed collarbones, from which long threads of tendon and bits of underbrush and moss were hanging . . . I set the alarm . . . and lay down in the bed as far away as possible from my husband and his aroma of dead sheep, which excited the worms in the flowerbeds and wilted the cork trees . . .'

In the last 60 pages, when the structural minimalism attains its laconic acme - five monologues are headed simply 'Chapter' - more help and less prose is what this reader needed, desperately. Just how experimental the novel is can be gauged by the title of this final section, 'The Role of String-Pulling in the Genesis of Schizophrenia', which is quite as evocative as those frenzied titles Magritte, Dali and other surrealists gave to their paintings - and, I suspect, meaningless. Still, Lobo Antunes is a 'practising psychiatrist' (says the blurb), so he almost certainly knows something about schizophrenia the lay-reader does not.

For all that, this is a deeply enjoyable novel: confusing, febrile and sometimes overwritten, but engrossing and often very funny. Lobo Atunes is a master of the apparently ad-libbed detail, every one adding to the air of phantasmagoria (' 'It's too late,' said the blind cousin, perched on my shoulders, 'The phone swam past a couple of minutes ago' '). Though we may end the novel uncertain about what has gone on, we never doubt its fiendish originality.

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