Spectrality as Decolonial Narrative Device for Colonial Experience in António Lobo Antunes’s O Esplendor de Portugal
Spectrality as Decolonial Narrative Device for Colonial Experience in António Lobo Antunes’s O Esplendor de Portugal
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores how O Esplendor de Portugal by António Lobo Antunes deploys spectrality as a consistent and developed narrative device – an aesthetic mode of narrating colonial experience and subjectivities ensnared within imperial discourses. The novel’s narration is, for instance, constantly interrupted by voices from the past that participated in the colonist experience, incessantly interrupting the process of writing and the production of meaning. O Esplendor de Portugal demands that we engage with spectrality at both the level of writing and historicization – producing meaning in relation to particular events, as well as at the level of identity-formation. In this regard, the novel offers profound reflections as to the externality by which identity and subjectivity is formed within Empire. This leads the chapter toward a theoretical exploration of the relationship between specters and the Freudian/Lacanian specular image or ideal ego through which an individual becomes a subject within ideology. From here, the novel also guides this chapter toward yet another rethinking of Empire’s different layers of meaning and power.
The previous chapter sought to unpack the ways in which Isabela Figueiredo’s memoir, Caderno de Memórias Coloniais, engages with colonial discourse in pre-independence Mozambique and how the colonial past is historicized in the contemporary Portuguese public sphere. An integral part of her critical engagement, I argued, concerns her deployment of spectrality in order to understand the underpinnings of colonial power and to destabilize dominant historical narratives, such as that of Portuguese colonial exceptionalism. Few Portuguese writers, though, have explored the depths of Portugal’s colonial past in a more spectral fashion than António Lobo Antunes. His vast body of fiction dedicated to the topic and to his own experience as a medical doctor of the Portuguese armed forces in Angola during the war for independence, presents a plethora of voices that speak from a past that is often repressed at both individual and collective levels.
The earliest of his novels to receive critical acclaim, Os Cus de Judas [South of Nowhere] (1979), his second, has been regarded as a semiautobiographical account of Antunes’s life up to that point, four years after decolonization. The narrator, in a stream of consciousness conversation with the reader, reflects on his childhood, sexual experiences in both Portugal and Angola, and his own imperial interpellation which leads him to witness the atrocities of Empire. His memory is articulated by the images and voices of the past, from the mutilated body of a screaming conscript to the musings of a military dentist. Drawing on Derrida, Patrícia Vieira points out the evocation of specters in Os Cus de Judas as akin to ‘an archive, with which they also share the injunction to remember: a law, a story, a debt’ (‘Specters’ 342). In this sense, the narrator’s specters, each speaking their own archive and composing the archive of the narrator, become part of larger national and postcolonial archives under revision.
(p.209) Antunes’s 1988 novel, As Naus [The Return of the Caravels] shifts from his personal trajectory to that of the Portuguese imperial narrative. In one of Antunes’s few literary experiments with the fantastic, the novel follows the postcolonial trek back to the metropolis of Portugal’s most famed early modern explorers. These include Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Bartolomeu Dias, and Diogo Cão. As historical figures, these men have become signifiers of Portuguese imperial lore. In the aftermath of decolonization, the protagonists attempt to find their way back to Portugal and, more importantly, struggle to integrate themselves in post-revolution Portuguese society and its collective renegotiation of nationhood. Through putrid and morbid imagery, like that found throughout Os Cus de Judas, Antunes arguably establishes parallels between the decadent characters and the societal marginalization of colonial returnees.
In being dislocated from the tomb of History, the protagonists of the past – signifiers, links of the signifying chain of Portugal’s imperial narrative – speak once more at the moment of postcolonial renegotiation. As Naus is, in many ways, what Margarida Calafate Ribeiro has coined ‘narrativas de regresso’ [‘narratives of return’] that incite one to ‘pensar Portugal de uma margem’ [‘think of Portugal from the margins’] (‘Percursos Africanos’ 132). The abject state in which the protagonists are presented serves, of course, as a stark contrast to their sacred place in mainstream representations of the past. Through the spectrality of the fallen protagonists, augmented by their putrid existence, the nation in its post-revolutionary present is rethought, starting with its early modern past.
Antunes takes the use of spectrality in reflecting on the Portuguese imperial project and its narrativization to another level nearly a decade later in his 1997 novel O Esplendor de Portugal [The Splendor of Portugal]. Paulo de Medeiros ties the novel to Antunes’s larger oeuvre on colonialism, which ‘giv[es] voices to thousands of corpses’ (43). Medeiros thus underscores the spectral nature of Antunes’s treatment of (post)colonial experiences, prefacing his analysis: ‘Postcolonial texts are also at once problematizations of identity and invocations of a ghost, be it the ghost of history or more individual, particular ghosts, whose name nonetheless stands, or can stand, always for another’ (39). Not only does Antunes use spectrality to problematize identity in postcolonial time and space, he ultimately turns spectrality into a narratological device, an aesthetic mode of narrating colonial experience.
At the heart of the novel is a family’s tri-generational experience in Angola as colonial settlers. Each of the novel’s three parts centers on a different, now adult child of Isilda, a Portuguese colonist born and raised in Malanje, Angola, who resides there until her death. The parts are themselves divided (p.210) into ten chapters beginning with the date in which they are articulated, with five narrated by Isilda and the other five by one of her children, in alternating fashion. Those narrated by her children – Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse – are dated December 24, 1995, whereas Isilda’s 15 chapters span two decades following Angolan Independence. As Maria Alzira Seixo explains, the past ‘vem progressivamente chegando ao presente, a partir de 1978 até 1995’ [‘gradually approaches the present, from 1978 to 1995’] (322). We soon come to learn that Isilda’s chapters are in fact letters she wrote to Carlos, with perhaps the exception of her last chapter, also the last of the book, which is dated December 24, 1995.
Carlos waits impatiently for his siblings to arrive for Christmas Eve dinner, an invitation he extended to them 15 years after he expelled them from his home. As he repeatedly counts down the seconds to an arrival that never happens, Isilda’s letters sit unread in a drawer. They are, for Carlos, like Edgar Allen Poe’s telltale heart – a piece of the past that is always present, a crypt that is a piece of narrativization. It tells a story that Carlos does not want to read, one that he not only knows, but has lived. For all intents and purposes, the mother, Isilda, is dead to her children. She is a relic of a colonial yesteryear that can have no place in the present, neither for her children nor for the postcolonial moment in which Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse speak. As we learn from the respective narrations of the children, any psychic bracketing of the colonial past from the present is impossible. Unlike Poe’s telltale heart that disrupts the peace of a symbolic order sanctioned by that which is not told, the letters do not disrupt any sort of peace nor do they compromise the place of her children in the symbolic order of the present. Since decolonization, the three siblings have all resided in the metropolis as broken, marginal, and decrepit beings bearing the indelible scars of colonial life and its realm of meaning. The symbolic order in which they reside, in other words, is already disrupted and chaotic, which is characteristic of Antunes’s plots.
An epileptic, Rui never escaped the stigma tied to mental illness within the discourses of colonialism, predicated on a subject possessing mastery over body, space, and the other. As such, he himself was othered, isolated from much of family life, subjected to numerous and frequent doctor visits, taking an inordinate amount of medication, and suffering seizures in public. Clarisse, meanwhile, like Isabela Figueiredo in the previous chapter, struggles to follow her interpellation as a white colonist woman and imperial power’s demands of her. The first part of the book is narrated by Carlos, interrupted by Isilda’s letters. Carlos is not Isilda’s biological son. He is the product of her husband Amadeu’s affair with a black woman he met while working as an agronomist. In an attempt to maintain the family’s public image of whiteness, Isilda purchases Carlos from his mother. As (p.211) we shall explore, these events and traumas, among many others, form the spectral backdrop for the novel’s characters.
The Novel’s Spectral Composition
If the division of the text seems structurally ordered, the content of each chapter is the complete opposite. Each is composed as a soliloquy that is constantly interrupted by the discourses of voices past. Scholarship on O Esplendor de Portugal has opened various debates regarding possible categorizations for the novel’s narrative structure. Isabel Ferreira Gould calls our attention to ‘traços técnicos/estilísticos específicos que incluem a multiplicidade de vozes narrativas e a convergência de pontos de vista; a alternância aparentemente caótica de espaços e tempos narrativos; a intertextualidade’ [‘specific technical/stylistic traces that include a multiplicity of narrative voices and the convergence of various points of view; the apparently chaotic alternation between narrative times and spaces; intertextuality’] (154) in the novel, and Antunes’s work in general. Gould reads O Esplendor de Portugal, specifically, as a series of diary entries, classifying it as ‘ficção de diário’ [‘diary fiction’] (157). Paula Gândara, on the other hand, places the novel’s narrative style into the category of interior monologue (179). I argue, though, that the novel is much harder to pin down. Its deep complexities elude divisions between writing (i.e. the diary) and thought (interior monologue), or logocentrism versus speech. While Isilda’s letters are examples of writing, it is much more difficult to ascertain whether Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse are writing, internally reflecting, or verbalizing their thoughts to a silent listener.
Regardless of the mode of articulation, all the narrators in the novel produce meaning, but this is never an autonomous endeavor. Rather, enunciation for the narrators is constantly trapped within the traumas of colonial interpellation. In attempting to convey the fragmented nature of postcolonial enunciation, Antunes consistently forsakes common writing practices such as punctuation and linear horizontal writing. We can take an excerpt from the first chapter, narrated by Carlos, as an example to dissect:
- – Não esperes visitas logo à noite Carlos
- a Lena que previa um Natal sozinha comigo
- (contar até cem outra vez, contar de cem a zero, contar até trezentos)
- idêntico aos últimos quinze Natais desde que
- como ela teima
- os expulsei da Ajuda, a levantar-se surpreendida com a blusa pelo
- menos melhor que os trapos do Sambila
- (p.212) – Não é mussequeira palavra de honra que não é mussequeira os pais dela têm
- o apartamento em obras juro-te que é exactamente como nós
- que costuma usar, adereços e penduricalhos de estanho.
(Esplendor 24; emphasis original)
- [‘Don’t expect visitors later tonight Carlos’
- Lena who predicted a Christmas alone with me
- (count again to a hundred, count from a hundred to zero, count to three hundred)
- identical to the last fifteen Christmases since
- as she insists
- I kicked them out of Ajuda, getting up surprised with her blouse at least better than the rags from Sambila
- ‘She is not a slum girl. I swear she is not a slum girl, her parents are having their apartment renovated. I swear she is exactly like us’
- that she usually wears, accessories, tin necklaces.]
The passage begins with Carlos repeating his wife Lena’s injunction to not expect company that evening. The words, which were proffered earlier in the day and interrupt Carlos’s wait but supplement his train of thought, are placed in italics – indicating, perhaps, that the utterance originates from outside of the very present moment. The parenthetical third line conveys one of Carlos’s background actions – his futile counting down to the moment his brother and sister arrive – which interrupts his own narration, coming between the second and fourth lines. Similarly, the fifth line cuts through the utterance that composes the fourth and sixth lines. ‘[C]omo ela teima’ [‘as she insists’] points toward a repetition that occurs at various points in time – Lena’s insistent reminders that he expelled his siblings from their apartment in Lisbon (located in the Ajuda neighborhood/civil parish) and from his life. Rather than inserting this short adverbial clause within the larger one by way of a comma, Antunes renders Carlos’s fragmented narration by breaking the clauses into three separate lines. The empty spaces before and after each clause stand for the discontinuities at the heart of the postcolonial subject’s attempt to place the past in a unified signifying chain.
The italicized utterance constituting lines eight and nine is Carlos’s own from the colonial past. While describing Lena’s non-European clothing, he is confronted by his own words – ones that he used to legitimize his teenage romance with Lena, a mixed-race resident of Malanje’s shanties, to his white schoolmates and family. In reproducing his own discourse from the past, the listeners of that utterance are also present at the time of narration. Through this spectral invocation of colonial gatekeepers of whiteness, the reader is (p.213) made aware that the racial signifiers of colonialism follow Carlos from the past to the present, thus framing the memory of his traumatic experience of racial meaning in the colony. As Medeiros argues, ‘postcolonial time is always already unhinged, […] it does not come after, as its prefix would suggest, but rather is always there from the beginning of colonialism and as such marks the colonizer as much as the colonized’ (44). The colonial field of meaning is thus not temporally bound. If the formation of signifiers of race, gender, class, and sexuality dialectically predate colonial encounters, they continue to inform contemporary forms of economic and political power. The narrators of the novel are thus cognitively incapable of containing colonial discourse within the false temporal confines of colonial settlement. The enunciative voices of this discourse also resist confinement. As Isabela Figueiredo repeats regarding her father (see the previous chapter), these voices are colonialism. In Carlos’s marriage to Lena, the collective experiences of colonialism continue to impact his affective existence – the discourses of whiteness and imperial power’s need/desire to reproduce it persistently frame how he experiences both love and the institution of matrimony.
Carlos and the other narrators (perhaps to varying extents due to their differing access to colonial privileges) can thus be thought of as postcolonial figures that reflect on the discourses of colonialism and present the speaking corpses of the colonial past – the ‘then’ which is always ‘now.’ As in many of Antunes’s works, narrational agency is decentered. One can argue that the four narrators in O Esplendor de Portugal are not always telling a story – they are, instead, haunted by it. It is the story, and the spectral voices contained therein, that tell them; the story, the inner crypt of colonialism, in which they are also characters. The ghostly voices speak the discourses of colonial power that informed their previous existence as settlers.
Spectral voices intervene and foil the narrators’ attempt to forge a coherent signifying chain of the past that would enable them to dwell as complete, fully functional subjects in the present. Medeiros thus reads the plight of the narrators as a futile attempt to reconstruct postcolonial selves. The narrators labor to piece together the postcolonial ruins of Empire – its discourses, bodies, and voices – in order to render a cohesive identity. The challenge is to reorder the signifiers of the past into a signifying chain in which individual identity can then be enunciated. Like the post-imperial metropolis’s imperative of forging an outer crypt that resignifies its inner counterpart, these former colonists seek to articulate their own outer narrative – looking to accommodate the ghosts by taming them through yet another layer of narrativization in order to exist in the postcolonial present.
The narratological style of the novel arguably occupies an interstitial place in the thought/writing binary. In presenting a written schema of the (p.214) subject’s interior monologue – interior dialogues, in fact – Antunes seems to labor toward a visualization of thought. This would be a chain of words not marked by standard punctuation rules. Rather than conveying interruption through a graphic mark such as a comma or period, Antunes utilizes the opposite of written presence – a blank space that leads to another line of text, usually occupied by another voice. While the comma or period is a present mark that conveys a temporary absence of speech, Antunes conveys the absence of speech – interior or otherwise – through an absent mark. But this blank space is never completely empty or disconnected from textual presence. It signals a trace from the past that will soon come into the reader’s view of the text. In other words, the blank space is the cognitive mechanism by which another voice can produce its presence.
Paula Gândara sheds light on the complexity of the novel’s narrative process by approaching it as if ‘Carlos, Isilda, e até mesmo Clarisse e o próprio Rui se deitassem no divã e fizessem do leitor o terapeuta ideal’ [‘Carlos, Isilda, and even Clarisse and Rui were lying on the couch and addressing the reader as their psychologist’] (180). While the metaphor is an intriguing way of understanding the novel and the challenges faced by its protagonists/narrators – as analysands, they are indeed looking to rebuild a signifying chain – it does not adequately take into account the ghosts that also sit on the reader/analyst’s sofa. After all, the voices of the narrators are not only interrupted by each other, but by myriad family members and other passing but impactful characters. In many instances throughout the novel, these utterances are not voiced through the narrator’s memory as words that were once spoken to them. Rather, they are the reflections, critiques, and condemnations spoken directly by other characters who are presumably dead while the narrator is suspended in thought.
These moments of interrupted narration can be considered examples of what Sérgio Paulo Rouanet calls ‘immobilization’ in reference to Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Machado de Assis’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (90). As a narratological technique, a narrator or character is frozen in the middle of an action – including that of narration – while another action takes place, or while another ghost speaks. Where one narrator speaks in the aforementioned works of Assis and Sterne, constantly interrupting and immobilizing characters to the point of compromising the reader’s trust, the narrators of O Esplendor de Portugal are immobilized by external voices that may reside within or outside the narrator’s psychic dwelling. While Tristram Shandy and Brás Cubas aim ‘to be the master of time’ in their reconstructions of a totalized signifying chain of past events, Isilda, Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse are barred from any form of mastery. Whereas Shandy and Cubas are narrators (p.215) who immobilize characters for the sake of strategic yet seemingly errant digressions, it is the narrators of O Esplendor de Portugal who are left immobilized by the characters whom they accidentally yet inevitably conjure as specters.
In many instances, immobilization works in tandem with another narratological device which Rouanet highlights in Sterne and Assis – ‘delay’ (94), pertaining to revelations brought forth by the intervening specters of O Esplendor de Portugal. Delays are central to the novel’s narration through the frequent and seemingly uncontrollable digressions of the narrators and the interruptions of the ghostly voices. In the moments where the voices of a specter and the narrator intertwine, each delays the utterance – and its completion – of the other. In some cases, this means the delay of a particular revelation. The most impactful example of such a delay occurs during a chapter narrated by Isilda in which her own voice from the past interrupts her attempt to piece that past together. It is at this moment that the reader learns that Carlos is not Isilda’s biological son:
- (o meu filho Carlos a achar que eu não gosto dele por)
- se deitou nas pregas de cetim, poisou a nuca na almofada, arranjou
- o lençol, fechou os olhos
- – Não escutes
- (o meu filho Carlos, o mais velho, o primeiro dos meus filhos e Deus sabe o que me custou aceitá-lo, aquele que toma conta dos irmãos em Lisboa e acha que eu não gosto dele por)
- o meu pai a dirigir-se comigo para a casa da fazenda na época em que a fazenda e a casa e os espelhos e eu éramos novos
- – Não tínhamos outra solução que não fosse enterrá-lo também antes de Luanda o enterrar a ele e a nós o senhor sabe que não tínhamos outra solução
- (eu não ser mãe dele).
(Esplendor 89–90; emphasis original)
- [(my son Carlos thinking that I do not like him because)
- lay down on the satin folds, placed his head on the pillow, fixed the sheet, closed his eyes
- ‘Don’t listen’
- (my son Carlos, the oldest, my first and Lord knows how difficult it was for me to accept him, he who takes care of his brother and sister in Lisbon and thinks I don’t like him because)
- (p.216) my father going to the plantation house with me at a time when the plantation and the house and the mirrors and myself were all young […]
- ‘We had no choice but to bury him before Luanda would bury him and us Lord knows we had no other choice’
- (I am not his mother).]
This passage also details the complexity of the novel’s spectrality, as one that also implies an intermeshing of time. The characters of the past emerge in the present and show up in the future, surveying how time is being narrated. Their utterances infiltrate the narration, furnishing footnotes to the discourse of the subject. We can, therefore, think of each character as a history of the subject – an unstable entity that repeatedly emerges in different forms at different moments. As a palimpsest of selfhood, the subject in the novel is confronted by its own emergence and articulation situated in different moments. These different layers of the palimpsest, marked by the discursive and material conditions of a particular moment, are inevitably present at the moment of the narrator’s latest inscription.
In recalling his journey to find his biological mother in Cotonang, Carlos angrily recalls confronting a woman he was convinced was his mother. His father Amadeu interjects throughout this particular recollection, inserting his own signifying chain into that of Carlos:
- [eu] a obrigá-la a encarar-me, a perguntar baixinho, numa raiva que crescia e crescia e me impedia de bater-lhe
- – O teu filho?
- uma rapariga, uma miúda comprada à família pelo preço que eu quis dado que se não pode recusar uma mulher a um branco
- – O teu filho?
eu ainda não era um bêbado, um palhaço, ainda não com a minha mulher a dormir com o comandante da polícia no escritório por baixo do meu quarto sem se esconder de mim ou se ralar comigo, eu a apanhar o gargalo da mesinha de cabeceira a fingir que não dava fé, a quem o enfermeiro mostrava as análises do fígado e as radiografias da vesícula que em vez de me assustarem me alegravam, a prevenir-me da minha morte, dos vómitos de sangue, da icterícia, das úlceras, das dores, da febre, eu contente imaginando o rebentar das azáleas e as flores das acácias, a minha filha Clarisse a visitar-me aos sábados na casa da minha sogra, da minha mulher, dos filhos da minha mulher, não do meu filho, não minha visto que a minha casa é uma cabana no bairro da Cotonang, em Malanje (p.217) […] meu filho Carlos, espantei-me do meu filho Carlos, senti-o mexer-se quando lhe toquei, o meu filho Carlos
– Onde vais com a furgoneta Carlos?
– Tenho um encontro com um intermediário em Malanje amanhã sem falta estou cá
- que foi a Malanje e regressou de Malanje sem achar qualquer resposta para além de uma mulher embalsamada nos seus cheiros amargos, o meu filho Carlos.
- [I made her face me, asking quietly, in a rage that grew and grew and stopped me from hitting her
- ‘Your son?’
- a young woman, a girl purchased from her family at the price I desired since no one can refuse a woman to a white man
- ‘Your son?’
I was not yet a drunkard, a clown, my wife was not yet sleeping with the police chief in the office under my room without hiding from me or being bothered by me, me grabbing the bottle from my night table pretending I had no idea, I whom the nurse would show liver tests and gallbladder x-rays that instead of scaring me pleased me, warning me of my death, of the bloody vomiting, of the jaundice, of the ulcers, of the pains, of the fever, me happy imagining the budding of the azaleas and the acacias, my daughter Clarisse visiting me on Saturdays in the home of my mother-in-law, of my wife, of my wife’s children, not of my son, not mine seeing that my house is a cabin in the Cotonang neighborhood, in Malanje […]
my son Carlos, I was shocked by my son Carlos, I felt him move when I touched him, my son Carlos
- ‘Where are you going with the van Carlos?’
- ‘I have a meeting with a businessman in Malanje, I will be back tomorrow for sure’
- who went to Malanje and returned from Malanje without finding any answers aside from a woman embalmed in her bitter smells, my son Carlos.]
Amadeu, an abject figure degenerated according to the discourses and expectations of colonial whiteness, supplements or adds a footnote to Carlos’s utterances. Amadeu’s interjection first situates him, his subject-position, within the colonial field of meaning as an individual initially interpellated to carry out imperial power on the colonial ‘ground,’ but who was unable to follow the identitarian mandates of that interpellation. Part and parcel of (p.218) the colonist identity, in other words, was the performance of the imperial mandates explored in the previous chapter in relation to Figueiredo’s Caderno de Memórias Coloniais, especially the trans-generational formation of the white colonist family. Procreating with an African woman is merely the beginning of his degradation in colonial time and space. As a colonist father, the gendered aspect of his mandate implies the power to bring children into the familial realm. In this regard, Isilda displaces his imperial masculinity by purchasing Carlos and bringing him into the family sphere. Moreover, Amadeu’s masculinity is always already compromised by his working-class origins and then furthered by his marginal colonial existence.
Rather than residing in the (petit) bourgeois colonist spaces of the compartmentalized colony, Amadeu resided in a neighborhood of prefabricated buildings and small apartments owned by the cotton plantation and manufacturer, Cotonang, for which he worked. As an agronomist, he was responsible for helping establish the material conditions for colonist living and privilege, but without fully partaking in the colonist experience. His mandate was not to establish whiteness through a project of family-building. Isilda recalls that the agronomists of this neighborhood ‘preveniram-me que todos os agrónomos da Cotonang sem excepção tinham mulatas e filhos mulatos com quem viviam em segredo no bairro da empresa’ [‘warned me that all the agronomists of Cotonang without exception had mulatto women and mulatto children with whom they secretly lived in the company’s neighborhood’] (Esplendor 57). In many ways, then, Amadeu does not fit the family-centered mold of colonist whiteness embodied by Isilda’s family.
A later passage narrated by Isilda gets to the crux of colonist identity. The decision to migrate, to buy into the colonial promise of prosperity is bound to the desire to escape non-bourgeois otherness within the metropolis and to gain access to the right to signify transnational, imperial Portugueseness. Propaganda about working in the colonies, to ultimately foment and guarantee the financial well-being of the imperial metropolis, was packaged to the urban and rural working classes as an expedient means to attain bourgeois selfhood (Castelo 2007), a politicized interpellation into universal Europeanness. Residing in the colonies represented the blank page of History to which Toni Morrison refers in Playing in the Dark (35), enabling citizens who were marginal within metropolitan social organization to transcendentally inscribe themselves. In the colonies, the marginal metropolitan can respond to Empire’s desire for its reproduction by taking up an intersubjective place of writing and power within its system of differences. As Isilda relates in O Esplendor de Portugal, Empire fuses metropolitan class divisions with colonial otherness to form a complex spectrum of subject-positions:
(p.219) O meu pai costumava explicar que aquilo que tínhamos vindo procurar em África não era dinheiro nem poder mas pretos sem dinheiro e sem poder algum que nos dessem a ilusão do dinheiro e do poder que de facto ainda que o tivéssemos não tínhamos por não sermos mais que tolerados, aceites com desprezo em Portugal, olhados como olhávamos os bailundos que trabalhavam para nós e portanto de certo modo éramos os pretos dos outros da mesma forma que os pretos possuíam os seus pretos e estes os seus pretos em degraus sucessivos descendo ao fundo da miséria, aleijados, leprosos, escravos de escravos, cães, o meu pai costumava explicar que aquilo que tínhamos vindo procurar em África era transformar a vingança de mandar no que fingíamos ser a dignidade de mandar, morando em casas que macaqueavam casas europeias e qualquer europeu desprezaria considerando-as como considerávamos as cubatas em torno, numa idêntica repulsa e num idêntico desdém, compradas ou mandadas construir com dinheiro que valia menos que o dinheiro deles, um dinheiro sem préstimo não fora a crueldade da maneira de o ganhar e para todos os efeitos equivalente a conchas e contas coloridas. (263)
[My father would explain that what had brought us to Africa was not the pursuit of money or power but of blacks without money or power who would give us the illusion of money and power because even though we had it, we did not, for we were nothing more than tolerated, accepted with disdain in Portugal, looked down upon as we would look down upon the Bailundos who worked for us and, therefore, in a way, we were blacks in the eyes of the metropolitans in the same manner that blacks possessed their own blacks and these their own blacks in successive degrees descending to the base of misery, the invalids, the lepers, the slaves of slaves, dogs, my father would explain that what we searched for in Africa was the transformation of the vengeance of power into what we pretended to be the dignity of power, living in houses that mimicked European houses and that any European would ignore, considering them as we would consider the huts around us, with an identical repulsion and identical disdain, purchased or erected with money worth nothing save for the cruelty through which it was earned and for all intents and purposes equal to seashells and colored beads.]
The dizzying, one-sentence stream of consciousness stylizes the anxious retelling of Isilda’s father’s interpellation into Empire, particularly through the promise of social mobility in the move from metropolitan rural life into (p.220) colonial space, from European peasant to colonist. The passage also reveals what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would call the ‘un-coercive rearrangement of desire’ that is central to particular forms of education, especially those central to Empire. Colonial propaganda carries its own educational purpose which is not always so un-coercive, namely to align individual desire with imperial desire through interpellation into bourgeois images of selfhood. This version of bourgeois whiteness revealed by Isilda’s father, Eduardo, himself a specter, underscores the ideal ego’s need for its phantasmatic inversion – non-white, non-bourgeois bodies. For Eduardo, though, this is not a dichotomy of power elaborated by one version of self and a malleable other. Rather, this outline of imperial relations is revealed as a spectrum of otherness at one end of which resides metropolitan whiteness and at the other the colonized rural peasantry. The fantasies of otherness, meanwhile, are the logic by which exploitation and identitarian performance are carried out.
As an agronomist, Amadeu is not interpellated into colonial space in the manner of Isilda’s parents. His presence is not for the direct consolidation of whiteness. Unlike the emigrating metropolitan family, he serves the corporate entity for which he works more directly. In terms of residence within compartmentalized colonial space, he lives in temporary housing close to Malanje’s shantytowns. Residential divisions sought, of course, to reinforce the colonial divisions of bodies and labor. As we saw in the previous chapter, in the case of Isabela Figueiredo’s father, white male heads of family possessed the privilege of traversing such divisions. In other words, familial versions of white masculinity were able to negotiate between the sexual indulgence in African bodies deemed accessible and the consolidation of a white home and, subsequently, colonial privilege. The distinction between Amadeu’s subject-position and that of Eduardo or Figueiredo’s father is thus rendered by the different ways in which their desire has been rearranged in order to serve distinct imperial purposes.
Since the agronomist subject-position appears to be variably incompatible with the construction of the white colonist family, Amadeu’s interracial sexual liaisons are more difficult to narrativize into the family’s signifying chain. Isilda is thus left in charge of negotiating Amadeu’s sexual actions vis-à-vis the mandates of her white patriarchal family. As an image of failed whiteness according to Isilda’s colonist family values, Amadeu is permanently displaced from this process, and subsequently from the family itself. His failed whiteness also spells the trauma of failed masculinity, leading to his remaining existence as drinking himself to death.
Unsurprisingly, Isilda’s power to resignify Amadeu’s sexual actions into a familial narrative intersects with colonial economic power – that (p.221) of purchasing Carlos, the product of her husband’s interracial sexual relationship with Carolina. Such financial prowess, of course, takes on gendered meanings, as the performance of masculinity so often intertwines with the privileged performances of capital and wealth. This brutally emphasizes Amadeu’s inability to assume the ideal ego of colonist masculinity embodied by Eduardo, despite the latter’s own latent anxieties as evidenced in his theorization of metropolis-to-colony migration and its concomitant promise of social mobility. In this regard, Amadeu can even be thought of as a specter in life, perhaps in line with the zombie trope, a lifeless body devoid of a functional subjectivity. His integration into the family space is eventually limited to being shut away in his bedroom, isolated from the rest of the house, gradually erasing his physical existence through alcohol consumption.
The Spectral and the Specular
Carlos’s placement in the family is not simply the consequence of interracial sex, or of an interracial relationship gone awry. He experiences his familial place as an identitarian tragedy also because of the complexities and power dynamics that informed his faulty membership in the colonist family. Carlos’s experience as a mulatto child in a colonial setting underscores the many oversights and contradictions and the ignorance of Freyrean narratives of interracial love. Even if one were to remove colonial power dynamics and the colonial meaning through which the black female body is repeatedly and malleably rendered, and to argue for some kind of emotional bond between Amadeu and Carolina, the mixed-race family is far from desired. In O Esplendor de Portugal, it is essentially barred from existence. Not only are black bodies deemed unfit for family life, and more suitable for labor and sexual exploitation, the black family can be taken apart and its members confiscated. The mixed-race child, romanticized in much Lusophone literature and cultural/intellectual production as a symbol of cultural syncretism, is more concretely a battleground over which colonial power is performed and reproduced.
Carlos’s body becomes the significational site where Isilda and Amadeu can perform their colonial power and inscribe their identity. In this intramarital struggle for bourgeois identity, Isilda is ultimately victorious as she delineates the roles of both Carlos and Amadeu within the family and the colonial space. Narrativization of the familial domain, a paternal function in Caderno de Memórias Coloniais, is thus taken up by Isilda in Esplendor. In stripping Amadeu of this imperial/masculine agency, he is fundamentally relegated to the margins of colonial articulation.
(p.222) Carlos is well aware that his body is signified from without, through the colonial field of meaning as it is rendered in the family circle. He experiences this external signification, in itself, as a form of haunting, as if another figure inhabited his name. It is through such an implied specter in the realm of identity that he eventually comes to realize the colonial splitting of his ego – a traumatic experience in and of itself. Immediately following Amadeu’s spectral interruption above, Carlos reflects on his name, the signifier into which he was interpellated:
- dizia o meu nome
- e eu era diferente daquele nome, não era aquele nome, não podia ser aquele nome, as pessoas quando chamavam
chamavam um Carlos que era eu em elas não eu nem era eu em eu, era um outro, da mesma forma que se lhes respondia não era eu quem respondia era o eu deles que falava e o eu em eu calava-se em mim e portanto sabiam apenas do Carlos delas não sabiam de mim e eu permanecia um estranho, um estrangeiro, um eu que era dois, o deles e o meu, e o meu por ser apenas meu não era e então dizia como eles diziam
Carlos. (Esplendor 127)
- [I would say my name
and I was different from that name, I was not that name, I could not be that name, people when they called
would call a Carlos that was me in them not me nor the me in me, it was someone else, in the same way that if I replied it was not me that would reply it was their me that would speak and the me in me would remain quiet in myself and therefore they knew only of their Carlos, they did not know me and I remained a stranger, a foreigner, a me that was two, theirs and mine, and mine because it was only mine did not exist and thus I would say as they said
Carlos’s reflection essentially takes us back to the mirror stage, undoing layers of subjectivation and bringing us to the incipient moment of the subject. The totalized image he sees in the metaphoric mirror is the place he is to occupy in the realm of imperial power. It is a narrative of body and (p.223) selfhood articulated through and for the imperial field of meaning. His interpellation into the image serves to reproduce the colonial structuring of power – its taxonomies and social organization – and perhaps more viscerally for him, the race-based privileges and power of his adoptive family. When summoned or spoken to, Carlos realizes that those individuals who occupy his symbolic realm of existence – the colonial field of meaning – are interacting with the imago/specular image of identity constructed by them. After all, his interpellation into the colonial field of meaning occurs through the family space, which is controlled, though not exclusively, by Isilda. The narrative/image that is Carlos is the result of a colonial economy of desire. Those who inscribe the image and interpellate him into it are imperial subjects answering Empire’s desire for reproduction.
By means of this interpellation, Carlos’s skin color and parental history is given meaning through the colonial discourse of race. The family space – directed by Isilda – functions as a sort of metonymy of the larger colonial sphere into which it is inserted. More crucially for Carlos, however, it is a pedagogical space, embodied especially by the physical confines of the colonist house, where he will learn to be a subject of color to the colonial realm of meaning. In the moment of narration, Carlos remembers how control over the domestic space served to place him racially within the colony’s social organization. Carlos specifically recalls the frequent gatherings of foreign investors and colonists at the home:
os belgas enchiam-nos o vestíbulo de malas e ficavam uma semana a beber com o meu pai no terraço, a caçar jacarés na Chiquita, a usar fraque ao jantar como as mulheres deles penteados barrocos, o relógio aumentava de importância, os meus irmãos e eu comíamos num compartimento à parte por não haver lugar à mesa para nós e um dia percebi que não era por não haver lugar à mesa nem pela Clarisse nem pelo Rui era por medo que os estrangeiros reparassem que eu não era branco, era preto como os contratados, mal aparecíamos na varanda cheia de senhoras sentadas a tomarem chá, de capacete colonial e botas de montar, fitando-nos num horror delicado, a minha mãe levantava-se logo abrindo as mangas a esconder-me, mandando-nos brincar para o jardim […] a minha mãe que se a Clarisse ou o Rui entravam sozinhos na varanda os chamava, os deixava ficar, os mostrava às convidadas e se era eu as bochechas lhe caíam como se perdesse malares e me enxotava numa lufa-lufa antes que pudessem ver-me.
[the Belgians would fill our vestibule with luggage and would stay a week drinking with my father on the deck, hunting alligators in (p.224) Chiquita, wearing coattails for dinner and their wives sporting baroque hairstyles, the clock grew in importance, my brother, sister, and I would eat in a separate room because of the lack of space at the table for us and one day I understood that it was not due to lack of room at the table nor due to Clarisse nor due to Rui, it was out of fear that the foreigners would notice that I was not white, that I was black like the employees, as soon as we would appear in the veranda full of women seated drinking tea, in colonial helmets and equestrian boots, looking at us in delicate horror, my mother would get up immediately opening her sleeves in order to hide me, ordering us to play in the garden […] my mother who, if Clarisse or Rui entered the veranda alone, would call them, would let them stay, would show them to the guests and if it were me her cheeks would fall as if she had lost her molars and she would shoo me away before they could see me.]
The frequent colonial gatherings become the stage upon which social organization is collectively performed. It is also the stage upon which Carlos comes to (mis)recognize his place within Empire as a mulatto boy who must be barred from participating in white colonial pageantry as well as its pleasures and privileges. His remembering of so many details, from hairstyles to footwear, communicates the series of contrasts that define the colonial circulation of meaning and the definition of separated spaces – those for the colonist and those for the colonized. As the house stands for bourgeois existence (objects and white bodies), Carlos’s foreclosure from that space posits his racialized body as the antithesis of colonial whiteness. As such, he learns to occupy a liminal space, within both the family and the colony. From that moment of signified difference on, young Carlos experiences the family domain from a perpetually ambivalent subjective place. At the moment of narration within the novel, Carlos begins to piece together the moments of the colonial past that culminate in his spectral experience of subjectivity as a being-for-Empire, the imperial field of meaning and the subjects that constitute it.
In being-for-Empire, Carlos is a signifier in the imperial signifying chain. It is no wonder, then, that the last passage eventually leads to his critical reflection on his name – the pure linguistic signifier. The signifier is occupied by an other that is not he; an other that occupies the strategically liminal location within the colonial field of meaning. The haunting core of subjective existence within the imperial symbolic realm, as an experience of split selfhood, gestures toward a decolonial notion of the subject. In identifying the Carlos that is not he, he enunciates, and speaks from, a subjective place tentatively outside of the colonial realm of articulation in which his family (p.225) resides. The gesture toward a subjective existence embedded in another symbolic realm is paradoxically emancipatory and traumatically painful, as it requires the shattering of a particular mode of being founded upon the illusions of imperial power. In many ways, the move toward the outside of Empire is already under way for Carlos, driving his narrative objective of constructing his own signifying chain of the past and the present within which to reside.
Carlos’s spectral understanding of the subject offers us a theoretical framework for grappling with both the other narrators of the novel (and their need to narrate) and the formation of the colonist subject. Like Carlos, throughout her fragmented and trans-temporal narration Isilda also confronts the spectral image of her subject-position within Empire – the narrative of herself that emerges in the colonial field of meaning. The interpellating subjects that inhabit said field of meaning subsequently regulate her relationship with her body and her specular image. She frames her relationship with her parents in this light. More specifically, she understands parental love to be contingent upon her adherence to the subjective contours of this image, the ideal ego, which is external to her. In many ways, it is not she who possesses the love of her parents, but this specter that is unattainably other to her. She consistently recalls repeatedly asking loved ones, especially her parents, if they ‘gostavam de mim’ [‘liked me’] (Esplendor 414).
Approaching death at the hands of either Unita rebels or MPLA state counter-rebel forces (Isilda does not offer a clarification) in the final pages of her narration, she recalls once more her search for parental affection, a search that would perhaps bridge the abyss separating her from her spectral specular image:
- se puxava o lençol da minha mãe a meio da noite
- – Gosta de mim?
- não me abraçava, não me dizia
- – Anda cá
- não me deitava na cama com ela
- não era dinheiro, não poder, pretos sem dinheiro e sem poder algum
- sentava-se estremunhada, acendia a luz para verificar as horas, o cabelo como nunca lho vira […] a casa uma caverna onde os reposteiros acenavam grandes asas lentas
- – Gosta de mim?
- não chego ao alto dos tremós, a minha mãe de luz apagada a ir-se embora
- – Que pergunta.
- (p.226) [if I pulled on my mother’s bed sheet in the middle of the night
- ‘Do you like me?’
- she wouldn’t hug me, wouldn’t tell me
- ‘Come here’
- I wouldn’t lie in bed with her
- it was not money, not power, blacks with no money and no power
- she would sit up disturbed, would turn on the lamp to check the time, her hair like I had never seen it (…) the house a cavern where the drapes waved like large slow wings
- ‘Do you like me?’
- I cannot reach the top of the furniture, my mother with the lights off leaving
- ‘What kind of question is that’?]
Through her parents, Isilda is repeatedly estranged from this image. Her parents’ implied rejection of her in attempting to follow their desire – embodied in the specular image – renders her other vis-à-vis the specter/ image that possesses their love. The specter is thus the metaphysical materialization of Empire’s desire – in her case, surveyed by her parents.
This predicament is not, however, unique to Isilda. It is therefore no surprise that her father’s critical utterance on the colonist’s socioeconomic – and subsequently identitarian – mission in the colony creeps into this moment of her narration. The spectrality of specularity informs all three generations of Isilda’s family. The specular image, embedded within a spectrum of power as an ideal, must inherently reproduce the spectrum. It aligns individual desire with power’s desire. The desire for individual success and notions of it – here bourgeois social mobility through colonial migration – is circuited to reproduce Empire’s wealth, privilege, and field of meaning. Eduardo, Isilda’s father, like the novel’s four narrators, retroactively confronts the colonist experience by splitting the colonist subject he was/is. This psychoanalytic interrogation brings them back to the edge of the Lacanian symbolic order – the Imaginary order where the individual in the process of interpellation is still a distinct entity from the specular image.
This is a return to the fundamental confrontation in the emergence of the subject. Colonial reality, what became the inner crypt of Portuguese imperial narrativization, is not only occupied by specters when we retroactively approach it as a past reality. Rather, O Esplendor de Portugal’s narrators gesture toward the conclusion that colonial reality – the ideological maintenance of power’s authority over bodies, space, and commodities – is constructed through specters of selfhood. In order to be a productive subject for the (p.227) imperial field of meaning and respond to its desire, the individual must become one with the specter that is the specular image.
Isilda’s confrontation with her identitarian specter – repeatedly played out through the search for her parents’ love – is finally elided in the novel’s last lines, seconds before she is killed:
fixavam-me com a mira, desapareciam atrás das armas, o modo como os músculos endureceram, o modo como as bocas se cerraram e eu a trotar na areia na direção dos meus pais, de chapéu de palha a escorregar para a nuca, feliz, sem precisar de perguntar-lhes se gostavam de mim.
[they set the crosshairs on me, they disappeared behind the weapons, the way in which their muscles hardened, the way in which their mouths would close and I would trot toward my parents’ house, with my straw hat slipping down my head, happy, without needing to ask them if they liked me.]
As she drags herself through Angolan postcolonial terrain ridden by civil war, a scene from her childhood – with her parents – is restaged one last time before the bullets presumably hit her. In that brief moment, the death of the specter/specular image comes just before her own. The specter’s demise results from the end of colonial meaning for Isilda – the significational field that has informed her life in Angola. If there is no longer a field of colonial meaning in which her life is inserted through racial and socioeconomic privileges, there is no longer a need for her to seek the voicing of her parents’ love. But Isilda cannot live outside of such a field and must ultimately die. In many ways, her insistence on staying in postcolonial Angola and keeping what remained of her family’s possessions had already posited her as a sort of ghost, a trace from the colonial past that merely witnesses the disintegration of the physical manifestations of colonial privilege. It was thus as a speaking/narrating ghost of the past that she experienced the other ghosts of the past, including her own identitarian specter. With her impending death, all is exorcised for her.
Spectrality and Ruins at the Heart of Colonial Spaces
The novel’s narrative structure underscores the importance of spectrality – corpses and ghosts – in understanding the colonial past and, more importantly, its retelling in the present. Isilda notes early in the novel, when reflecting on young Carlos’s paranoid obsession with the house’s wall clock, that:
(p.228) O meu filho Carlos, em criança, julgava que o relógio de parede era o coração do mundo e tive vontade de sorrir por saber há muito que o coração do mundo, o verdadeiro coração do mundo não estava ali connosco mas além do pátio e do bosque de sequoias, no cemitério onde no tempo do meu pai enterravam lado a lado os pretos e os brancos do mesmo modo que antes do meu pai, na época do primeiro dono do girassol e do algodão, sepultaram os brancos que passeavam a cavalo e davam ordens e os pretos que trabalharam as lavras neste século e no anterior e no anterior ainda. (Esplendor 83)
[As a child, my son Carlos believed the clock on the wall was the heart of the world and I felt the urge to smile because I had long known that the heart of the world, the real heart of the world, was not there with us but beyond the yard and the sequoia woods, in the cemetery where in my father’s time they would bury blacks and whites side by side in the same way that before my father, in the time of the first owner of sunflower and cotton, they buried the whites who traveled on horse and gave orders and the blacks who worked the fields in this century and in the previous and the one before that.]
The cemetery is the metaphorical heart of the colonial field of meaning in which Isilda resides with her relative power and privilege. The cemetery stands for the dialectic of bodies – those that gave orders and those that followed them. These were, of course, signified bodies upon which colonial power was constructed. Isilda begs the novel’s implied postcolonial reader not to separate the present moment from the palimpsest of power written by and over bodies that have filled colonial time and space. More crucially, though, these very bodies serve as reminders of that connection, and that the inner crypt of imperial narrativization can disrupt the outer crypt’s drive to silence it.
From the nearby cemetery, Isilda hears voices:
dizendo palavras que eu entendia mal por medo de entender, não o vento, não as folhas, vozes que contavam uma história sem sentido de gente e bichos e assassínios e guerra como se segredassem sem parar a nossa culpa, nos acusassem, repetindo mentiras, que a minha família e a família antes da minha tinham chegado como salteadores e destruído África.
[saying words that I misunderstood out of fear of understanding, not the wind, not the leaves, voices that told an illogical story of people and animals and murders and war as if they incessantly whispered our (p.229) guilt, accused us, repeating lies, that my family and the family before mine had arrived as thieves and destroyed Africa.]
We can already witness in this colonial moment the formation of an outer crypt beginning to surround the cemetery – a very literal crypt. This outer crypt is, more precisely, the re-narrativization of the stories told by the cemetery. In the passage, Isilda wants to understand the history told by the crypt as ‘repeated lies’; a desire that one can connect to the ‘fear of understanding’ the voices, for these may compromise how the subject relates to the larger imperial field of meaning. For each subject-position there is a series of voices that articulate the emergence of said subject-position. This is an articulation that, more than explaining the history of the subject, can ultimately unsettle the subject by corroding the signifying chain/version of History into which the colonist subject is placed.
In order to reconsolidate identitarian totality within the imperialized field of meaning pertaining to colonial time and space, the utterances from the crypt are reinterpreted as ‘lies’ – a psycho-hermeneutic project carried out especially by Isilda’s father. She recalls that he used to warn her about the voices: ‘Não ouças’ [‘Do not listen’] (Esplendor 84). The directives to ignore, filter, and resignify the voices from the crypt underscore how colonist reality is already contingent upon its own construction as an outer crypt.
Rather than approaching the cryptonomy of imperial narrativization as a relationship between an inner crypt and an outer crypt, the myriad overlapping and mutually interrupting voices, narrators, specters, times, and places in O Esplendor de Portugal point toward the trans-temporal formation of imperial meaning and power as a series of crypts. It is here that Antunes’s spectrality goes beyond that deployed in Figueiredo’s memoirs. Within one inner crypt there reside others. Here imperial cryptonomy is fundamentally a layering of different crypts and narratives. For instance, metropolitan historicization resignifies the cryptic voicing of Eduardo’s resignification of the cemetery’s voiced utterances. Similarly, the voices that speak from the cemetery are themselves in significational dialectic, challenging the signifying chain of the others. In this regard, the cemetery as a place of interrupted narratives resembles the collection of characters in the novel’s narrative edifice. As with the cemetery in relation to Isilda, the voices from the book disquiet and disturb the subject that is exposed to them – the present-day postcolonial/imperial reader, particularly that which resides in the outermost crypt of contemporary metropolitan historicization.
Tellingly, the house, the metaphoric location of outer cryptonomy vis-à-vis the cemetery as inner crypt, begins to erode, transformed into a structure (p.230) rotted in colonial time and space. Isilda inevitably begins to vanish along with the house:
os meus passos sumiram-se do corredor, deixei de distinguir a minha sombra, as lâmpadas dos rostos nas molduras, fundidas, apagaram-se e entendi que os mortos começaram a morrer e a casa com eles, o esqueleto da casa com pedaços de cartilagens de reposteiros e de quadros suspensos dos ossos, o esqueleto da casa sem ninguém excepto eu, as criadas e a trepadeira da varanda a amortalhar-nos no seu lençol de insectos.
[my steps disappeared in the hallway, I became unable to distinguish my shadow, the lamps from the faces on the frames, dissipated, they were extinguished and I understood that the dead began to die and the house with them, the skeleton of the house with fragments of cartilage of curtains and of picture frames suspended from the bones, the skeleton of the house with no one except me, the maids and the creepers of the veranda rolling us in their sheet of insects.]
As the outer crypt dissolves after the dissipation of Portuguese colonial presence, Isilda’s body begins to wither away in a paranormal fashion, losing its physical presence – that is, her shadow. She becomes a ghost inhabiting a space that was erased by anti-colonial time. This process is under way from the novel’s outset, as early as her 1978 letter to Carlos:
a casa mudara, conhecia os objectos e achava-os estranhos, conhecia as cadeiras e não me sentava nelas, o passado dos retratos nas molduras cessara de me pertencer, quem diabo é este, quem diabo é aquele, a senhora acolá de braço dado com o meu marido usa um chapéu que eu tive.
[the house had changed, I recognized the objects and I found them strange, I recognized the chairs and did not sit on them, the past of the portraits in the frames had ceased to belong to me, who on earth is this, who on earth is that, the lady over there arm in arm with my husband is wearing a hat I once had.]
We can thus think of the house as a space under de-narrativization. Knowledge, the meaning which informs Isilda’s relationship to the objects in the house, including the faces in the portraits, begins to break down. Without this imperial meaning, the house is left a structure of abject death conveyed via the tropes of bodily degradation. Stripped of all imperial (p.231) signifiers, the house is reduced to a skeleton with broken pieces of cartilage buried by the vines that climb the house. If Isilda connects the voices from the cemetery to the wrestling of trees, leaves, and twigs in the wind (Esplendor 84), then the growing vines are tied to the inner crypt’s erosion of the outer crypt.
The house’s imperial death, the de-narrativization or emptying of meaning, of its colonial existence as outer crypt/site of imperial enunciation and gnosis, is ultimately a decolonial phenomenon. The reconfiguration of the cryptonymic relation between house and cemetery, between inner crypt and outer crypt, constitutes a fundamental ‘delinking from coloniality, or the colonial matrix of power,’ according to Walter D. Mignolo’s conception of decoloniality (Darker Side xxvii). As the house metaphysically disintegrates, the disappearance of Isilda’s shadow and physical body becomes a symptom of this decolonial dismemberment. The breakdown of the outer crypt at the hands of the inner crypt spells the destruction of the imperial link between the knowing subject and the known object, thus leaving Isilda in a psychic limbo. Without the cryptonymic existence of imperial knowledge, Empire’s field of meaning, Isilda is stripped of her imperial life source – the signifying chain in which she exists. Subsequently, her body is left roaming the previously colonial space as a moving repository of imperial signifiers displaced from current postcolonial narrativization. As a partially lifeless repository, rather than inhabiting the postcolony, Isilda haunts the dead structure that is the colony, bringing her native former employee Maria da Boa Morte along with her through the deceased narrative.
In Antunes’s oeuvre, narratives, the outer crypts, are often structures approaching death and extinction. His works are arguably obsessed with the void at the core of ideology, and his plots are centered on peeling the layers of meaning to the point where we are left with (partially) de-signified violent actions and bodies in ruins. Antunes’s plots are thus arguably experiments in ideological dissociation in which actions and bodies are unbraided from outer layers of meaning. As such, matter (human and otherwise) becomes lifeless. Colonial homes are returned to their purely biological existence as a conglomeration of altered building materials left to decompose, and human beings are once again ‘featherless two-legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms’ (Cornel West in Taylor, Examined Life).
The larger implications for reading Antunes against contemporary Portuguese imperial exceptionalism are thus centered on his articulation of death as a phenomenon that afflicts meaning, firstly, and individuals, secondly. After all, it is not so much the characters that die, but narratives that corrode. Characters, like readers, are left exposed to the inner crypts of the past, enjoined by the specters therein to reconceive their relationship with the present. In this regard, the novel, as Gould argues, ‘exige tanto a reavaliação da auto-imagem nacional como a revisão do “esplendor do passado”’ [‘demands as much the re-evaluation of Portugal’s national self-image as a revision of the “splendor of the past”’] (Esplendor 154). Through the novel’s staging of colonial spectrality, the significational framework of the postcolonial metropolis-nation also walks toward death. The nation, after all, is the novel’s titular entity, and its epigraph is the example par excellence of the nation’s outer crypt – Portugal’s national anthem.
Cid Ottoni Bylaardt reads the epigraphic placement of the national anthem along similar lines, namely as the breaking of a national trans-generational signifying chain:
a voz dos egrégios avós ressoa no romance como um significante esvaziado de sentido, entre as brumas da memória, as quais, ao invés de atar o presente ao passado com um discurso hegemônico e consistente, conduzem ao estilhaçamento da História.
[the voice of the egregious grandparents resonates in the novel as an emptied signifier, within the mist of memory which, instead of tying the present to the past by way of a hegemonic and consistent discourse, drives the shattering of History.]
Antunes thus presents the metaphoric house of the postcolonial metropolitan nation as the preface, only to execute its death via the spectral dwellers of its colonial inner crypt. The trans-generational collection of characters and specters in the novel profoundly compromises the integrity of the outer crypt, which constituted, for them, a false narrative.
While reading, the subject localized within the outer crypt – interpellated into the signifying field of contemporary Portuguese nationhood – is left, at best, like Carlos, looking to construct a new signifying chain from the past, or, at worst, like Isilda, aimlessly and lifelessly occupying a dying space. Reflecting on the role of literature vis-à-vis ‘os desastres da história’ [‘the disasters of history’] (Esplendor 2), Ottoni Bylaardt points toward the rethinking of dominant historicization. The literary text thus ‘permite (p.233) o diálogo com o que poderia ter sido. O que pode parecer inimaginável torna-se, dessa forma, imaginável ao extremo’ [‘permits a dialogue with what could have been. What may appear unimaginable becomes, then, imaginable in the extreme’] (Esplendor 7). If we can locate historically marginalized voices and experiences under the ‘unimaginable’ – in relation to hegemonic historicity – novels such as O Esplendor de Portugal, Ottoni Bylaardt argues, can transform such experiences into ‘hiperimaginável’ [‘hyperimaginable’] (1). He also associates the previously unimaginable with significational gaps that exist between the event/disaster and the historicization thereof. Antunes’s novel thus renders hyper-imaginable the gaps, or omissions, left by the outer crypt. In this regard, by making the inner crypt hyper-imaginable, the novel not only addresses the postcolonial metropolis and the hegemonic modes of narrativization that reconceive its colonial past, it also moves toward decolonizing the metropolis.
The novel, as an artistic and ideological product, presents what Jacques Rancière has called ‘the aesthetic regime of the arts,’ ‘a new regime for relating to the past […] The aesthetic regime of the arts invents its revolutions’ (Politics 25). For Rancière, the aesthetic regime emerges in opposition to the representational regime that establishes modes of seeing and doing (Bylaardt 11). The novel thus adopts a decolonial posture by positing itself as a new way of ‘thinking and doing’ (Mignolo, Darker Side 3) vis-à-vis the outer crypt of postcolonial metropolitan historicization. We can apply Rancière’s terminology from ‘Ten Theses on Politics’ to metropolitan historicization here, conceiving it as a ‘political relationship that allows one to think the possibility of a political subject(ivity) [le sujet politique] not the other way around’ (2). Politics, therefore, ‘is not the exercise of power,’ but the formation of the parameters by which subjects ‘part-take’ in ‘the fact of ruling and the fact of being ruled’ (‘Theses’ 2; emphasis original).
This political sphere – ‘through which a subject is defined’ (Rancière, ‘Theses’ 1) – implies a particular field of meaning that is constructed and policed. In his ‘Theses,’ Rancière theorizes this notion of the political sphere through a politics/police duality. The police is very much a trope for the ubiquitous and unlocalizable authority over meaning, over the ways in which subjects participate politically, here in the significational production of the postcolonial metropolitan nation. ‘The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along’ (‘Theses’ 9). This force ultimately surveys and patrols how meaning is interpreted, enforcing the signification of what is sensible (seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted). It repeatedly solidifies the relationship between signification and power, by controlling the strategic relationship between signifier and signified.
(p.234) In the postcolonial metropolis, History is policed – and Empire is maintained through policing as historicity – by way of the monuments, intersections between sports and the imperial past, and ubiquitous cultural products romanticizing colonial relations. All of these envelop the temporally and spatially located postcolonial metropolitan subject, enjoining him to ‘be Portuguese’ by way of these imperial signifiers. Therefore, what is being policed is Portugueseness, in an imperial form, after colonialism. As much as these signifiers speak of the past, they function to mark the present, demarcating the parameters of subjective possibility. The policing of national subjectivity by way of imperial signifiers also places the subject into a global field of racial, gender, sexual, and economic signifiers.
Rancière’s conception of the ‘aesthetic regime’ is very much a response to this policing function in relation to History. Offering a new regime for relating to the past, a potentially decolonial regime against the imperial signifying chain that surrounds and surveys the ‘visible and the sayable,’ ultimately propels political struggle:
The essence of politics, then, is to disturb this arrangement by supplementing it with a part of the no-part identified with the community as a whole. Political litigiousness/struggle is that which brings politics into being by separating it from the police that is, in turn, always attempting its disappearance either by crudely denying it, or by subsuming that logic to its own. Politics is first and foremost an intervention upon the visible and the sayable.
António Lobo Antunes’s intervention against the metropolitan policing of subjectivation in relation to History attempts to rearrange the relationship between ‘the visible and the sayable’ and the subject, the socially central relationship to be policed. Like the national anthem that opens the volume, the aforementioned signifiers (monuments, cultural products, etc.) that constitute the policing of subjectivation also form the outer crypt of Empire in the present after colonialism.
O Esplendor de Portugal thus proposes a rearrangement of this relationship through the corroding of outer crypts. As they dissipate and rot, the possibility for decolonial subjectivity arises, and may rearrange the metropolitan relation to the past. Drawing on both Mignolo and Rancière, the act of rotting narrativization and its policing function – here the outer crypt – moves toward ‘unveiling the hidden geo- and bio-graphical politics of knowledge of imperial epistemology’ (Mignolo, Darker Side 119). It is the unveiling of the racial, sexual, and economic politics that scars the novel’s narrators and specters (the replacement of the outer crypt by the inner), (p.235) that will dislocate the imperial policing of the metropolitan field of national meaning.
‘Decolonial delinking’ (Mignolo, Darker Side 119) must thus be undertaken as a global project, including the former metropolis. The decentering of the global North must also take place in the global North, where relationships to former colonies and placement within the global economy are negotiated and historicized. As such, more than a stripping of imperial meaning attributed to signifiers, they must be rearranged in order to undo the signifying chain of Empire. Furthermore, as global flows of capital bring migrant laborers, refugees, and tourists from the global South to cities in the global North, the signifiers that define the metropolis are in constant renegotiation. Carlos, the racialized colonial other turned migrant in the postcolonial metropolis, is the voice that arguably embodies this subaltern delinking. His subjectivation or placement into the imperial field of meaning as a child, the place from where he speaks, is incompatible with the contemporary outer crypt that seeks to resignify the inner, erasing its systemic violence.
As the subject is constituted by power, Carlos, including his spectral ideal ego, is the remainder from the outer crypt’s resignification of the inner. The translation of the past, the production of new layers of narrativization – carried out by historicizing powers – leaves a trace of what was translated. This is what Derrida refers to as a ‘system of partitions’ or the ‘cryptic safe [that] protects from the outside the very secret of its clandestine inclusion or internal exclusion’ (‘Foreword’ xiv). As Derrida explains, of course, the ‘crypt is the vault of a desire’ (‘Foreword’ xvii), clandestinely including and/or internally excluding a moment to which a desire is temporally bound. Carlos, as a colonial subject, is the novel’s embodiment of that moment – the ‘tropological inauguration of the subject’ (Butler, Psychic Life 3). Power’s desire for reproduction – the Lacanian desire of the big Other – produces a string of moments in which the implied question of that desire (che vuoi?) is being answered. The interpellation of the subject, carried out by another subject’s answering of Empire’s desire, is a moment in which desire is inscribed. Carlos is ultimately unable to dissociate himself from that moment. The same can be said of the other narrators and specters that intervene in the novel’s interior monologues-turned-dialogues.
Carlos’s presence vis-à-vis the imperial outer crypt, both in the novel (as the national anthem) and in the postcolonial metropolitan public sphere, disrupts the translation of the inner crypt. Part of contemporary imperial ‘linking’ – to use Mignolo’s term – is imperial power’s present relationship (p.236) between outer and inner crypts – essentially how they connect by strategically including or excluding. An example of imperial linking is thus the historicizing gesture of ‘crypting.’ ‘To crypt,’ in the words of Derrida, ‘is to cipher, a symbolic or semiotic operation that consists of manipulating a secret code’ (‘Foreword’ xxxvi). In using the national anthem as the novel’s epigraph, Lobo Antunes is likely steering the novel toward a particular national audience, entrenched in a particular signifying field. The novel, situated in the temporal and spatial location of the postcolonial metropolis, is thus read in relation to a particular moment of Empire’s desire. The reading subject, inscribing meaning while reading, is also faced with the task of answering Empire’s desire by participating in the imperial linking of outer crypt with inner crypt. Faced by this, Lobo Antunes opens a subjective conundrum by opening the spectral vault on the reader, forcing the reader to confront an internally excluded crypt and the voices that inhabit it. The novel’s delinking thus aims to thwart the reader’s job of following the imperial linkages that semiotically circuit the metropolis’s exceptionalist cryptonomy.
Carlos, Isabela Figueiredo’s father, and the other specters residing in the inner crypt of Portugal’s colonial past – and Empire in general – represent a crucial decolonial step in the vein of Rancière’s aesthetic regime. Patrícia Vieira’s conceptualization of ‘the archive-as-specter as a possible path to envisage the future’ (‘Specters’ 343) in Os Cus de Judas thus also holds true for O Esplendor de Portugal. Following Derrida, Vieira asserts that the ‘future is hauntological; it arrives in and through ghosts. The archive-as-specter […] will keep recurring in what is to come’ (‘Specters’ 343). We can thus think of Antunes’s form of spectrality as phantoms: texts (subjectivized beings) whose inscriptions within the inner crypt will continue to write against the outer crypt. It is this haunting that can in turn lead to a future narrative of the past.