South of Nowhere

views updated

South of Nowhere

by António Lobo Antunes


A novel set in Lisbon and in Angola from 1971 to 1973; published in Portuguese (as Os Cus de Judas) in 1979, in English in 1983.


A Portuguese man reminisces about his two-year campaign as a medic in Angola during the war of liberation. A woman he meets at a bar in Lisbon is the unlikely listener of his two-day confession.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

António Lobo Antunes was born in Lisbon on September 1, 1942. A physician with a speciality in psychiatry, he served as a medic in Angola from 1971 to 1973, during the war of liberation. South of Nowhere (1979) is his second novel, after Elephant Memory, published earlier that same year. Both works address the wars of liberation in Angola, fought between the Portuguese army and the Angolan liberation movement. Of the 13 books he has written since, his latest are often considered more complex and less autobiographical, but he himself disagrees with this idea: “[My novels] are now much more consciously autobiographical.… The higher (apparent) complexity relates to the attempt of expressing more deeply what I feel and who I am through my characters” (Antunes, “Confissão,” p. 16; trans. A. Ladeira). One of the first novels to denounce the colonialist and nationalist excesses and contradictions of pre-revolutionary Portugal, South of Nowhere challenged the official, self-promotional image of a country whose presence in Africa had supposedly been humane, racially tolerant, and welcomed by the colonized.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The New State—inflexible African policy

During the time South of Nowhere takes place—from 1971 until 1973—Portugal was experiencing a severe political crisis. The Portuguese dictatorial government, also known as the “New State,” was fighting a controversial war in three African territories (Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau) in a desperate attempt to prevent them from achieving the independence that would end centuries-old Portuguese colonial rule. António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator since 1930, had been replaced in 1968 by a more moderate successor who ruled in the same vein: Marcello Caetano. Like his predecessor, Caetano pursued an insistent policy of continued domination in the African territories. By 1974 his regime was being highly criticized for this policy by the rest of the Western world and, in particular, by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The first attempts at repression of the burgeoning 1960s liberation movements in the Portuguese-African colonies had by now turned into a full-blown war, involving at some point the Soviet Union, the United States, Cuba, and China as well as other countries.

Portugal had distinguished itself as the first expansionist nation, the one that introduced new worlds to the world. In the fifteenth century, the Portuguese scored a series of exploratory milestones. They established an outpost in Ceuta, Africa, in 1415, explored uncharted waters along the Coast of Africa, reaching and rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, became the first to reach India by maritime route in 1498, and officially discovered Brazil in 1500, meanwhile establishing trading outposts and small colonies in Africa, South America, India, and the Far East. In the early 1970s, Portugal was the last imperial nation, an anachronism in the West. Portugal did not follow the lead of other imperial powers, such as Great Britain and Holland, who had decolonized their domains earlier, in the 1960s. Instead, Portugal reinforced its presence in Africa. The reasons behind this strategy are to this day controversial. Some authors claim that Portugal could not have decolonized without self-destructing. Its tenacious hold on its colonies reflected, according to these authors, the unlikeliness of its survival without them due to its own economic frailty, lack of resources, and diminutive size. Unlike other powers, it could not expect to recolonize or neocolonize (i.e., maintain some kind of political and economic presence) in the liberated nations. The political, economic and—in some respects—mythical basis of the regime rested on empire, and on centuries-old colonial relationships with these African territories. When reprimanded for not following the example of other ex-imperial powers in Europe, Portugal’s official justification was a startling one:

The Portuguese contended that these distant territories were not colonies but “Overseas Portugal.”… Hence, when Britain, France, and Belgium began liquidating their colonial empires, Portugal felt under no obligation to do the same, because … these places … had become so completely a part of the home country that Portugal was not a colonial power.

(Nowell, p. 163)

The situation appeared insolvable. Despite growing political isolation from the rest of the world, Portugal continued in increasingly large numbers to draft soldiers for service in Africa, meanwhile boasting about its “self-sufficiency” as a nation. Echoing Britain’s claim to “splendid isolation,” imperial Portugal would, as late as the first half of the 1970s, declare its “pride and isolation,” or, more accurately, its pride in its isolation (“orgulhosamente sós,” as Salazar was known to say).

The “New State”—domestic policy and the man who shaped it

At home in Portugal, the dictatorial regime of the early 1970s showed the inflexibility of an authoritarian state. A political police, the PIDE (International and State Defence Police) acted on every suspicion of subversive activities, particularly by members of the Communist Party or those affiliated with workers’ organizations. The period witnessed general censorship of the press and of all publications. No new political parties could be formed. Secret societies, including the highly influential Freemasonry Society, had been banned in 1935. Trade unions were controlled by the state and lacked national representation. There was, to be sure, government opposition, but it rested almost exclusively with clandestine groups of workers operating under the direction of the Communist Party.

The New State implemented only social, not political, reforms: the partial rehabilitation of a network of roads, the long-awaited construction of a bridge over the Tagus River, public offices and services. Law courts, hospitals, barracks, post offices, schools, libraries, museums, and the like, which had been operating in abandoned church buildings, were re-established in their own new quarters. New construction occurred too. The regime built airports, modernized harbors, and constructed new dams and power stations. Promoted by continuing low wages in an era of stability, industry developed and production rose steadily. Portugal ceased to be an essentially rural country, and the urban middle class blossomed, particularly in the two main Portuguese cities, Lisbon and Oporto. Thus, changes did occur, but within carefully prescribed limits.

Salazar administered economically, he planned little. He improved what existed but innovated only slightly; he was attached to the Portuguese society in which he had lived and desired no fundamental alterations. He had no enthusiasm for industrialization and saw it as a breeder of discontent and potential trouble among the masses. He resented the economic subjugation of Portugal to foreigners and took some steps to end it.… Most of his efforts for increasing the comforts and amenities of life were concentrated in Lisbon, which became an island of luxury in a sea of national poverty.… Three principles dominated his thinking and action: belief in the Catholic religion, distrust of popular government, and abhorrence of communism.

(Nowell, pp. 154–55)

The regime self-destructs

The regime followed a course of intransigent nationalism, pursuing a longstanding diplomatic and military campaign to retain its overseas territories. Social disturbances in the colonies began to take on international dimensions after the Second World War. The United Nations adopted a general stance of defending all peoples’ rights to self-determination. Soviet and Afro-Asian blocs were particularly “unimpressed” with Portugal’s arguments as to why colonial rule needed to be maintained in the African territories. In response, Portugal accused these critics of having secret, exploitative African plans of their own: “post-war anti-colonial invective was merely a smoke-screen behind which powerful nations intended to take effective economic advantage of countries given political independence but unable to sustain it” (Saraiva, p. 114).

Anyone who listens to those eloquent defenders of the peoples’ liberation will think that the overseas provinces are backlands where sound and prosperous, political and social native organizations existed before colonial times, which ourselves, horrendous colonialists, went ahead and destroyed and oppressed. Do they ignore that those provinces have been part of Portugal for five hundred years? When we found them, they were desolate territories, here and there peopled by extremely primitive tribes, without the faintest notion of nationality. There the Portuguese established themselves and introduced the natives to commerce, built cities and villages, planted farms, started industries, opened roads, they made the territories liveable by fighting disease.… We are not conducting a “colonial war,” as the enemies of Portugal insinuate at every step of the way. We are defending order, social harmony and the productive work developed in territories where the great mass of the population shows in its everyday life a determination for remaining Portuguese.

(Caetano, pp. 37–38, 30; trans. A. Ladeira)

The world had very limited knowledge of the situation in Portuguese Africa under Salazar and Caetano. Portugal kept the territories isolated from global public opinion, keeping a tight rein on “upstarts.” The Portuguese colonial government repressed its African subjects with forced labor, demanding they raise export crops and denying them all civil rights. Education in Portuguese Africa was also a highly selective process, and very rarely a fair one. Africans did not have the same rights as a Portuguese citizen born in the home country, unless they entered into a highly demanding and unrealistic process of assimilation into Portuguese society according to its educational standards. (Only with the colonial reforms of 1961 was the “native status” repealed. From then on, Portuguese citizenship was granted to all Africans, regardless of their level of education.) Like other European powers, Portugal had pursued a policy of educating and creating African elites, and the policy backfired, giving rise to early leaders of the rebel movements. Portugal sponsored the schooling of the most promising Africans, educating them in Portuguese institutions, earmarking them to one day serve as representatives of colonial rule. But in practice, the select population shared forbidden anti-colonial ideas, many of the African students later becoming the theoretical and military leaders of the liberation movements. Established in Lisbon in 1951, the Centre for African Studies would in retrospect become known as the “cradle of African leadership.” Agostinho Neto and Mário de Andrade of Angola and Marcelino dos Santos of Mozambique are some of the leaders nurtured in this cradle.

Both Portuguese and foreign critics of the regime’s African policy were persecuted by the colonial police and sometimes arrested. Yet, with the overthrow of the fascist regime in 1974, all the African territories would win independence—Guinea-Bissau in 1974, followed by Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Principe, and lastly Angola in 1975. Though it appeared sudden to the outside world, this process of independence and self-determination was far from spontaneous. Nationalist movements of liberation had been operating in these countries for more than ten years. In Angola there was the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), for example, and in Mozambique, FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique).

The beginning of the armed resistance, or of the wars of liberation, is marked by the repression of an illegal strike in August 1959 in Bissau, the capital of Portuguese Guinea. Portugal responded militarily with an action that cost more than 50 dockworkers their lives and inflicted many more injuries. A few weeks later, at a clandestine meeting in Bissau, the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) agreed to start an armed offensive against the colonial government. The MPLA followed this decision in Angola in 1961. FRELIMO did the same in Mozambique in 1962. Between 1961 and 1974, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique fought their own wars and at different paces.

Aside from independence for the various colonies, the ultimate consequence of the African Wars would be the fall of the New State in Portugal. The escalating expense of the wars slowed down the rate of investment in the public sector at home and, therefore, in overall development. Meanwhile, the Portuguese citizenry began to balk at having to fight. Intellectual circles and university students protested against military service, and war-weariness set in among the army, who saw no end to a struggle in which guerrilla warfare broke out anew whenever vigilance lapsed. Defeat seemed inevitable, but opinion was divided over what action to take.

After 1968, hope stirred in military circles that Caetano might bring an end to the colonial wars. Under this post-Salazar dictator, the country had seen some economic growth and some signs that political reform was on its way: road networks were constructed; foreign investment was allowed; restrictive industrial policies came to an end; social benefits were extended to rural communities. Yet the formation of new political parties remained illegal. (In the legislative elections of 1973 only members from the National Union—the single legal party—took their seats.) And, more crucial for South of Nowhere, African policy did not fundamentally change. Outside Portugal, the United Nations continued to reiterate opposition to Portugal’s colonial policy, while world powers lent moral and political support to the guerrillas. The official count of the Portuguese dead provided by the Armed Forces (Estado-Maior genral das Forças Armadas) was 8,831, including many hundreds of mobilized black African soldiers. Of these casualties 3,455 took place in Angola, 3,136 in Mozambique, and 2,240 in Guinea Bissau (Teixeira, p. 86). Discontent in the Portuguese military finally culminated in the Armed Forces Movement (MFA). Led by a group of army captains, the ensuing bloodless revolution of April 25, 1974, met with no resistance, easily toppling a regime that had oppressed the country for almost half a century. Looking back, some would condemn the half century as a bleak, forgettable era, with unjustified authoritarian restrictions imposed on a society that enjoyed no democratic freedom. Others would speak of the dictatorship as a necessary phase in the evolution of Portuguese society, a period in which a middle class found it possible to blossom. Today’s democratic institutions owe their existence to this middle class.

Liberation movements in Portuguese Africa

Angola began resorting to guerrilla warfare in February 1961. Shortly before, in Luanda, the capital, police stations and jails were attacked by rebel groups, followed in March by bloody rioting, then by calculated terrorism involving the massacre of settlers near the border with the republic of Congo. These events seemed to have been entirely unexpected by international observers. The subsequent repression by Portuguese troops temporarily stabilized the situation. This 1961 Portuguese military action marked the beginning of a 13-year anti-guerrilla campaign. In 1963 a revolt broke out in Guinea-Bissau, and in 1964 guerrilla warfare erupted in Mozambique. Addressing these situations as if they were transitory bursts of subversion back home, Portugal sent more and more troops to Africa. The movements of liberation launched a combination of anti-colonial actions: illegal strikes, unauthorized demonstrations, demands for political change. In response, the colonial regime repressed each rebellious act with increasing, ultimately paralyzing force. Salazar himself believed that Portugal had to keep all or it would lose all (in fact its losses had already begun—Goa was annexed by India in 1962). He thought too that either way he would enjoy the support of Western Europe and North America, which for some time he did.

Portugal’s relations with the West throughout the wars was always ambivalent and, at times, tense. Western powers did not, though, place any great constraints on Lisbon’s colonial policies. Portugal had the geo-strategically important Azores with which to negotiate, thanks to the coveted Lajes air base used by the United States Air Force from World War II to the present day. Also, throughout the 1950s the pressures of the Cold War—the U.S.-Soviet competition for world leadership—tended to mute criticism of Lisbon’s African policy. Then, in 1961, the Angola uprising, and especially the violent response to it by the Portuguese, exposed the myth of a benevolent colonial rule.

Early liberation-movement actions

The liberation movements began slowly, indoctrinating the population in the villages, attempting to win their support. To get villagers to condemn colonial rule, the movement appealed to the people’s specific demands’, to end arbitrary behavior by Portuguese officials, traders, and tax-collectors; to obtain good prices for their produce and reduce the cost of goods; to end forced labor and the obligatory growing of crops for Portuguese export companies. Gradually, in Angola and the other Portuguese territories, the populations were persuaded that their active participation was needed if such demands were to be met.

Portugal began to send an increasing number of troops to Africa in 1963. The total amount was staggering when one considers Portugal’s population: “If calculated on the basis of metropolitan populations, [the colonial armies] were more than seven times bigger than the biggest American army sent to Vietnam; and Portugal was having to spend about 45 percent of its national budget on these wars they were fighting in Africa” (Davidson, p. 18).

All of the major western powers and some of the minor ones in NATO supported the Portuguese cause at first. On the other side, the liberation movements received aid from Sweden, from unofficial support groups in the western world, and from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other communist countries. More support went to Portugal except at the end, when Soviet ground-to-air missiles helped shift the war in favor of the rebel groups, and the United Nations finally registered its disapproval of Portugal’s resistance to decolonization. The Portuguese suffered in part from their own overconfident, condescending attitude toward the Africans, as reflected in an infamous, oft-quoted speech by Caetano at the University of Lisbon in 1954:

The Africans are incapable of developing on their own the countries they have inhabited for thousands of years.… The Africans have never invented any useful technology, nor conquered anything for the benefit of mankind.… The Africans must be treated as productive elements who are organised, or have to be organised, in an economy governed by whites.

(Caetano in Davidson, p. 18)

The Portuguese suffered too from war tactics that proved ineffective in the long run. One such practice was the forced relocation of villages, the


Throughout the African conflicts, relations with the United States had been diplomatically complex and contradictory. The relationship was a tumultuous one during the presidency of John F. Kennedy because of the issue of human rights and the people’s rights violations in Angola. One of Angola’s early liberation movements (the UPA, or Union of the Populations of Angola) enjoyed the official sponsorship of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while Portugal was being tactfully (since the Lajes Air Base was at stake) but firmly encouraged to abandon its colonial rule in Africa. President Lyndon Johnson’s administration took a more conciliatory strategy. In 1965, the Anderson plan proposed that the Portuguese government sponsor a referendum about self-determination in its African colonies in exchange for financial compensation, in case the referendum turned into a colonial eviction notice. Salazar refused the—for him—humiliating plan. Under President Richard Nixon, in 1969, Portugal stopped being the embarrassing reminder of an outmoded colonialist model and became, if briefly, an unlikely ally in the war against communism.

aldeamentos, into areas where they would be protected from subversive influence. Another tactic against the liberation movement was the use of African mercenaries, sent in helicopters to raid the “liberated zones,” those areas that the rebels had freed of Portuguese influence. Once a zone became “liberated,” the rebels would introduce policy welcomed by its people, expelling all colonial officials and traders, eliminating colonial taxes and charges, abolishing forced labor, and establishing schools and hospitals.

Meanwhile, a rising number of Portuguese soldiers began to challenge the colonialist ideology of the New State. Towards the end of the war, they instigated important anti-colonial, pro-African, and pro-self-determination movements. It was a party of these soldiers that conducted the military coup d’état igniting the democratic revolution of April 25, 1974, in Portugal. A few months later, on July 29, 1974, responsible military officers issued the following statement:

The colonised peoples and the people of Portugal are allies. The struggle for national liberation has contributed powerfully to the overthrow of fascism, and, in large degree, has laid at the base of the Armed Forces Movement, whose officers have learned in Africa the horrors of a fruitless war, and have therefore come to understand the roots of the evils which afflict the society of Portugal.

(Davidson, p. 16)

It is unclear whether it is reasonable to speak in terms of a single national struggle in Angola. Strife between three nationalist movements often reached an intensity that suggested civil war, even before the collapse of the Lisbon regime. Both the MPLA and the UPA claimed to have initiated the liberation war. During 1959 and 1960 the MPLA was subjected to a campaign of repression by the colonial authorities. Many of its leaders had been arrested and the organization, though much weakened, opted for a dramatic gesture. At dawn, on February 4, 1961, about 200 MPLA members and their supporters attacked the São Paulo de Luanda prison and other government targets. It was the first significant incident of urban guerrilla warfare in the overall struggle. According to UPA, however, the war was ignited by the outbreak of widespread violence in the coffee-growing areas of Northern Angola in March of 1961.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

A novel consisting of a frame story and an inner narrative, South of Nowhere is divided into chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. The frame story features the protagonist at a bar, drinking, possibly drunk, in conversation with an unnamed woman, whose responses the reader does not have access to, and with whom he shares a seemingly fragmented series of personal experiences and observations about his time spent as a military doctor during the war in Angola. The setting of the frame is post-revolutionary Lisbon in 1979, from which the reader is intermittently transported back to 1971–73 wartime Angola. The doctor narrates his account to the woman in one sitting, interjecting episodes from his childhood in Portugal as the son of a bourgeois family during the New State dictatorship.

As the doctor progresses through his reminisces, he will at one point address his African washerwoman and lover, Sofia. Another time he talks to his wife in Portugal. None of the addressees talk back. Their function is strictly rhetorical, as is that of the woman who is supposedly listening in the Lisbon bar to the narrator’s autobiographical tale.

The novel opens with an account of the narrator’s childhood in Portugal, a time back to which he occasionally transports the reader.

When we used to go to the zoo on Sunday mornings with my father, the animals showed themselves for what they were: the giraffe, in his lofty solitude, had the dimensions of a sad Gulliver; the ostriches resembled spinster gym teachers; the penguins waddled like office boys with bunions. … The frantic bark of poodles occasionally filtered up around tombstones in the dog cemetery.

(Antunes, South of Nowhere, p. 5)

Later in the first chapter, the first-person narrator’s family gathers at a Lisbon harbor to say their goodbyes as the military ship sets off to the colonies. After briefly describing the trip, he reaches his first destination.

The doctor leaves Luanda in a truck filled with troops. As the truck heads to the city of Nova Lisboa, he describes the gigantic scale of everything, “the sky is so vast and ever-changing that you can contemplate it until you fall backward like a great bird in ecstasy” (South of Nowhere, p. 23). He suffers a vague sense of guilt connected to his being a Portuguese “man from a narrow country, from a stifling city shimmering in the reflection of its tile façades” (South of Nowhere, p. 22). In Nova Lisboa, the Portuguese settlers exhibit bad taste, profound backwardness, and loyalty to petty, outdated colonial customs.

Recurrent references are made to United States culture, mostly in connection with American films, which were an important part of the narrator’s upbringing in Lisbon.

A scene in which he is eating with his fellow soldiers while being stared at by a group of locals is described through references to earlytwentieth-century American mobsters:

While eating beefsteak I felt as if I were a protagonist in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, inclined to gangland prohibition shootouts; I lifted my fork to my mouth with the cool boredom of Al Capone, composing in the mirror a smile of manifest cruelty.

(South of Nowhere, p. 24)

From Nova Lisboa, the troops travel to Luso, a territory called “The End of the World,” stopping at an outpost near the border with Zambia. The narrator experiences here one of his frequent moments of distress, in which he questions not only the justifications of war but who the real enemy is:

With every wound from an ambush or a mine, the same distressing question occurred to me, product of the [fascist] Portuguese youth movement, Catholic journals and the monarchist tabloids, nephew of catechists and an intimate of the holy family that visited us at home in a bell jar, now feeling as if he had been jammed into a powder keg: who is killing us? The guerrillas or Lisbon—Lisbon, the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese.

(South of Nowhere, p. 29)

In June 1971, the narrator is told of the birth of his first daughter, after which he makes one of his rare references to the story’s time frame. The democratic revolution has taken place in Portugal, giving rise to new young Portuguese bureaucrats and bourgeoisie, who in 1979 become the target of the narrator’s by now familiar sarcasm.

Let me pay the bill. No, seriously, let me pay the bill so you can take me for the ideal Portuguese ‘79 technocrat with the cafe-society intelligence, that is, mundane, superficial and inoffensive, garrulous, strange and slight.

(South of Nowhere, p. 59)

In 1973 the medic finally makes his way back to Portugal. He attributes a nightmarish quality to Luanda, seen here for the last time, that smacks of his ghostly portrayal of Lisbon. Both cities are presented as unreal places:

“The plane that flies us to Lisbon transports a cargo of slowly materializing ghosts, officers and soldiers yellow with malaria, fastened to their seats, vacantly looking out the window at blank space. What is real are the sergeants who examine our documents with the laxity of disinterested officials.… We spent twentyseven months … of anguish and death together.”

(South of Nowhere, p. 153).


Around the middle of the twentieth century, a weekend trip to the cinema was one of the most common pastimes of the middle class in Portugal. From the 1920s on, American cinema revolutionized the culture. Cowboy and Indian films were extremely popular, especially those featuring actors such as John Wayne. The protagonist recalls another favorite:

Even today, you know, I walk out of movie houses lighting my cigarette the way Humphrey Bogart did, so much so that I disappoint myself when I look in the mirror; instead of walking into Lauren Bacall’s arms I head for my neighborhood and the illusion fades. I put my key in the lock (is it Humphrey Bogart or me?), I hesitate, enter, look at the engraving in the hall (now it’s definitely me looking at it) and I sink into the sofa, sighing like a punctured tire, the spell broken.

(South of Nowhere, p. 24)

The novel comes full circle, as the medic faces his aunts and they voice their disappointment in him. Subsequently he and the unnamed woman to whom he has told his story take their final leave of each other. From the bar they had retired to his apartment for what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt at love-making, in which he could not perform, stymied by memories of the war and an associated sense of failure.

“Bourgeois guilt” and the middle-class family

Embedded in South of Nowhere is a pervasive pessimism related to the narrator’s outlook on love, the tragedy of the colonial wars, and the trauma of the New State in Portugal. He asks the silent woman, “What would happen to us if we were really happy? … Have you noticed how frightened we get if someone, spontaneously, with no ulterior motive, loves us, how we cannot stand sincere, unconditional affection?” (South of Nowhere, p. 112). How much of this pessimism is bound up with questions of identity is uncertain, but reflections on the identity of the Portuguese, on their idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, continually recur in the novel. For example, along with the bourgeois class he comes from, says the narrator, he shares a “chilling fear of the ridiculous,” a characteristically Portuguese trait (South of Nowhere, p. 22). Both the protagonist and the author seem to harbor a particular obsession with what they call “bourgeois guilt.”

This was a common “affliction” among young intellectuals who had not been revolutionaries during the last days of the dictatorship. When the regime fell, they felt they had been accomplices of it. Many bourgeois youth developed a leftist ideological orientation, adopting the politics and aspirations of the working class as if they were their own. In the cases of Lobo Antunes and his alter-ego protagonist, their guilt embraced the actions of their families, who had resigned themselves to and benefited from the New State:

Two things, my good friend, I continue to share with the class of people I come from, disappointing [the Latin American revolutionary] Che Guevara, whose poster I have hung over my bed to protect me from bourgeois nightmares: the facile emotion that makes me sniffle at soap operas on the television at the corner café, and the chilling fear of the ridiculous.

(South of Nowhere, p. 22)

The author and his protagonist seem to harbor a guilty conscience connected to their own actions as well. The suffering they experience in the African Wars appears to function as a type of expiation, a delivery of conscience, the only heroic moment available to them, even though they now realize they have been on the wrong side of the conflict:

Inside myself, I solved the guilty feeling of my bourgeois birth which led me to take sides politically, for example, to have been a candidate by APU, a coalition of left-wing parties, among them, the Portuguese Communist Party. It had to do with the guilt of the bourgeois kid who felt he had been a coward during the dictatorship.… There was a lot of cowardice on my part. I only shed the physical fear in Africa, in the War.

(Antunes, “Exuberant Confession,” p. 17; trans. A. Ladeira)

“Fortunately the army will make a man of him,” his aunts had hoped before he went off to Africa on his military assignment (South of Nowhere, p. 9). At the end, a feeling of inadequacy and deep failure, connected to the absurdity of the war and the deficiencies of the New State, permeates the narrative. Not even the army had made a man out of the protagonist.

My aunts turned on the lamp to observe me better. … A bamboo cane traced a disdainful arabesque before it was stuck on my chest, while a weak, raspy voice said You’re thinner than when we last saw you. I always hoped the army would make a man out of you, but I guess there’s nothing to be done.

(South of Nowhere, p. 154)

The family’s disillusionment and rejection of the ex-soldier at the close of the novel mirrors a similar attitude on the part of Portuguese society in the postwar years. Its “heroes” were not welcomed home, but greeted with insults. Many saw the loss of the colonies as defeat, or more exactly, since in Africa lay the last imperial project, as imperial Portugal’s final defeat.

Sources and literary context

In South of Nowhere, Lobo Antunes consolidates a new genre in Portugal—the “colonial war novel.” He adopts a revolutionary style, invoking slang and scatalogical images, and using sarcasm and images of violence to depict the death of the Portuguese empire. There is a frenetic, fragmentary quality to his style, a type of stream of consciousness that has been called the “traveling travel narrative” (Madureira, p. 21). Other Portuguese chronicles of the African Wars include O Capitão Nemo e EU (1973; Captain Nemo and I) by Álvaro Guerra; Lugar de Massacre (1975; The Place of the Massacre) by José Martins Garcia, and Jornada de Africa (1989; African Journey).

Portugal, in the post-revolutionary era, experienced a national crisis of identity that is mirrored in the crisis of this fragmented narrative, a confusing, if rewarding, stream of unpredictable digressions of a drunkard (Peres, p. 189). The novel is a challenge to any patriotic cant, a type of anti-epic. As such, South of Nowhere has joined the ranks of such Portuguese famous anti-epics as Fernão Mendes Pinto’s seventeenth-century work Peregrination or Bernardo Gomes de Brito’s nineteenth-century work The Tragic Story of the Sea —which are, surprisingly, as famous, as cherished, and as institutionalized in Portugal as its epics.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The democratic revolution and its consequences

From the early 1970s setting of South of Nowhere to its late 1970s release, Portugal endured a political meandering that recalls the fragmentation and disorientation of the novel. Happily, Portugal’s meandering would resolve itself, but not before the novel was published. On April 25, 1974, a group of young military officers from the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) overthrew the New State dictatorship, transferring power to a military provisional government, the Council of National Salvation (Junta de Salvação Nacional). Presiding over this council was General António de Spínola, who was subsequently elected president of the new Portuguese republic.

The backing of the people, without which the coup would not have succeeded, was mostly due to a deep hatred for the New State, not to conscious support for the rebels’ ideological positions, which were widely ignored or misunderstood. The Communist Party, still the strongest rebel faction at the time, believed that the national uprising was a prelude to a future socialist revolution. But the real situation was murky.

The first post-revolution contradictions concerned the role played by General Spínola. When the Armed Forces Movement captured the New State dictator Marcello Caetano at Largo do Carmo in Lisbon, he refused to surrender to a junior officer and suggested Spínola instead. Caetano had just chosen his own successor, which made Spínola a problematic figure from the beginning. He would become the symbol of compromise with the old regime, something to which his African policy testified. Spínola supported the colonies’ eventual right to independence, but on a delayed schedule, to safeguard Portuguese economics, and to assure that, according to the paternalistic ideology of the day, the “unprepared” Africans were ready for independence.

Presiding over the Council of National Salvation, Spínola objected to what he interpreted as excessively radical clauses in Portugal’s new economic policy. He also objected to immediate independence for the colonies. These differences between Spínola and the provisional government he supposedly led ended in his being expelled from its rule. On March 11, 1975, Spínola attempted and failed a counter-coup that would restore some policies of the New State, including a much slower decolonization process. The authors of the April revolution had divided views about the so-called “overseas territories.” General Spínola thought their self-determination should be a gradual process to allow for the establishment of a new order in the ex-colonies while preserving of some of Portugal’s economic interests there. The communists wanted independence to be granted immediately. The situation in Angola was further complicated by the fact that three rival movements contended for supremacy (MPLA, UNITA [Union for the Total Independence of Angola], and FNLA [National Front for the Liberation of Angola]). Each had different ideologies, international supporters, and national projects. On February 15, 1975, the Portuguese government signed the “Agreements of Alvor” with representatives of all three factions, providing for a period of transition and setting November 11, 1975, as Independence Day. On November 11, the MPLA seized power and rapidly defeated its opponents with military actions. The other groups never accepted MPLA’s claims of legitimacy and, to this day, have been fighting a very bloody civil war.

Back in Portugal, although the 1976 Constitution adopted as its objective a progression toward socialism and a classless society, “The allies were reassured of the continuing moderation of the advance towards socialism by the explicit reaffirmation of Portugal’s membership of NATO” (Kayman, p. 130). In the end, Portugal would not become a communist country. The elections of April 1976 revealed a trend towards the center. The communists and those parties on the radical left gained less than 20 percent of the votes, the center (Socialist Party and Social Democrats) garnered 6 percent, and representatives designed a Third Republican Constitution to balance presidentialism with parliamentarianism. Elections over the next decade ushered in governments of coalition or compromise through 1979, the year South of Nowhere was published. In 1987 the Social Democrats would obtain a large majority that enabled them to both govern in a climate of stability and revitalize the economy. Meanwhile, in January 1986, Portugal would become an official member of the European Economic Community. Since then, Portugal’s centuries-old overseas enterprise has been replaced by a very differently focused European enterprise. Portugal’s old expansionist imperial projects were by this time abandoned, and the country was restored nearly to its original physical extent. It would retain control of Macau until 1999, when Portugal finally turned the territory over to China.


South of Nowhere met with instant success in Portugal when it was published there in 1979, though critics gave it mixed reviews. Lobo Antunes’s first triumph had been Elephant Memory, which addressed a similar topic—the colonial war in Angola—and had been published the same year. Thanks to a timely interview conducted by Rodrigues da Silva in the Portuguese newspaper Diário Popular, this first novel experienced almost instant fame in the small sphere of Portuguese letters and remarkable sales success. South of Nowhere was published to similar acclaim.

Vírgilio Ferreira, pre-eminent novelist of the era, dismissed Lobo Antunes’s style as non-literary verbal rambling: “It is worth nothing at all, he is no more than a verbal juggler, no one knows where these inventions come from” (Ferreira in Venâncio; trans. A. Ladeira, p. 18). Lobo Antunes would have to write a few more bestsellers before winning the admiration of the majority of critics and becoming a consecrated writer in the Portuguese contemporary canon. South of Nowhere is now known as one of the most representative of Antunes’s early, colonial-war-centered novels. Its depiction of the Portuguese war in Angola is seen as both “caricatural and nightmarish, a study in advanced imperialist decrepitude” (Madureira, p. 23). According to many critics, Lobo Antunes and José Saramago (the 1998 Nobel Prize winner; see Baltasar and Blimunda , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) constitute “in post-revolutionary Portugal, the two greatest and most universal male revelations of today’s narrative writing.” (Mourão, p. 672; trans. A. Ladeira).

—António Ladeira

For More Information

Antunes, António Lobo. “Confissão Exuberante/Exuberant Confession.” Interview by Robrigues da Silva. Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias (April 1994): 16–19.

_____ South of Nowhere. Trans. Elizabeth Lowe. New York: Random House, 1983.

Caetano, Marcello. Razões da Presença de Portugal no Ultramar: excertos de discursos proferidos pelo presidente do Conselho de Ministros Prof. Doutor Marcello Caetano. Lisboa, 1973.

Davidson, Basil. “The Movements of National Liberation.” Tarikh 6, no. 4 (1983): 5–19.

Kayman, Martin. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Portugal. London: Merlin, 1987.

Macqueen, Norrie. The Decolonisation of Portuguese Africa. London: Longman, 1997.

Madureira, Luís. “The Discreet Seductiveness of the Crumbling Empire—Sex, Violence and Colonialism in the Fiction of António Lobo Antunes.” Luso-Brazilian Review 32, no. 1 (1995): 17–29.

Mourão, Luis. “Narrativa contemporánea posterior a la Revolución de los Claveles.” In La Historia de la literatura portuguesa. Ed. José Luis Gavilanes y António Apolinário. Madrid: Cátedra, 2000.

Nowell, Charles E. Portugal. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Spectrum/Prentice Hall, 1973.

Peres, Phillis. “Love and Imagination Among the Ruins of Empire: Anonio Lobo Atunes’s Os Cus de Judas and O Fado Alexandrino.” In After the Revolution. Ed. Helena Kaufman and Anna Klobucka. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Saraiva, José Hermano. Portugal: A Companion History. Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet, 1997.

Teixeira, Rui de Azevedo. A Guerra Colonial e o Romance Português. Lisboa: Editorial Noticias, 1998.

Venâncio, Fernando. “O Jovem Principe.” Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideas, 10 September 1997, 18.

Wheeler, Douglas. “Portugal: Prisoners of Glory.” Wilson Quarterly I New Year’s 1985 (winter 1985): 48–66.

About this article

South of Nowhere

Updated About content Print Article


South of Nowhere