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Memories don’t organize themselves neatly in our minds. The scenes in our head are a pastiche of randomly salient scenes and sensory cues—the smell of bacon smells like home, the sound of trumpets sounds scary, etc.—and there are a whole lot of gaps where we neglected to hit the “save” function on our brains. What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?, a 2001 novel by Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes that has recently been published in English, mimics the natural cacophony of the brain by telling a relatively simple family story in a brand of stream-of-consciousness storytelling, assaulting the reader with a barrage of vivid, beautiful, and shocking images. It should be a chaotic mess, but Lobo Antunes has such remarkable control over his material that what seem at first to be unrelated sentence fragments become an ingeniously structured collision of prose and poetry. And just like our memories, the book smashes intense mental images into a coherent picture of the life being examined. The bones of the story are melodramatic in a Euripides-in-20th-century-Portugal way: The hero, Paulo, has gone nutty on heroin and angst after a wrenching childhood during which his father, Carlos, abandoned his mother, Judite, to take on the dirty-yet-glamorous life of a Lisbon drag queen. Though that plot summary nicely fits into one sentence, Lobo Antunes takes around 600 pages to unfurl this relatively simple modern myth. The narrative is driven along by imagery remembered by Paulo in his addled, traumatized mind, and those visions are intertwined with imagery from the experiences of his parents. Here’s a passage describing Judite’s pious and abusive father: “I hated them the way I hated my father and the blood of the Lamb inside a bottle for him and what was coming down for me, between two moons, from my thighs onto the sheet, my father and his discourses about the Lord, His gospels and His apostles, Purgatory which in his words was nothing but engravings which he wouldn’t let me see and where I lived burning in secret, hurt by the branches of the almond trees and the eyes of men making me vibrate without a stop all up and down my nerves, eyes, expressions, approached me as I was sitting in the yard not thinking about anything, not feeling anything, not looking at anything, not loathing myself when….” Certain themes recur, like a child’s toy smashed in rage or a cigarette snuffed in a jar of cold cream, and they often reveal different and competing meanings each time. Paulo is quite mad, of course, and part of decoding the text is letting go of the distinction between what happened in Paulo’s family and what is drug-and trauma-addled fantasy. It’s at once dizzying and transcendent. Lobo Antunes is one of Portugal’s most respected living writers, and this novel, for all its clowns, gypsies, and transvestites, is big, serious literature without a hint of humorous release. But it’s also the kind of mind-fuck treasure that can be widely read and enjoyed by those who don’t serve on Nobel Prize-nominating committees.