Haunted by his past actions and wartime experiences, the narrator empties his soul to a silent stranger - a woman sitting and drinking with him at a bar in Lisbon. He tells her about his participation in the colonial war between Portugal and Angola in the early 1970's. He admits to the conflict that still rages inside him. Six years earlier, as a physician in his twenties, he was drafted and shipped 6,000 kilometers from home for a slightly more than two year stint as an army doctor. He left behind a pregnant wife.

While in Africa, he witnessed the waging of a crazy war and was called upon to patch up its many casualties. He describes the maiming, inhumanity, and death that he observed. Questions about political power and morality trouble him. In the midst of this horror, he becomes increasingly cynical and skeptical. On his return home, the narrator acknowledges that he has lost part of himself in Africa. He gets divorced, feels hopeless, and is incapable of shrugging off loneliness.

He and the woman leave the bar and go to his apartment where they have a sexual encounter. She has been an adept listener. The narrator's lengthy confession may have been therapeutic for him. But like everything else in this doctor's post-military service life, any solace is brief. The war has polluted him, and he struggles to clean up the mess.


Like the narrator, the author of this novel worked as a Portuguese army doctor in the Angola colonial war. After completing military service, he practiced psychiatry and made a career of writing. His personal experience during wartime and his background in psychiatry reverberate throughout the book. He compares the "gigantic, unbelievable absurdity of the war" (p65) to the atmosphere of psychiatric wards. 

Descriptions of gruesome mutilations - missing limbs, a loop of intestine spilling out of the abdominal cavity, and a face blown off by gunshot - are dispersed throughout the pages of the novel. Yet the damage done in war is not limited to physical injuries. The narrator relates the psychological destruction inflicted by combat duty. Damage-control proves elusive, maybe impossible: "So strange that sometimes I wonder if the war really did end or if it's still going on somewhere inside of me, with its disgusting smells of sweat and gunpowder and blood, its dislocated bodies, its waiting coffins" (p180). The physician-narrator is emotionally ruined. The war has polluted him.


Translated with an introduction by Margaret Jull Costa. Originally published in Portuguese as Os cus de Judas in 1979.


W.W. Norton & Company

Place Published

New York



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