The wonderful weirdness of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion
By Kelly Cherry
This is one weird book — but in a good way. In fact, in a wonderful way. The author, José Eduardo Agualusa, a much-praised Angolan writer, has published 24 books of short and long fiction and poetry, including one young adult novel. Five of these books have been translated into English by Daniel Hahn. Agualusa has won several heavyweight grants and two significant awards, the RTP Great Literary Prize in 1997 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. He is the first African writer to receive the latter award since it began in 1990. From his website I learned that his books have been translated into more than 25 languages. I might mention that his website is in English, Portuguese, French, and German.
Angola was for some time under Portuguese rule. The narrative here is primarily of a woman named Ludovica Fernandes Mano, known as Ludo, who lived with her sister and brother-in-law until they moved away. She no longer hears from them. Always cautious and somewhat reclusive, Ludo decides, the day before Angola achieves independence, to build a brick wall that will separate her apartment from others: no one will even know she is there. At first, we might think that she is agoraphobic but near the end of the book we will learn there is another reason for her fears. Well, really we learn this earlier but the reader doesn’t know what to make of it. In other words, we are prepared for everything and still surprised, and that is a masterful trick. (One chapter is titled “The Subtle Architecture of Chance,” which could serve as a description of or guideline to Agualusa’s method of construction.) Independence is followed by Civil War, which lasts for 27 years. She lives in the apartment for 30 years, alone, sometimes catching a pigeon for dinner and constantly writing her story on the walls that surround her, and in notebooks. To keep warm, she burns everything in the apartment, including “thousands of books.” At one point she tells us “I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice. In this house all the walls have my mouth.” She has a dog named Phantom. She tells us that she does not believe in either God or man. She does believe in Phantom (and that is a faith that makes sense to me). A seven-year-old thief named Sabalu turns up in her apartment and he is smart enough to understand that he needs a grandmother more than the bully who sends him out to steal. He and Ludo become great friends.
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