A General Theory of Oblivion, by José Eduardo Agualusa, transl Daniel Hahn, Vintage, 243 pp, £8.99, ISBN 978-0099593126
José Eduardo Agualusa is an Angolan broadcaster and novelist, and winner, in 2007, of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Book of Chameleons. His most recent novel was originally published in 2012 with the title Teoria Geral do Ezquecimento. It is set against the background of the Angolan civil war, which followed the ending of Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 and continued, with several cessations, until 2002. The war was principally fought between two independence movements, the MPLA, supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, and UNITA, backed by the United States and South Africa. By the time the MPLA secured victory, over 500,000 people had died and one million had been displaced. Most of the ten million landmines laid during the conflict remain in situ.
A General Theory of Oblivion tells the stories of a number of loosely connected people living off their wits while caught up in, or trying to escape, a seemingly intractable civil war. At the centre of the novel is Ludo, said to be based on the real-life Ludovica Fernandes Mano, who for twenty-eight years sought sanctuary by living alone in an apartment in the Angolan capital, Luanda. After her death in 2010 Agualusa was given access to her diaries and drew heavily on them to write his book, which, however, he insists is “pure fiction”.
Ludo, who is Portuguese, lives in Luanda with her sister Odete and Angolan brother-in-law, Orlando. As civil war looms all three plan to flee to Portugal, but when the couple fails to return home from a farewell night out Ludo becomes alarmed and seals off the apartment from the outside world. Her new life begins in dramatic fashion when a gang of thieves attempts to break down her door. Armed with her brother-in-law’s revolver, she fires a shot, wounding one of them; his accomplices flee. Unable to save the would-be intruder’s life, she buries the body in a flowerbed on the balcony.
When her store of food runs out, she traps pigeons on her balcony, where she also starts a vegetable garden. While pottering about in the open, she covers her head with a cardboard box, with holes poked in it for her eyes. “Anybody looking at the building from another of a similar height would see a large box moving around, leaning out and drawing itself back in again.”
She heats the apartment by burning pieces of furniture. When she has to burn her library, including a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, she feels as though she is “incinerating the whole planet”. Her only companion is the family pet, Phantom, a white German shepherd, on whom she keeps a wary eye. She remains in touch with the outside world by occasionally listening to a transistor radio until, eventually, the batteries fail.
A devoted diarist, Ludo continues writing on the apartment walls after running out of notebooks. She takes little notice of the war raging in the country. “If I still had the space, the charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting.”
Hers is a far from idyllic existence. Solitude can play tricks on the mind, and she fears she’s lost her mind when she sees Fofo, a performing pygmy hippo, on a neighbour’s veranda. Her eyesight is not what it was, but failing sight can sometimes have unexpected compensations: “I get things wrong, as I read, and in those mistakes, sometimes, I find incredible things that are right.”
She continues living in isolation until she encounters Sabalu, a street urchin. He has been stealing from her apartment, gaining entry by climbing scaffolding erected while the outside walls are being painted. He begins to leave food for her. Finally they meet and, and in due course, share a hug, her first physical embrace in years. “She was a bit out of practice, and Sabulu had to lift her arms up. It was really him making a nest for himself in the old lady’s lap.”
Other characters include: Magno Moreira Monte, a revolutionary zealot, who finds love; Arnaldo Cruz, known as Little Chief, a former political prisoner-turned-businessman, who finds a small fortune; and Jeremias Carrasco, a Portuguese mercenary, who finds life after death.
The book was originally written as a screenplay, and this is reflected in the dialogue.
My father was a priest. He was a good priest and an excellent father. To this day I don’t trust priests without children. How can you be a priest, if you aren’t a father? …
We were run out of there like dogs. I swallowed so much dust I’ve been crapping bricks ever since …
Our capital is full of mysteries. I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.
Agualusa identifies with fellow Lusophone writers such as the Angolans Rui Duarte de Carvalho and Ernesto Lara Filho, Brazilians Jorge Amado and Rubem Fonseca and the nineteenth century Portuguese realist Eça de Queirós. He lives in Mozambique, and writes for the Portuguese magazine LER and Brazilian newspaper O Globo. He also presents a music and poetry programme on RDP África radio.
He considers Angola to be not fully democratic and lacking structures that allow for all-inclusive debate. He believes that “writers have the moral and civic duty of criticism, of questioning, of giving a voice to those who don’t have a voice”. He is sceptical of the claims made on behalf of both capitalism and communism, the latter of which Angola’s ruling MPLA party abandoned in favour of the former. Within MPLA circles Agualusa is deemed to be less than patriotic, and is criticised for holding dual Angolan-Portuguese citizenship, even though the practice is widespread.
A General Theory of Oblivion, however, is not a settling of political scores, but an exceptional novel. The writing is lively and lucid, detailing the brutality, cynicism and tragedy of war. Comedy, love and a touch of magic realism also contribute to a riveting narrative. The winner of this year’s International Dublin Literary Award is well served by Daniel Hahn’s excellent translation, and is best read, in the author’s words, as “pure fiction”.
Patrick Gillan has worked in art, design, journalism and politics.