March 2016

Cara Benson


An Interview with José Eduardo Agualusa

José Eduardo Agualusa is a celebrated Angolan writer working in Portuguese. His partnership with translator Daniel Hahn has won them both acclaim, most notably The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for the English translation of The Book of Chameleons. Agualusa's most recent book, A General Theory of Oblivion, is out with Archipelago Books.

The book takes the form of lyric diary entries, poems, multiple points-of-view, and short, inventively named chapters. The story revolves -- or is it refracts? -- around an intensely agoraphobic character who bricks herself into an apartment for decades during the Angolan Independence from Portugal and subsequent civil conflicts. The events and people who parade past her window become focal points that wind up overlapping, interconnecting, and eventually climbing back into the apartment with the lead, our anti-heroine perhaps, Ludo. José Eduardo and I corresponded via email with the help of Daniel Hahn.

I'm fascinated by Ludo's story and by the artifacts of her seclusion. How did her circumstances come to be known? That is, you mention connecting with Sabalu for her notebooks and seeing the photographs of her walls by the visual artist Sacramento Neco. She and her unique response to life did not pass without some notice. How did her life come to light? And what drew you to her story?

The novel's introductory note is, to tell the truth, a part of the fiction. It's a game, first of all, but it's also a narrative strategy of adding credibility. Everything in the book is fiction. Pure fiction. In Portuguese-speaking countries this note didn't cause, as it were, any sense of strangeness in its readers, and to judge by the reviews it would appear that everyone took it to be just what it was -- part of the fiction. Curiously, in France this was not the case. Many critics mentioned the fact of the novel having been based on a true story. Perhaps one might construe something from this about the nature of the Portuguese-speaking people -- though I'm not sure what exactly. Perhaps simply that we aren't so interested in the border between what is reality and what is fiction.

Perhaps one could also infer something about the English readers who believed the conceit, myself included. I do suspect it's to do with the boundary between fiction and so-called truth, but I'm not sure what that might mean. For my part, I know I had a real desire for her to be true. To imagine the possibility of touching the walls she filled with her writings. This very much enticed me. Maybe it's that I want a reality that's more fantastic. I want to know about people who respond in extraordinary fashions to the terror and awe (historical-material and existential-spiritual), and then I'm very happy to let my storytellers reimagine these circumstances. To what extent do you think the storyteller's role is to fulfill unrealized desire in the reader? Or in the storyteller himself?

In Angola, whether in the countryside or in the cities, reality is frequently crossed by fiction, even by the fantastical or the absurd, and nobody finds this particularly curious. I think many people only notice the borders between reality and imagination, or only notice that something might be seen by other people as strange or absurd, when they abandon the reality of Angola for a time, when they are transferred to a reality that is more closely attached to the real -- if I might put it like that. As for myself, as a novelist, I enjoy working on that fluid boundary because it allows me to question human nature. I don't know whether it's my role, as a writer, to highlight it, to limit it, or simply to bear witness to it.

I remember when I published O Vendedor de Passados (The Book of Chameleons), a lot of people, in many European countries, asked me why I had chosen a gecko as my narrator. In Angola this was never an issue. On the other hand, I don't think the inclination towards the fantastical is something specific to Africa. Still less towards the absurd. People can reconcile themselves to the absurd anyplace in the world. All that's needed is for the absurd to install itself, and after a while, just a little while, it comes to be accepted as altogether natural. I imagine that for many German soldiers who were working in the Nazi death camps, all that didn't seem as incredibly cruel and absurd as it seems to us today.

Can you give an example of what you mean by "reality is frequently crossed by fiction"? How does that manifest in the daily in Angola?

Newspapers in Angola, and particularly the Jornal de Angola, which is one of Luanda's only two daily papers and which belongs to the government, do with some frequency include stories that involve fantastical situations and even, occasionally, beings from popular mythology, such as kiandas (aquatic divinities). I remember one news story about two children who had disappeared at the mouth of the River Quanza. A fisherman dived underwater and found the children alive, at the bottom of the river, imprisoned by an old man with a long white beard. The children were recovered. The old man was locked in a house, with guards on the door, but the following morning he was no longer there. That would have been a kianda.

I also saw a TV news report about a man who'd had a spell put on him by his wife after he had cheated on her. The man woke up with a small wound in his chest out of which flowed not blood, but water. The man was interviewed on television, wrapped in a soaking wet blanket. Though I guess he must have transformed into a river by now. I suspect Angola must be a country with vast rivers, given the frequency with which men betray their wives. And given the power of those wives.

Ha! I think belief in spousal powers in this regard just might be a universal phenomenon.

I want to talk about the role of love in General Theory. There are so many amazing examples of loving acts and loving relationships -- Sabalu and Ludo being key -- within this politically populated and, at times, graphically brutal tale. Then there's "Love," the pigeon, who is integral to the plot. In fact, the jacket copy calls this "a love letter to storytelling itself." Love doesn't save everyone, it doesn't necessarily save a country, but it could be said that it saves Sabalu and Ludo, no? How important is love in politics, do you think? And can you talk a little bit about its role for you in your storytelling?

For me, this is a novel about guilt and redemption. People who seemed lost, who felt lost, who wanted to remain lost and forgotten -- people who are tormented by profound guilt -- who are given a second chance. Ludo goes to Luanda against her will. She's a bitter, prejudiced woman. Sabalu saves her from death. But more importantly, Sabalu saves her from prejudice. When she recognizes herself in other people, Ludo is saved.

The same happens with the Portuguese mercenary, in a rather more radical way: he's transformed into the "enemy," he falls in love with the people he was fighting. He changes from one world to another. So, yes, it's love -- for another person, for people, for a country -- that rescues most of the characters in this book. Politics, as I understand it, should only be possible if it is an act of love, that is, of disinterested surrender to the other, of devotion to an idea and a cause. I think it's a similar passion, somehow, that drives me and justifies me as a writer. I write to try to understand other people. I write to be other people.

The structure of the novel is remarkable. It's called "patchwork" on the jacket, and I think that's an apt description. One of the things achieved by this stitching together of serendipitously interconnecting plotlines -- all amazingly concatenating around Ludo's walled-in existence! -- is an identification with any and all of the repeating characters. In a way this makes even Monte, for example, a friend to my eye when his name appears as I begin to recognize him in the crowd.

This seems to me to be perfect for the historical circumstances of the story, from what I understand, in that allegiances weren't always simple in the time of Independence and the subsequent conflict. They often aren't, of course, but it seemed particularly so at that time. Someone could provide tremendous assistance, and as such be an ally and yet be politically or ideologically in opposition. These overlapping stories created this experience of people and how they relate in the moment more than a more straightforward narrative might. I came to understand these people mostly in relation to each other. Did you have any such intention for the novel? How did you come upon the structure?

Normally when I start writing a novel all I have is one strong idea -- I know, for example, that I want to write about a man who sells pasts to the new bourgeoisie, or about an African queen who forged an alliance with the Dutch to fight the Portuguese, and who kept a harem of more than 50 men dressed as women: basic ideas. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't have a pre-prepared architecture, I have an idea, and the narrator or narrators. As the novel progresses, I create the most suitable architecture to carry it.

It was different in this case because I had the support of a cinema screenplay I had written previously. That is, the book appeared as a screenplay first. Jorge António, a Portuguese director who's been living in Angola for many years, approached me to write a screenplay based on an idea he had. I didn't like his idea but I told him about this character who had been developing in my head, a woman shut away inside an apartment in Luanda. I was living in Luanda at the time, in a comfortable apartment, in a building that had once been luxurious but which at the time was badly deteriorated.

I remember behind the building a lake had reappeared and that people used to pay homage to a kianda living in the water. It was an incredible lake, full of very green grasses, that seemed to swallow up anything you threw into it. I was always shut away in my apartment, writing, and that was when I remembered having created the character of Ludo. The building in the book is my building. Then I wrote the screenplay, but the movie ended up never being made. When I decided to write the novel, everything was easier because I was starting from a preexisting structure. I knew what was going to happen.

Did you feel close to Ludo as you, too, were shut in while writing? The writer catching snippets of dialogue on the air, watching characters walk past his window.

Yes, it's true. There are a lot of similarities between the small miracle that is writing a novel, and Ludo's silent, albeit attentive, existence. In the first place, writers are witnesses. They observe. A writer works on an island surrounded by voices on all sides. Ludo wrote on the walls, and, as she didn't have much space and she also needed to save on charcoal, what she wrote was dry and pared down to the bone. This exercise of paring down is something that concerns me as a writer, too. I spend more time cutting than writing.

If you could be granted one wish, what would that be?

I'd like the people I love to be with me always, until the end, and for that end to be at the end of all time.

Cara Benson is a writer whose work has been published in The New York TimesBoston ReviewBest American Poetry, Fence, and The Brooklyn Rail. A New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Literature, Benson is at work on her second book.

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, and translator (from Spanish, Portuguese, and French) with forty-something books to his name. Recent titles include the new Oxford Companion to Children's Literature and a translation of Agualusa's A General Theory of Oblivion.