March 2016

Zack Hatfield


A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn

Desolate landscapes in stark black and white comprise many of the photographs taken by Jo Ractliffe in a current exhibit at the Met, titled The Aftermath of Conflict. Images of military outposts, graves, and other abandoned spaces reveal an eerie vacancy in post-civil war Angola, an uncertain terrain where violence, capitalism, and freedom challenge each other, and things are easily framed in the context of loss.

Ractliffe's exhibit would make a good companion piece to José Eduardo Agualusa's A General Theory of Oblivion, his fifth novel translated into English by Daniel Hahn. Like Ractliffe's photographs, Agualusa attempts to distill the very essence of Angola, specifically its capital, Luanda. But unlike the photographs, many of which notably exclude human beings, Agualusa defines Angola with a dynamic cast of characters who invite us to get lost in a fevered rhythm.

"A man with a good story," Agualusa writes, "is practically a king." If this is true, then this novel is a kingdom, one brimming with the voices of those trying to survive life during and after wartime. Specifically, Agualusa tells the stories of Angolans following the country's independence from Portugal in 1975. A detective obsessed with disappearances, an orphan who enters an unlikely friendship with an elderly woman, a political prisoner who becomes a landlord after finding diamonds inside a dead pigeon: Agualusa finds comfort in the absurd, in characters and plots pushed to the edge.

A brief foreward explains that the novel is based on a true account, then adds a disclaimer: "What you will read is, however, fiction. Pure fiction." It might not be an exaggeration to claim that the somewhat peculiar note teaches us how to read the novel, which is full of impossible possibility -- vanishing villages, monkeys named after communist revolutionaries, dogs that return as ghosts. In Oblivion, characters and readers alike unlearn what distinguishes truth from fantasy, sense the ways they can mingle in our fabulist memories.

The novel centers on the life of Ludo, an agoraphobic woman who confines herself to an apartment for twenty-eight years, until the war's end. This aspect, which seems like it would be a literary limitation, is used like a wrench, winding up the human condition so that grief, love, memory, and death are all explored within the story as Ludo grapples with her past, present, and a doubtful future. Like Ludo's cherished radio that "would light up like a city" at the touch of a button, bringing her fragmented news in many languages, Oblivion, too, is a frenzied symphony of voices; the fleeting chapters (with titles like "On the Slippages of Reason" and "The Subtle Architecture of Chance") converge to form a tragic, but also darkly humorous, history.

Any novel from a country wracked by civil war will likely arrive to an American audience expecting a story fraught with political meaning, but Agualusa's chief fascination with storytelling does not necessarily reveal the political power of narratives. Instead, we begin to understand how stories are truly intrinsic to his characters, things of nourishment. Ludo turns her apartment into a "book," scrawling on her walls in charcoal, keeping diaries that detail her everyday impressions: "I couldn't sleep. At four in the morning I went up onto the terrace. The night, like a well, was swallowing stars. Then I saw a flatbed truck go by, laden with dead bodies." Some characters -- detectives and journalists -- must piece together the mysteries within stories of disappearance, while others tell stories to stay alive.

Because of its memorable language and curiosity toward all things unreal, A General Theory of Oblivion reads at times like a descendent of García Márquez or Kundera, and readers might compare Agualusa's contemplations on redemption and suffering to the work of fellow African novelist J.M. Coetzee. Like Coetzee's Disgrace, Oblivion is intent on rediscovering the shared hunger that makes humans hard to distinguish from other animals. Hippos, snakes, monkeys: all play a role here, while characters hurl animal names, "reptile," "dog," at one another as epithets. When Ludo breaks her leg, Agualusa describes the night twisting "like a boa constrictor, choking the accosted acacias on the streets and squares," the pain as "barking" and "biting."

Pain, in its many forms, is simply a fact of life in the Angola that Agualusa depicts. As we observe Ludo's daily routines, which include sacrificing her possessions (bed, furniture, library) to a kitchen bonfire made with a magnifying glass and snaring pigeons for food -- "Obviously she could only cook on sunny days" -- we glean that pain is not only a fact, but holds a strange beauty that agonizes and complicates our existence.

As Ludo tries to unremember her past, and as a nation and a regime try to cover up a history, this book becomes an ode to the forgotten, what can and cannot be retrieved. Agualusa writes of a character named Monte, a former intelligence agent who remade himself as a private detective: "There are some people who experience a fear of being forgotten, [...] he lived in terror that he would never be forgotten." Upon reading A General Theory of Oblivion, so richly textured with the torture and rapture of life, one hopes Agualusa falls into the former category. If not, then remembrance may be one terror he just has to live with.

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn
ISBN: 978-0914671312
250 pages