A General Theory Of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa; trans. Daniel Hahn, book review

An exiled Portuguese woman bricks herself into her apartment on the eve of Angolan independence

Jethro Soutar
Thursday 02 July 2015 13:57

Lusophone Africa is marking 40 years of independence this year: the revolution that overthrew Portugal's dictatorship in 1974 ended the country's colonial wars, and power was formally ceded the following year. Nowhere was transition smooth and Portugal's withdrawal from Angola sparked 26 years of civil war. José Eduardo Agualusa's A General Theory Of Oblivion begins on the eve of Angolan independence and tells the story of Ludo, an exiled Portuguese who, alarmed by events, bricks herself into her apartment and stays there till it's all over, 28 years later.

Angola's civil war became a proxy for various global conflicts and A General Theory Of Oblivion provides occasional primers: "By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the Unita party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England and North America". Thus the uninitiated can keep track of events, even learn a bit of history, as they read. Ludo, on the other hand, becomes ever less aware: the batteries in her radio fail and she must make her own sense of the incidents she sees in the street.

There is symbolism here, Portuguese disengagement, but also the view of a female outsider: what might feel for those in the thick of it like a do-or-die battle for ideals can seem like silly boys killing each other when seen from a distance. Or from a historical perspective: Angola's capacity for revising its history is a recurring theme in Agualusa's work; people are deemed heroes one moment, villains the next – and vice versa. Here, the supporting cast – whom Ludo glimpses from her terrace – experience reversals of fortune or seek the "oblivion" of the title.

"A man with a good story is practically a king", concludes one chapter, reflecting on how Angolans rewrite the past, but also how much they love storytelling. And Agualusa has many a good story here: the 37 chapters work as standalone shorts, while intertwining and coming together at the end. His storytelling is sometimes wilfully flamboyant, with chapter titles like "In which a disappearance is cleared up (almost two), or how, to quote Marx: All that is solid melts into air", but then these were strange and frenzied times.

Agualusa won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007, with his translator Daniel Hahn, for The Book of Chameleons. This is the pair's fifth collaboration and Hahn is one of our most experienced translators. Such experience shows in tiny interventions to guide the English reader through the chaos of the Angolan battlefield ("Portuguese mercenaries", for example, when the original has just "mercenaries"), and in his taking confident ownership of certain descriptive passages, ensuring the music of the original is conveyed along with the meaning (packs of stray dogs, for instance, are made up of "gangly greyhounds, asthmatic mastiffs, demented Dalmations, disappointed pointers").

A General Theory Of Oblivion perhaps won't win the duo another prize – The Book of Chameleons was fresher, the translation more polished – but as a timely homage to the prize of Angolan independence, it ought to win them more readers.

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