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My Father's Wives, By Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Happiness in spite of history

Reviewed,Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 29 March 2014 02:13

In 2007, The Book of Chameleons by Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. His latest novel, already on this year's long-list, touches on similar motifs to that playfully poignant book: the aftermath of civil strife in the African states Portugal once ruled; the vibrant blend of roots and shades that lends their culture such panache; and the troubling quest to find where one belongs in a place where the present speaks in a babble of voices and the past fades into a mist of myth.

Yet My Father's Wives is a very different book: diffuse and episodic rather than tightly focused; rich in historical sidelights and deft character-sketches where Chameleons plumped for whimsy and mystery. This road novel boasts several distinct lanes.

Laurentina, a Lisbon-based film-maker, criss-crosses southern Africa from Angola to Mozambique via South Africa in search of the truth about her reputed biological father. The late jazz virtuoso Faustino Manso, a double-bass wizard, supposedly left seven wives and 18 children in his wake.

In parallel with Laurentina's quest for her far-flung dynasty, a further frame-story gives us an author-figure and his partner - another documentary director – who muse on the kinship of dreams, yarns and lies. This format sounds too tricksy, but Agualusa is a writer of such captivating charm that it it seldom weighs down these high-spirited travellers. Daniel Hahn translates with a swing in his step and a warmth in his tone that deftly matches the mood.

Laurentina and her companions – boyfriend, cousin, driver – embody the creole coalition of ex-Portuguese Africa, children of a "splendid confusion of races" with a special gift for happiness in spite of bloody history. In Africa, "where some see light, others see only shadows". Agualusa chooses the light. A radiant humour and humanity speeds his novel through its picaresque twists and turns.

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