The Book of Chameleons, by José Eduardo Agualusa, trans. Daniel Hahn

Truth hangs by a lizard tale

Amanda Hopkinson
Friday 24 November 2006 01:00 GMT

Not since Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis have we had such a convincing non-human narrator. Associations between Kafka and the Angolan-born José Eduardo Agualusa cannot be pushed, but each has created a legendary fiction whose power partly resides in the observant neutrality of a cold-blooded creature surrounded by feverishly obsessed human characters.

Here, the lizard whose diaries alternate with the stories told by Felix Ventura, an albino Angolan whose difference sets him apart from his own race and culture, lives on the ceiling and walls of a rambling mansion. It is visited by a succession of wannabes: lost souls who seek to reinvent themselves. The government minister, the security agent and the foreign photographer all have reasons for desiring to invent an illustrious lineage. Only by becoming someone other than they were can each character - nastily implicated in the dark wars and devious politics of post-independence Africa - hope to escape truth or justice, and become the pillars of a nascent nation.

Felix Ventura has devised a profession that will give each of his clients a forged family tree - including photographs of deceased ancestors and the whole paraphernalia of lives not lived - plus documents to endorse the lie. But his is the loneliest position: he cannot acknowledge the real identity of these customers, not even when their realities begin to invade his fantasies.

It is an isolation shared by his fellow narrator, named Eulalio. What the two share is speechlessness, other than in the pages of Agualusa's extraordinarily haunting book. Eulalio cannot speak because he is a gecko, Felix for fear of destroying what he has so painstakingly constructed. With an inevitability that speaks of the Fates, the truth will out, stronger and stranger than fiction.

On one hand, Agualusa - among the most striking authors of a generation to emerge from the African continent - has created a morality tale for the Truth Commissions of our times; on the other, a work of fierce originality, vindicating the power of creativity to transform the most sinister acts. His writing is brought vividly home to us by Daniel Hahn.

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich

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