This month we step into war-torn Angola in Southern Africa. The colonisation of the region by the Portuguese for over 500 years defined the identity of this Lusophone country. A bloody struggle to free itself was followed by an even more violent civil war among the political parties with ideologies across the spectrum. Currently, it is a dictatorship with a very fast growing oil and diamond economy. However the fruits of development are yet to reach the majority of the population and the region is lagging behind on almost all the human development indices.
Angolan literature is usually labelled as satirical and combative. As stated by the website of the Angola Consulate in India, the literature ‘questions the course of actions taken by the country.’ The formation of the Writers’ Union of Angola was a boost to the publishing industry.
For my reading I would have loved to pick ‘Jamie Bunda and the Death of the American’ by Pepetela, where Jamie Bunda is the Angolan equivalent of James Bond and Bunda in Portuguese is backside. My other choice was ‘Good Morning, Comrades’ by Ondjaki where the country’s struggle is seen from a child’s point of view. However, these and most other Angolan books were quite expensive on Amazon. Also there was no ebook or kindle version available and the import time for the paperback was about 15 days!!
Hence, for my reading I am choosing ‘The Book of Chameleons’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa. An author becoming more apparent on the international literature scene gradually, he has won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2007 for this particular work. A handy and affordable kindle version of the book was available on Amazon and I hope to enjoy this much acclaimed novel.
The reason this book was not my first choice for reading on Angola is that the title sounded really morose. However, as I commenced I realised that, that is the only part of the book which is dull. In fact, the literal translation of the Portuguese title, ‘O Venderor de Passados’ is ‘The Seller of Pasts’ would be more apt.
To be sure, the narrator is a tiger gecko, apparently modelled after Jorge Luis Borges, with a human-like laugh and a memory of his past life as a man.
He lives in the house of Felix Ventura, a black albino, who is in the business of carving better pasts for his clients – ‘people whose futures are secure’ – complete with elaborate family trees. Things take an interesting turn when, one night, a foreigner appears on their doorstep for whom Ventura makes up a new identity called Jose Buchanan. Strange occurrences begin when the characters from his fictional past start coming true.
The entire story rests on the desperate need of the central characters to run away from their past – the horrific past rising from the turbulent events in their country. Ventura’s clients want to erase the horrors, bloodshed and loss in their previous lives and carve new stories for themselves in the upwardly mobile nation. However as Ventura’s character says, ‘The only thing about me that doesn’t change is my past’.
Just a few pages into the novel, I could see why Agualusa’s writing is highly acclaimed. It has a beautiful, lyrical quality about it. The soup is ‘warm as an embrace’. When Ventura serves dinner to his client, ‘the foreigner ate with a glowing apatite, as if he weren’t tasting the firm flesh of the snapper, but it’s whole life, the years and years slipping between the sudden explosions of a shoal, the whirling of water, the thick strands of light that on sunny evenings fall straight down into the blue abyss’. The use of light to describe Angela Lucia, Ventura’s love interest and a war photographer who ‘collects light’ is another example of his poetic writing. ‘She is’…’pure light’. She came in the evening, ‘bringing the last light of the day with her’.
Angola and Portugal have a long shared past and language. As attested by the novel, travelling to Lisbon is as common as travelling to Luanda. However the author’s contempt towards the coloniser seeps through. In Portugal, ‘people died of sadness. Even the dogs hanged themselves’. Even worse is the diaspora author who ‘built up his whole career abroad, selling our national horrors to European readers. Misery does ever so well in wealthy countries’.
The book also pays a subtle hat-tip to great literature. In the end, the author underlines the fact that no relationship, be it between a man and lover, a father and daughter or even a house owner and pet, can exist independent of the country’s troubled history. At least, not any time soon. The book was an excellent insight into the recent turmoil in Angola as well as an introduction to a phenomenal author, whose works are worth exploring further. Hence, I am happy with the circumstances that lead me to chose this book for my journey into Angola.
Other options from Angola: