The preparations are complete – with my pre-reading rated and slated, it’s time to set off on our Man Booker International Prize journey for real :) Our first stop sees us head off to Africa to meet a woman making the most of life in an awkward climate. There seems to be a lot happening out there; perhaps it’s best to stay indoors…
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa –
Harvill Secker, translated by Daniel Hahn
What’s it all about?
Ludovica Fernandes Mano is a Portuguese woman who (for reasons which will eventually become clear) lives with her sister Odete, and when Orlando, a dashing Angolan man, sweeps Odete off her feet, Ludo has no choice but to relocate to Luanda with the happy couple. However, it turns out that this is not the best of times for the Portuguese sisters to be moving to Africa – it’s the mid-seventies, and independence is in the air.
Despite his desire to stay in his native country, Orlando eventually decides that it’s time to take the sisters back to Europe, but shortly before their departure, the married couple disappear, leaving poor Ludo at the mercy of the marauding gangs outside. But what if they never knew she was there? She sets herself the task of building a wall outside her eleventh-floor apartment and settles in for the long haul…
A General Theory of Oblivion is a clever, entertaining story, a book which, while fairly short, does an excellent job of introducing post-independence Angola and the chaos people there faced. On the one hand, it’s the story of a woman forced to improvise in the face of danger, building a physical wall representing the metaphorical one she’d already erected in her mind. However, it’s also a story of a country and a people finding its feet in the modern world.
The battle for independence is about sending the colonial masters back to Europe, and as the sisters find out, Orlando is firmly behind his fellow countrymen:
“The terrorists, my love, the terrorists…”
“Terrorists? Never use that word in my house again.” Orlando never shouted. He whispered harshly, the sharp edge of his voice like a blade against his interlocutor’s throat: “These so-called terrorists are fighting for the freedom of my country. I am Angolan, I will not leave.”
(Harvill Secker, 2015)
However, a love of your country is not enough with so much uncontrolled violence around, meaning it’s almost inevitable that the light-skinned Orlando will face hardship. His untimely disappearance removes the only protection poor Ludo has, leaving her at the mercy of the looters roaming the streets of the capital.
Left alone in the apartment, Ludo decides that walling off the entrance is the only way to survive. While it may seem an extreme decision, something inside her is desperate to remain hidden, driving her to extreme lengths (burning floorboards and books for fuel, growing bananas on the balcony for food). The neighbours who come to occupy the vacant apartments in place of the old Portuguese owners start to believe there’s a ghost in their midst, hearing a dog barking, thumps in the night – and bewailing the chickens which disappear into thin air (a most malevolent spirit!).
Perhaps the best part of Agualusa’s story, though, is that it’s actually made up of several. The writer gradually introduces several characters from the wider community: Jeremias Carrasco, a Portuguese mercenary whose crimes eventually catch up with him; Sabalu, an orphaned street-kid with a knack for climbing; Magno Moreira Monte, a detective with a conscience (and an interest in unravelling the truth of Ludo’s disappearance). This all leads to an ingenious casual blending of stories, culminating in an unexpected finale at the apartment building.
A General Theory of Oblivion is a lot of fun at times, quite apart from the unlikely coincidences and the tangential stories of a chaotic third-world capital. The writer uses diamonds, pigeons, and warm-hearted people helping out in times of need to advance his story, painting a picture of a vibrant city attempting to put a nasty period of bloodshed in its past. Oh, and there’s a dancing pygmy hippopotamus too – you can never have enough of those😉
Beneath all this, though, runs an undercurrent of sadness. Ludo eventually realises she’s spent her life running away, a feeling brought home with the passing of her dog after years of hunger and cramped conditions:
She stood up, chose a piece of charcoal, sharpened it, and attacked one of the walls, which was still clean, in the guest bedroom:
Phantom died tonight. Everything is so useless now. The look in his eyes caressed me, explained me, and sustained me.
However, there is a happy ending of sorts – while she may have lost those close to her, there are many kinds of families, and it’s never too late to find a new one…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m going to say no, sadly. I enjoyed A General Theory of Oblivion, and it’s a great way to spend an hour or two, but I don’t think there’s enough there to put it in the top six. Daniel Hahn’s English version makes Agualusa’s story cruise along comfortably enough, even with the threat of machetes in the background (which I suppose takes a lot of doing…), but while the story is cleverly constructed, I’m not sure it really does enough to make it stand out above a very competitive crowd.
Will it make the shortlist?
Again, I suspect not. It will have its backers, but it may well suffer in comparison with the other African book on the longlist, Tram 83. Yes, that sounds crude and cynical, but that’s often the way these things work, and if there’s only room for one African book on the shortlist, A General Theory of Oblivion is likely to be the one to miss out. Sorry😦
Time, then, to leave Luanda behind and continue on our literary odyssey. Next, we’re off to Brazil, where we’ll have a short stay in the country in the company of a rather passionate couple. It’ll only be a very brief stopover, but I can assure you that it’ll be rather tense – and steamy…