Sunday, December 27, 2015

José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion

A Review of José Eduardo Agualusa’s

A General Theory of Oblivion

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on December 27nd, 2015

By José Eduardo Agualusa
Translated by Daniel Hahn
Archipelago Books, 244 pages, $18

Like the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, the Portuguese-Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa is a literary trickster who dazzles with his artificial fictional creations, but unlike his headier forebears, his work is rooted in the more complicated and bloody everyday world of colonial and postcolonial Africa. Basing his new novel, A General Theory of Oblivion, on the story of a woman named Ludovica Fernandes Mano, who bricks herself into an eleventh-floor apartment building on the eve of Angolan independence and stays there for almost thirty years, Agualusa claims to extrapolate his “pure fiction” narrative from her notebooks and from photographs of the writing she did on her walls, but he in fact invents the entire thing. Any Internet search about any aspect of her story comes up empty (mirroring the fruitless web-sleuthwork depicted in a later section of the novel), yet this brilliant work isn’t any less emotionally moving or politically weighty because of its fakery.

Looping through a series of spirographic circles, Agualusa’s unconcentric narrative draws the story of Ludo’s self-confinement into the starry revolving sphere of her adopted country’s revolutionary and counterrevolutionary growing pains, encompassing diamond smugglers, government assassin/torturers, disappearing poets, and redeemed mercenaries within its scintillating web. An agoraphobe whose tragic history isn’t revealed until the end, Ludo came to Angola with her sister Odete and brother-in-law Orlando, who works for a diamond company, and when intrigues cause the other two to disappear, Ludo has nowhere to go and barricades herself in against the various agents who want to root out Orlando’s stolen diamonds. Every practical aspect of her self-sequestration is totally unbelievable, from how she eats and goes to the bathroom (a problem that’s never mentioned) to even the relationship between the building and its surroundings, but Agualusa hilariously seems to thumb his nose while daring the reader to call his bluff.

An outlandishly orchestrated series of coincidences brings all the revolving characters together into a confrontation outside of Ludo’s recently opened door, like a parody of the culminations at the end of each book of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, yet the resulting resonances are as profound and affecting as that in any conventional flesh-and-blood chronicle. Agualusa is a master of varied genre structure, and he has great fun shifting from spy novel to pastoral narrative to interior reflection, but his heart is deeply invested in his characters, and each individual’s unique story burns itself into the reader to make us reconsider our capacity for empathy and understanding. Finally finding human connectedness after so many years, Ludo also unwittingly facilitates connection between the revolving cast around her, creating in this highly artificial novel a profoundly satisfying and merciful sense of human family.

—David Wiley

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