Of circularity and collision

January 01, 2017


LITERARY fiction is having its much-deserved moment in the sun with books like The Vegetarian (Han Kang) and Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Madeleine Thien) being shortlisted for major prizes, including the Man Booker. Literary fiction is all the more important in these intolerant times, when immigrants are facing crises all around the world, as it gives a first-hand perspective of writers from diverse cultural backgrounds, and allows us a glimpse into their countries’ history and cultural landscape.

In this vein, A General Theory of Oblivion by journalist and writer José Eduardo Agualusa, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2016, stands out for calling attention to the lesser known history of Angola. The book is inspired by the real-life story of Ludovica Fernandes Mano, a Portuguese woman who shut herself in her apartment for 28 years, shortly after Angola’s liberation by guerrilla forces. The writer has used her numerous diary entries and wall scribblings to conjure up this piece of fiction. The story begins with Ludo on the eve of Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Ludo is agoraphobic, living with her sister and brother-in-law after moving against her will from Portugal to Angola. Her secluded life is thrown into disarray when her sister and brother-in-law mysteriously disappear after attending a farewell party.

Forced to fend for herself, a task made even more difficult by Ludo’s self-imposed exile from the outside world, we trail around with her in the years following the Angolan revolution and decades of civil war. Ludo takes concrete steps — literally by building a wall to segregate her apartment from the rest of the building and figuratively by disengaging her phone line and at one point fatally shooting an intruder — to thwart any attempts to associate with the world. She lives in this sequestered state for 30 years, eking out an existence by growing her own vegetables in the balcony garden, living off pigeons and by burning furniture — and later, books — to cook her food.

A dynamic novel about causality, with a reclusive protagonist standing in as the linchpin of Angola’s revolution

For the uninitiated, Agualusa makes the political history of Angola comprehensible by sketching out a vivid portrayal of the bloody Angolan independence struggle and the subsequent civil unrest, while using Ludo as the figurative eye of the storm. He deftly maintains a gentle narrative tone without obscuring it with political connotations, and does this by letting the readers experience the seething communal tensions and chaos teeming outside, through the filtered perspective of Ludo, which consists of sporadic glimpses outside her window and snatches of radio and roadside conversations she randomly catches.

Ludo becomes the proxy for the writer to represent any common citizen trying to live a normal life in a country under constant strife. As age catches up with her, she starts losing her eyesight and discovers the redemptive powers of literature and revisiting history. “I read pages I’ve read so many times before, but they’re different now. I get things wrong, as I read, and in those mistakes, sometimes, I find incredible things that are right. In these mistakes I find myself, often. Some pages are improved by these mistakes.”

Oblivion is essentially a study in causal nexus — an intertwining series of stories in a chaotic country undergoing major upheaval. It is structured as a series of vignettes composed of beautiful poetry, letters, and fragmentary journal entries which encompass the mind of a woman determined to leave her mark upon the world. Luanda, Angola’s capital, serves not just as the setting but as a narrative force, and is brought to life with an assortment of vibrant characters and their accounts, interwoven into the cultural tapestry of the city. The writer portrays the love for folklore and storytelling that Angolans have in the characters’ nostalgic, philosophical interpretation of the strange turn of events in their lives. At various instances, the people concoct backstories to explain how things turned out to gain some semblance of understanding of the frenzy.

To extract information from Little Chief who refuses to cave in, an interrogator squashes Splendour, a rat that the former had grown fond of, under his shoes. In a place where terrible atrocities are being committed every single day, this small act of violence is the one that causes Little Chief to fall apart.

The bevy of characters include a monkey whom Ludo names Che Guevara, a man believed to be dead who miraculously survives, and an ex-interrogator turned private detective. The stories of these minor characters are intertwined with the main plotline featuring Ludo and Little Chief, a political prisoner. All the various characters are strangers to each other until the climax, yet they unknowingly set off a chain of events that impact the other’s life irrevocably. It is not until the very end that we are told how the most innocuous actions of one character changed another’s fate.

Agualusa shrewdly elucidates this domino effect in his narrative on many occasions by way of multiple intersecting story arcs built on chance encounters, strokes of luck and episodes of poetic justice being meted out. Such Dickensian coincidence would come off as contrived in the hands of a less able writer, but Agualusa manages to instill a unique charm into these predetermined occurrences.

The most special thing about this novel is the striking imagery and empathy which the writer evokes with his uniquely insightful writing. Author Ana Mafalda Leite aptly describes Agualusa’s work as “a link between history and fiction, between the account of past events and the description of what might have been possible”. Agualusa’s strong journalistic sensibility is palpable in how incisively he depicts Angola’s transformation from a country tainted with violence and colonialism to one consumed by rampant capitalism. A character reflects that all that is solid melts into air, “thinking about Marx, and thinking, like Marx, not about planes but about the capitalist system, which there, in Angola, thriving like mould amid ruins, had already begun to rot everything, to corrupt everything and, thus, to bring about its own end”.

Certain passages about the prison conditions and poor justice system of Angola are vaguely reminiscent of Pakistan. There is a particularly moving episode when, to extract information from Little Chief who refuses to cave in, an interrogator squashes Splendour, a rat that the former had grown fond of, under his shoes. Agualusa poignantly captures how, in a place where terrible atrocities are being committed every single day, this small act of violence is the one that causes Little Chief to fall apart.

One recurring theme of the novel, as alluded to in the title, is the dual nature of memory — the precarious balance between forgetfulness and reminiscence that allows us to go through life. Ludo, throughout her solitary confinement, desperately tries to immortalise her experiences and thoughts in writing, resorting to using charcoal on her apartment walls when she runs out of paper. She ruminates, “If I still had the space, charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion. I realise I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice. In this house all the walls have my mouth.” Only later do we find out why it is so important for Ludo to be oblivious to her tragic past. In a country where underhanded practices are the norm and people have to fake their death to ensure their survival, some characters desperately try to gain obscurity before their past catches up with them. For instance, Agualusa says about one character: “There are some people who experience a fear of being forgotten. It’s a pathology called athazagoraphobia. The opposite happened with him: he lived in terror that he would never be forgotten. There, on the Okavango Delta, he had felt forgotten. He had been happy.”

It is commendable how fluidly the various disparate stories in the narrative dovetail into the main plotline which is set against the backdrop of Angolan history. Agualusa claims to be inspired by Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez and one can see their influence in the circularity of his narrative. In the way the lives of all his characters collide, Agualusa sets forth the philosophical proposition about determinism and free will. How much of our life is a result of our own actions and how much is a spillover effect from a remote event of someone else’s doing which seems to have no bearing on our situation? The characters seem to be paving their own way through life, but as readers we manage to trace how the trajectories that their lives would take are born out of the deeds of others.

The lucid representation of Angola’s turbulent history, coupled with the parallel storylines, has the tendency to result in a crowded narrative, but the sparsely elegant prose tinged with wry humour results in a compact and neatly tied up novel. Daniel Hahn deserves extra credit for his reportedly limpid translation which retains the original essence of the text. A General

Theory of Oblivion is a remarkable piece of literary fiction in which a host of eclectic stories coalesce into a succinct account of people persevering in a country marred by years of turmoil.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer and critic.

A General Theory of Oblivion
By José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn
Vintage, US
ISBN: 978-0099593126

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1st, 2017