The Angolan-born writer José Eduardo Agualusa once said that he wrote his first novel because he wanted to understand his country. ‘You cannot explain the present if you do not understand the past.’ This is not to say his fiction is didactic – anything but. Take his remarkable A General Theory of Oblivion (2015), first published in Portugal in 2012, whose expressive prose is deftly captured by Daniel Hahn’s translation.
The novel is mainly set in the Angolan capital where, on the eve of Independence in 1975, Ludovica, a Portuguese woman marked by a traumatic past, decides to build a brick wall to keep out intruders seeking a bag of raw diamonds that her brother-in-law has left behind in the chaos. Sealing off her eleventh-floor apartment in downtown Luanda, she survives on wild pigeons and vegetables grown on her terrace; slowly burning first the furniture, then the thousands of books in her brother-in-law’s library, on a cooking fire. Over the years, the apartment block fills up with new residents, moving in from Luanda’s shanty towns or fleeing the countryside roiled by civil war. They bring chickens, music, country habits. A magnificent mulemba tree grows in the courtyard, its upper branches reaching Ludo’s terrace. Satellite dishes sprout like mushrooms across the neighbouring roofs.
Ludo, who remains in this state of self-imposed house arrest for 28 years, gives the narrative a static point around which disparate plotlines can unfurl and extend. While she resists any engagement with the civil war that rages on her doorstep, it reaches us – in patchwork form – through snippets of overheard conversation, scenes witnessed on the street outside, radio news bulletins and Ludo’s diary entries. These fractured mediums furnish apparently self-contained stories, each with an oblique relation to Ludo, which encode the complex, often violent history of Angola’s post-liberation period, as rival independence forces fought for supremacy – a struggle prolonged by foreign intervention, with the US and South Africa backing rebel UNITA forces, while the ruling MPLA called in help from Cuba.
Agualusa’s kaleidoscopic fiction captures the diverse actors in this conflict and the subjective changes wrought by successive historical conjunctures. Monte, a former revolutionary, becomes a leading figure of the political police. Jeremias, a Portuguese mercenary, escapes a regime firing squad and joins the nomadic Mucubal tribe. The orphan known as Little Chief, a young political dissident jailed and tortured by Monte, roams the streets disguised as a madman and builds up a business empire.
Their stories, told backwards and forwards, make up a fretwork of Angolan history. The demonstrations, strikes and rallies of 1974, ‘filled with the laughter of the people on the streets, which burst into the air like fireworks’. The farewell parties of the Portuguese settlers, who danced till dawn while young people were dying in the streets. The MPLA prison of the late 70s, where Monte tries to break Little Chief, and where:
American and English mercenaries, taken in combat, lived alongside dissident exiles from the ANC who had fallen into misfortune. Young intellectuals from the far left exchanged ideas with old Portuguese Salazarists. There were guys locked up for diamond trafficking and others for not having stood to attention during the raising of the flag.
After 2002, with the MPLA’s victory in the civil war: ‘The socialist system was dismantled by the very same people who had set it up, and capitalism rose from the ashes, as fierce as ever. Guys who just months ago had been railing against bourgeois democracy . . . were now dressed in designer clothing, driving round the city in cars that gleamed.’ The new wealth is manifested in the landowner’s fences – a millionaire general, with armed goons in jeeps – that block the migration of the Mucubals’ herds. Monte is appalled by the free-market turn – ‘the capitalist system, thriving like mould amid the ruins, had begun to rot everything’ – and angered when two ruling generals instruct him to take out Daniel Benchimol, a local journalist whose reports, tempered by a touch of humour, infuriate the new bourgeoisie.
While Agualusa eschews a reductive and didactic treatment of Angolan national history, he assembles myriad suggestive fragments of what it has entailed. By and large, the novel registers historical conflict through personal experience, the objective facts of the civil war by way of subjective changes in fortune – and the insights that they yield. The narrative register – refusing to reduce the characters to their political roles – is punctuated by harsh judgements, pillorying the MPLA for its suppression of dissent and abandonment of egalitarian principles.
Yet Agualusa’s fiction also resists any reading as national allegory, on the lines of Fredric Jameson’s once-famous hypothesis – that in third-world texts, stories of private individual destiny are always an allegory of the embattled situation of the country’s culture and society. Neither Ludo, Monte, Little Chief nor Jeremias approximate to figurations of Angola’s struggle, in the way that Jameson suggested Lu Xun’s protagonist Ah Q, proud to be ‘number one in self-belittlement’, could stand as an allegory for semi-colonial China. This is not an allegory in any formal sense, with the characters as stand-ins for a set of abstractions – Power, Colonialism, Capital, Angola.
Agualusa’s fiction is ‘allegorical’ only in the loosest meaning of the word, as a synonym for symbolism or representation itself. Taken on their own terms, the characters do not constitute a totalized portrait of Angola; they rather demonstrate its hopeless fragmentation. Yet by interweaving their stories in the fabric of his fiction, the narrator establishes a precarious set of relations that (for most of the novel at least) remains inaccessible to the characters themselves. The relation of fictional forms to cultural and political-economic realities is insistently complicated here. The theme of ‘oblivion’, for example – or esquecimento, whose literal meaning in Portuguese is closer to ‘forgetting’ – is considered from multiple perspectives. Ludo wants to consign her teenage rape to oblivion, but also to shut out the joyful, chaotic, violent eruption of Angola’s independence. This impulse is what atomizes her: she becomes a hermit, as alienation and esquecimento go hand in hand.
Yet walled off in her flat, Ludo gains a new relationship to the world from her terrace, open to the sky and the city, ‘and off in the distance, a long necklace of abandoned beaches, fringed by the fine lacework of the waves’. ‘We should practice forgetting’, she tells an aged Jeremiah who has come to apologise to her, thirty years on, about the diamonds. He replies: ‘Forgetting is dying, forgetting is surrender.’ As he struggles to explain about the Mucubals’ problems, Ludo recalls Pessoa’s lines: ‘I feel sorry for the stars / which have shined for so long’ – ‘Is there not, finally… / Some kind of pardon?’ Meanwhile the workers employed in Little Chief’s handicraft business have a more sardonic take on the theme. Their best-selling carving is the Thinker, a popular figure in traditional Angolan statuary, but now with a gag over his mouth, whom they dub, ‘Don’t Think’.
Nor does the narratorial strategy of A General Theory offer an easily read allegory of Angola’s cultural situation. ‘A man with a good story is practically king’, the narrator declares at one point. But if narrative and power are major themes of the novel, neither is straightforward. In this case, the story – that a visiting French writer was suddenly swallowed by quicksand, leaving only his hat behind – was confected by a security officer to cover up a murder gone wrong, and the boy who tells it a dupe, serving to keep the status quo in power.
In this sense, when the narrator offers explicit political judgements, or sweeping statements on Angolan history, these interventions are less clear-cut than they seem, for they are belied by an awareness that unified narratives are often imposed by the powerful upon the powerless. Such self-consciousness – which destabilizes the narrator’s most categorical, objective register – comes through in his tendency to interrupt and second-guess himself after making decisive pronouncements:
When people look at clouds they do not see their real shape, which is no shape at all, or maybe every shape, because they are constantly changing. They see whatever it is that their heart yearns for.
You don’t like that word – ‘heart’?
Very well, choose another, then: soul, unconscious, fantasy, whatever you think best. None of them will be quite the right word.
A General Theory of Oblivion reflects precisely on the difficulty of finding ‘the right word’ to summarize Angolan realities.
Not allegory, then. But neither is Agualusa’s fiction ‘national’ in any conventional sense. Its imagined community is Lusofonia, the Portuguese-speaking world-system that encompasses Brazil, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Goa and East Timor as well as Angola, Mozambique and Portugal. Post-colonial landscapes of a pre-modern empire, deeply marked both by the South Atlantic slave trade and by what the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre welcomed as a unique degree of mestiçagem, the contemporary Lusosphere was formed under a European metropole that was itself a peripheral country, already semi-colonized by the UK.
From a family of mixed Brazilian, Portuguese and Angolan descent, Agualusa was born in 1960 in Huambo, then Nova Lisboa, a railway town on the Angolan plateau that would be a vortex of MPLA–UNITA fighting; its verdant landscape and deep blue skies have been constant motifs in his fiction. He left Angola as a teenager in the late 70s, studied in Portugal, worked as a journalist for the Africa service of Portuguese television, and has since operated as a pan-Lusophone intellectual: a columnist for Luanda’s A Capital and Lisbon’s Público, presenter of a radio show on African music and poetry, co-founder of the Rio de Janeiro publishing house Editora Língua Geral, dedicated to bringing Portuguese and African writing to Brazil. Currently based in Mozambique, Agualusa has fourteen novels to his name, six of them translated into English by Hahn, as well as several short story collections and countless journalistic pieces.
Among these fictions, Agualusa’s first novel, A Conjura (1989) recounted the background to a 1911 uprising against Portuguese rule in Angola, its central character a poor black anarchist barber. Nação Crioula (1997) centres on a 19th-century slave ship, the last to transport human cargo from Angola to Brazil, but which also provides the means of escape for two lovers, a footloose, free-thinking Portuguese traveller and Ana Olímpia, a beautiful and wealthy former slave. In O ano em que Zumbi tomou o Rio (2002), exiled Angolan military officers join a black-power rebellion in the Rio favelas.
The Society of Reluctant Dreamers (2017, trans. 2020), the latest to appear in English, is largely narrated by the journalist, Daniel Benchimol – one of many recurring characters in Agualusa’s fiction. It is set in the overlapping worlds of Lusophone intellectuals, artists and journalists, on the one hand, and generals, secret police and big businessmen, on the other. Benchimol’s ex-father-in-law supplies the archetype of the latter: director of an important state firm, member of the party’s central committee, immensely rich even before he switched to the private sector, he can get his ex-son-in-law sacked from any newspaper in Luanda with a phone call. Benchimol’s counterpart is a former UNITA guerrilla, Hossi Apolónio Kaley, captured by Cuban security forces, whose dream diaries from Havana contribute the rest of the narrative.
Dreams here occupy a comparable role to forgetting in A General Theory. As Benchimol discovers, they may be personal, practical, aesthetic – the basis for an extraordinary photographic series by a Mozambican artist, another of Agualusa’s angelic female characters, with whom Benchimol falls in love – or political. Benchimol’s daughter, arrested for protesting against the Old Man – Angola’s president – awakens him to the new democracy movement: ‘You wouldn’t believe the dreams that fit inside this prison.’ The novel ends with an evocation of the protests that helped to drive José Eduardo dos Santos from office in 2017 after nearly four decades in power. Agualusa’s work might better be read as auto-fictional essays on ‘third-world literature’, staging the tension between subjectivity and historicity, cosmopolitan and national perspectives, whose struggle for hegemony is like a civil war within these books themselves.
Read on: Gabriel García Márquez on Cuban internationalism and the MPLA.