A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa #Angola
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Translation: Daniel Hahn (2015)
Rating: 3 Stars
On the eve of Angolan independence an agoraphobic woman named Ludo bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive and writing her story on the apartment’s walls.
Almost as if we’re eavesdropping, the history of Angola unfolds through the stories of those she sees from her window. As the country goes through various political upheavals from colony to socialist republic to civil war to peace and capitalism, the world outside seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of someone peeing on a balcony, or a man fleeing his pursuers.
A General Theory of Oblivion is a perfectly crafted, wild patchwork of a novel, playing on a love of storytelling and fable. (Source: Goodreads).
This was my first foray into Lusophone Africa and I went in with great expectations! The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker 2015. It went on to win the International Dublin Literary Award and has been revered as one of the best books to come out of Lusophone Africa, so needless to say, my expectations were a little more than high. And whilst I did the enjoy the easy prose, the poetry, the very short interestingly titled chapters and the tons of blank spaces in between, I did not fall in love with book entirely.
“A General Theory of Oblivion” centres around an agoraphobic Portuguese woman, Ludo, who moves to Angola with her sister and Angolan husband just at the cusp of independence. Everything around her is chaotic, rowdy youth are out on the streets protesting, violence is on the rise and when her sister and brother in law go missing, Ludo bricks herself in their 11th floor apartments and refuses to come out for 28yrs. She finds company in her dog Phantom and a monkey that occasionally hops onto her balcony.
Around Ludo, down on the streets and in the Radio that she listens to, Angola is unravelling. Independence did not bring with it peace and different factions are fighting; for ideologies – socialism vs capitalism and resources – diamonds. A cast of other characters and their stories are introduced at different intervals, all seemingly independent but beautifully piece together in the end. Agualusa does a really good job in showing these aspects of human interconnectedness and how simple humane acts can reverberate across geographical locations. This is where the strength of the book lies. In the human narratives and their quest at reaching oblivion.
The book however reads like a screenplay and I wasn’t too surprised to find out it was initially written as such. There are aspects that if you linger on or question too much, like Ludo finding bricks and cement on the 11th floor and building a wall, will get you nowhere and rob you of the joy of enjoying the aspects that really count. The coincidences were also too perfectly coined and there was no real depth to the long list of characters. I went into this book hoping to learn something about Angola but came out with naught. There is very little on the political and historical context of Angola which left me yearning and thirsty for more.
This is a great book for what it was intended to be, not for what I had hoped it would be.
Rating 3/5 stars.