A General Theory of Oblivion  by  José Eduardo Agualusa  tr.  Daniel Hahn  (Archipelago, Dec. 2015)  Reviewed by  Stephen Henighan

A General Theory of Oblivion
by José Eduardo Agualusa
tr. Daniel Hahn
(Archipelago, Dec. 2015)

Reviewed by Stephen Henighan

On December 10, 1975, less than one month after Angola gained independence from Portugal, the country undertook a task vital to its birth as a nation: it founded the Angolan Writers’ Union. The first President, Agostinho Neto, himself a well-known poet, presided over the Union’s creation, proclaiming that, “The struggle for national liberation cannot be separated from the struggle for the imposition and recognition of a culture particular to our people.” Few countries have defined literature as being vital to nation-building as explicitly as Angola. From the beginning, writers have believed that they could write the country into existence.

After independence, the Marxist, multi-racial MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) secured control of the capital by fighting off two rival guerrilla movements, Zairean-backed U.S. mercenaries, Cabindan separatists, and a South African military invasion; the MPLA remains in power today. In pre-independence days, the movement encouraged literate guerrillas in its jungle camps to write plays, fables or even novels. The first literature of the post-colonial nation was distributed to children in MPLA liberated zones on mimeographed sheets. In the hunger and chaos of the immediate post-independence years, nearly all Angolans faced deprivation. Government policy ensured that books were among the few products that were available, abundant and affordable. During the first fifteen years of Angolan nationhood, writers, as promoters of literacy, unity, anti-tribalism, socialism and an imaginative vision of national history, were as central to the consolidation of sovereignty as army officers or cabinet ministers. In fact, many writers were government officials, or members of prominent MPLA families.

The end of the Cold War created a crisis in Angolan letters. The MPLA renounced Marxism, closed down social reform, and retrenched into an oligarchy that clung to power and siphoned oil revenues into secret bank accounts. The writers left government yet continued to declare their loyalty to MPLA values, a habit that was difficult to break since, until 2002, the capital and the coastal areas were besieged by Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). Rooted in the Ovimbundu ethnicity of the central highlands, UNITA often defined its opposition to the MPLA in terms of African racial purity and defeating the mixed-race government by, in Savimbi’s words, “driving the bastard children of the Portuguese Empire into the sea.” Even after 2002, when Angola’s integrity ceased to be at risk, writers continued to define their task as writing the nation into existence. As the Mozambican writer Mia Couto said of Pepetela, the Angolan novelist who is most widely read in Portuguese: “Pepetela is not writing about Angola. He is writing Angola.” The MPLA heritage, compelling a sense of duty to the movement’s pre-lapsarian values, remains the gauge by which Angolan writers measure their society. The most outspoken exception to this rule is José Eduardo Agualusa.

Not being from an MPLA family is only one of the ways in which Agualusa breaks the mold of the Angolan writer. Born in 1960, he is younger than the writers who reached adulthood under Portuguese colonialism and fought in the wars of independence. Pepetela was an MPLA guerrilla commander and later a cabinet minister; José Luandino Vieira and Manuel Rui were officials during the first years of MPLA government. While younger than this cohort, Agualusa is fifteen to twenty years older than the second generation of MPLA artists, the revolutionaries’ children, who were born into an independent country, such as the writer Ondjaki, the folk singer and journalist Aline Frazão, or the dissident rapper Luaty Beirão. Agualusa was born in Huambo, in the Ovimbundu territory that nourished Savimbi’s Black nationalism, yet he is white. He studied agronomy and forestry in Lisbon and cut his literary teeth as a journalist for the Portuguese daily O Público. He has made a career of tweaking the noses of writers from MPLA backgrounds. He has been notoriously dismissive of the poetry of Agostinho Neto, the country’s revered first president; he never misses an opportunity to bring up the May 1977 split in the MPLA, which led to a disastrous massacre; his assessments of other Angolan writers with international profiles, such as Pepetela and Ondjaki, are rarely generous. The Angola that appears in Agualusa’s fiction is dazzling in its sheer, exaggerated eccentricity. Like Bruce Chatwin writing about Brazil’s incursion into Dahomey in The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), Agualusa achieves his brilliance by keeping his distance. In Pepetela’s novels you feel the brutality of colonialism, the terror of revolutionary war and the corruption of the present in your flesh; reading Ondjaki, the voices of Luanda’s young people echo in your ears. The reader of Agualusa’s fiction sees rather than feels or hears.

Inside Angola, it is regarded as all too predictable that it is Agualusa, who derides the movement that consolidated the country’s independence in the face of Portuguese colonialism, United States dirty tricks, and South African militarism, and, in its better moments, supplied the institutional foundations for Angola’s contemporary artistic culture, who has been embraced by the English-speaking world. Winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007, published by major English-language presses such as Simon & Schuster and Harvill Secker, and the subject of flattering profiles in eminently globalizing publications such as The Financial Times, Agualusa surpasses in English-language renown Angolan writers who, in Portuguese, are more popular than he (Pepetela and often Ondjaki) and/or more highly regarded in literary terms (Luandino Vieira, Ruy Duarte de Carvalho). Yet the vision of Angolan history transmitted by Agualusa’s fiction differs from that of writers from MPLA backgrounds less than his dissent might lead a reader to expect.

As much as he sneers at the MPLA, Agualusa expresses some of its core beliefs. The two threads of MPLA ideology that have survived the end of the Cold War are the party’s multi-racialism and its obdurate, anti-globalization nationalism, expressed in isolationist policies within Africa, the spurning of international lending organizations such as the IMF, and the maintenance of Soviet-style visa protocols that make Angola one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit. Agualusa’s first book, the untranslated A Conjura (1989; “The Conspiracy”), is a documentary fiction about a 1911 rebellion that traces the consolidation of the Creolized coastal bourgeoisie as a nationalist force that would later bring Angola to independence. A Conjura could have been written by a member of the Angolan Writers’ Union. Nor is this a sin of youth: Creole (1997), the first of Agualusa’s novels to appear in English, in 2003, also places cultural mixing at the core of Angolan identity; the novel’s original Portuguese title translates as “Creole Nation,” which could almost be an MPLA slogan. Moving from Angola to Brazil to Portugal, the book posits not a Black Atlantic, but rather one which reflects a blending of cultures. Agualusa’s road novel My Father’s Wives (2007), one of his most human and enjoyable books, employs the quest for an errant jazz musician to disseminate cultural and racial syncretism through southern Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and Mozambique. Agualusa can also write effectively in a denunciatory vein: Rainy Season (1996), his full-bore assault on the MPLA’s actions during the still-contested events of May 1977, is a powerful novel that is insufficiently appreciated. Agualusa’s drive for dissident status can also trip him up. The Book of Chameleons (2003), for which he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is a flawed work, its balance spoiled by a forced ending when Agualusa drags in May 1977 to resolve the plot.

The tension between nationalism and internationalism is tilted more strongly towards the latter in Agualusa’s work than in that of his compatriots. He speaks to an implicit foreign reader, explaining in the voice of an accomplished journalist histories that Pepetela or Manuel Rui would assimilate by assuming a reader who was Angolan.  Agualusa is fascinated by racial mixing. Every second character in A General Theory of Oblivion is the product of an exotic cultural cocktail: Sephardic Jews intermarried with southern Angolan mestiços, a white mercenary who becomes a member of a nomadic desert tribe, a “Portuguese” diamond mining engineer who re-discovers his mixed African heritage, a character who looks white during daylight hours and mulatto at night. The cover of the Portuguese edition even proclaims the novel to be a polemic against racism.

Yet it is also, oddly, a polemic against those who attack the independence movement, even as Agualusa denounces the MPLA’s prisons, schisms and executions. As he has done before, Agualusa draws on a story he uncovered as a journalist. Ludovica Fernandes, a white Portuguese woman, is brought to Luanda in the early 1970s when her sister marries a mixed-race Angolan engineer. Having been raped in Portugal as a teenager, then blamed for her rape by her father, Ludo, as the narrator calls her, is a traumatized, introverted woman who rarely leaves her sister and brother-in-law’s luxurious top-floor apartment, which is well supplied with food and books. When independence arrives, her hitherto apolitical brother-in-law declares his Angolanness and resolves to remain in the country. As the situation deteriorates, he changes his mind. Shortly before their own planned departure, the sister and brother-in-law fail to return from a farewell party for a departing friend, leaving Ludo alone in the apartment. Using cement purchased for a renovation project, Ludo builds a wall between her apartment and the rest of the building. When the original upper-class residents leave, and Angolans from the countryside take over the surrounding flats, her new neighbours do not realize that Ludo’s apartment even exists. Improbably, she survives for almost thirty years in this Robinson Crusoe existence, perpetuating a microcosm of Portuguese colonialism as the rest of her building is absorbed into independent Angola. Agualusa, who had access to the historical Ludo’s diaries (she died in a Luanda hospital in 2010 at the age of eighty-five), intersperses diary excerpts—presumably heavily fictionalized—with forward narration.

A General Theory of Oblivion is ingeniously structured. The central anecdote provides barely enough material for a long short story. For most of the novel, Ludo remains silent and immobile in her apartment. With the help of short chapters with generous spacing between them, Agualusa strings together a series of his trademark exotic anecdotes to fill out his tale to novel length. Homing pigeons carry diamonds through the African sky, foreign planes vanish in Angolan airspace, a man rescues another who is being chased by an angry crowd and hides him in his apartment for four years, nefarious forces order the assassination of an investigative journalist only to have a visiting French writer—who, inevitably, is mulatto—die in his place, leaving behind his hat. Agualusa bends this succession of sometimes tenuously linked events around in a curve until, like one of his homing pigeons, it comes back to Ludo, who is rescued by sympathetic figures and the now-adult daughter she gave up for adoption after her rape. In a reversal of the trajectory of her brother-in-law, who becomes Angolan on the basis of a partial African racial heritage, Ludo refuses to return to Portugal at the novel’s conclusion, saying that she has no country but Angola because, “I’ve seen that tree grow. It’s seen me get old.” Memory, rather than racial inheritance, defines national identity: the MPLA itself couldn’t have put it better. Ludo belongs to Angola, also, because of her growing relationship with Sabalu, the homeless boy who brings her food once her supplies run out. Having tried to build a wall between herself and a Black Angola from which she had remained separate under colonialism, she comes to depend on this bond between people of different races.

Daniel Hahn, who has translated all five of Agualusa’s novels that are available in English, is resourceful and inventive, yet knows when to decline a challenge that will get him into trouble. An example of this occurs early in the novel, when a man who has been shot by a firing squad looks up from the ground at a wall. The MPLA slogan A luta continua (“The struggle continues”) has been scrawled on the wall by a sub-literate revolutionary who has miswritten the phrase as O luto continua (“Mourning continues”). Rather than trying to render this mordant phrase with an equivalent pun, Hahn opts for the literal meaning, translating as The struggle continues. When circumstances permit it, he is very creative in manufacturing persuasive rhythms that match the spirit of the original. Hahn recreates Agualusa’s jaunty listing of the breeds of stray dogs roaming Luanda’s streets by introducing an alliterative element, so that “nervososos perdigueiros” becomes not “nervous setters” (the literal rendering) but rather “disappointed pointers.” Agualusa’s polished, feature-journalism style does not pose major translation difficulties, in contrast to more stylistically unorthodox Luso-African writers such as Mia Couto, Luandino Vieira or Ondjaki. Hahn’s lack of familiarity with the physical terrain—he has said in interviews that he has never been to Angola—can be a liability. He translates the identities of Luanda neighbourhoods with a certain tentativeness. “Ilha de Luanda,” a district of beachfront bars on a long peninsula that encloses the bay, is translated once as “in Ilha” and once as “on Ilha”; most Anglophones familiar with the city say “on Luanda Island.” There are other small slips in this otherwise excellent translation: a plane belonging to the Republic of Moldova is translated as being from “Moldavia,” a region of Romania that does not have an air force. In addition, Archipelago’s editing has replaced the Luso-African mestiço with the Latin American mestizo, which has very different cultural connotations.

Recent protest in Angola, brought to a head by the show-trial of the rapper Luaty Beirão, the son of one of President José Eduardo dos Santos’s closest collaborators, and sixteen other young men, has disrupted traditional alliances. Long-time MPLA critics such as Agualusa have been joined in their denunciations of the government’s actions by prominent younger figures from MPLA backgrounds, such as Ondjaki, Aline Frazão and Wanda Lara, the daughter of the regime’s long-time second-in-command, Lúcio Lara. The question of who is, and who is not, from an MPLA background may be fading as the litmus test for where one stands in political debate. How post-dos Santos, and maybe even post-MPLA, Angola will look remains unclear. Whatever the country’s future may be, there is little doubt that, as in A General Theory of Oblivion, memory and belonging will take precedence over pigmentation in cementing allegiance to the Angolan nation.


Stephen Henighan is the author of five novels, including The Path of the Jaguar (2016) and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives (forthcoming 2017), as well as three collections of short stories, and half a dozen books of non-fiction, most recently Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012 (2014). He has translated into English two novels by Ondjaki; a third Ondjaki novel, Transparent Bones, will be published in his translation by Biblioasis in 2017.