Book review: A General Theory Of Oblivion

Jose Eduardo Agualusa'author
Jose Eduardo Agualusa'author
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‘OUR city is full of mysteries,” says Pedro Afonso, a former pro-independence guerilla fighter, when yet another twist in a tale in this novel is revealed to him. “I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.”

A General Theory Of Oblivion

José Eduardo Agualusa

Harvill Secker, £16.99

And he is right. The story’s main conceit, the idea of someone living alone in the middle of a major urban conurbation, without leaving the house or making any human contact for almost 30 years, seems too fanciful to have roots in reality. Yet it does. Angolan-Portuguese author José Eduardo Agualusa based his story on that of a real life woman called Ludovica Fernandes Mano, who spent 28 years holed up in the Angolan capital, Luanda. He trawled her diaries, gaining inspiration from her experience, but insists his book remains “pure fiction”.

Set against the backdrop of Angolan independence and the ensuing civil war, Agualusa keeps us, like his protagonist Ludo, mainly locked away from what is going on outside of the apartment.

Ludo, a Portuguese woman, is transported to Luanda when her sister meets an Angolan man and decides to marry him after just two weeks. The family is transplanted to husband Orlando’s privileged Angolan home, where the country, colonised by the Portuguese, is on the verge of a revolution.

The life-changing event, which made the fictional Ludo the way she is, is not revealed until halfway through the story: until that point, she is a mysterious character, her desire to remain isolated never questioned, but instead quietly accepted by her sister, Odete, and Odete’s husband.

Eventually we learn why she is such a recluse, entirely reliant on Odete, before her disappearance on the eve of independence.

Ludo’s fear of the outside world is less political than personal: the Angolan civil war is barely noticeable to her, but the practical inconveniences such as intermittent water and electricity supply are. Yet they are all dealt with with incredible stoicism – a characteristic which extends once she finally regains contact with the outside world, albeit in a limited way.

The translation – which, as with Agualusa’s other novels, is carried out by British writer Daniel Hahn – is seamless, with the light detachment and readability of Louis de Bernières at his best, but combined with the sharp insights of JM Coetzee.

There are laugh-out-loud comic moments, such as when Agualusa describes Ludo’s decision to shield herself from the outside world while pottering on her terrace, by covering her head with a cardboard box with holes poked in it for her eyes: “Anybody looking at the building from another of a similar height would see a large box moving around, leaning out and drawing itself back in again.”

The reader is given occasional glimpses into the outside world, mainly through the eyes of Little Chief, the republican oddball who lives in the apartment next door to Ludo – whose fortune changes after he finds diamonds inside a dead pigeon.

Agualusa’s writing is a delight throughout, as he opens up the world of Portuguese-speaking Africa to the English-speaking community. And what a world it is. n

Jane Bradley