Jose Eduardo Agualusa — A General Theory of Oblivion (2015)
Setting: 20th century Luanda
What’s it about? A series of parallel lives in the long era of conflict following Angola’s independence from 300 years of Portuguese colonial rule. The events, set during a “bleak era of internationalised war and socialism”, are largely from the perspective of a Portuguese settler who walls herself into her apartment as colonialism ends. A agoraphobe, we see her learn to take care of herself, growing food on her balcony and trapping pigeons when her stocks run low.
For some reason I find great pathos in the scene where she befriends, then kills and eats a monkey who finds his However it weaves the stories of several other characters into the narrative, thus providing a broad perspective on post-colonial Angola: the Portuguese mercenaries left behind, the revolutionaries betrayed by political machinations, and ordinary people trying to survive in a violent time. Its simple, sparse yet compelling reading as their lives intersect.
What does it tell us about Angola? A fast-forward vision of a country’s transformation from colony to oil-rich oligarchy in half a century.
Why you should read it: Its a simple but entertaining narrative that alludes at bigger events without delving into them.
Background: One small, petty act sums up the poisoned gift of decolonisation that forms the backdrop of this book:
“Fourteen years ago, the departing Portuguese poured concrete down the elevator shafts…” [From an article in the LA Times]
Further reading: The book is part of a great LRB article on Angola’s war against apartheid by Jeremy Harding.
Tip: Agualusa’s book was part of The Financial Times’ pick of the year — the only review of 2015 literature I know of that had a section for translated fiction.