“Our capital is full of mysteries. I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.”
The pages of A General Theory of Oblivion, by Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa, are populated by a colourful array of characters who, for the most, seem to be intent on forgetting, or being forgotten. None succeed. Their seemingly disparate life stories will turn, twist and eventually intersect as threads are dropped, picked up, retraced and woven into a tale that teems with magic against the backdrop of decades of brutal conflict and corruption that marked Angola’s painful emergence from colonialism.
At the heart of this story is Ludo, a painfully agoraphobic Portuguese woman who, following the death of her parents, is cared for by her sister, Odette. When Odette marries a mining engineer, Ludo moves, along with the newlyweds to Luanda, the capital city of Angola. On the streets, the struggle for Independence is already underway, but Ludo does not venture out, she even shirks away from the windows and views the sky with terror. The cause of her nearly life-long fear of open spaces is finally explained in the final chapters of the book, but until that time her retreat from human contact and her obsessive, paranoid exile provides an anchor to the violent political drama that swirls, directly and indirectly, around her.
When Ludo’s sister and brother-in-law suddenly disappear, the anxious woman is left alone in their luxury apartment with the sole company of an albino dog named Phantom. Before long, a threatening incident leads to a man’s death on her doorstep, filling Ludo with both horror and guilt. She responds by constructing a wall across the hallway outside her apartment door, effectively barricading herself off from the outside world where Independence is about to be declared. She embarks on a bizarre hermetic existence that will last for 30 years. Over the course of that time, she will eat everything she can grow or get her hands on. She will burn the furniture, floorboards and the better part of the extensive library for fuel and heat, and start scribbling her thoughts on the walls when she runs out of journals and paper. Her eyesight will fade and, eventually, her beloved dog will die. But remarkably, stubbornly, she survives, passing a seemingly endless flow of days and nights:
“The city asleep, and her struggling to remember names. A patch of sun still burning. And the night, bit by bit, and time stretching out aimlessly. Body weary, and the night turning from blue to blue … But there was no one, not anywhere in the world, waiting for her. The city falling asleep and the birds like waves, and the waves like birds, and the women like women, and her not at all sure that women are the future of Man.”
Beyond the walls of Ludo’s dwelling, Agualusa traces the criss-crossing adventures of a number of people caught up in the ongoing conflicts that mark the unstable years following Independence. We have, among others, a Portuguese missionary who miraculously escapes fatal injury in an intended execution, an intelligence officer turned detective, a journalist who specializes in investigating disappearances, and a former prisoner who becomes a successful business man. Toss in a second life among a tribe of wandering shepherds, street kids, merciful nurses and a dancing hippo and you have a rich, magical tapestry that ultimately merges back at Ludo’s door where the elderly woman, is, by this time, living with a young orphaned boy who had arrived as a thief and ended up staying, providing a human companionship and support she had rarely known in her life.
A General Theory of Oblivion reads with an element of allegory or fairytale – the fateful intersections may seem too neat, too coincidental. The number of competing characters required to facilitate the convergence of the story lines can seem complicated; there may be a tendency – especially if one is interrupted in the reading as I was by an inopportune winter head cold – to lose track of who’s who for a moment. But the energy is so infectious, the woman at the core is so endearing, despite or perhaps because of her extreme neurotic behaviour, that the book succeeds in creating awe where, in the hands of another author, it might simply feel false and contrived.
Of course, it is essential to remember that magic is not a device as much as a way of being in the world for many authors from Africa. Last year I listened to the recording of a delightful interview from the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal with the young Angolan writer Ondjaki, who spoke about his cultural worldview, arguing that his own magic realism isn’t imaginary, rather it is intrinsic to how people think and how they tell stories in his country: “Fiction doesn’t happen to me. Fiction happens to Angola… no one will say ‘what a powerful imagination!’ You’ll get, ‘what neighbourhood did it happen in?’ ”
That kind of approach to storytelling drives this novel. The horror of the era it covers is not downplayed or ignored but it is met with tremendous spirit and resilience, and in a world obsessed with threats and fear, that cannot help but feel magical, even unreal.
Translated by Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion is published in North America by Archipelago Books.