Review: A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

AiW Guest: Matthew Lecznar

imgresA General Theory of Oblivion tells the real life story of Ludovica Fernandes Mano, a Portuguese woman who spent most of her life in Luanda, Angola. The narrative is framed by Ludo’s remarkable decision to brick herself into her apartment shortly after guerrilla forces liberated Angola from Portuguese colonial rule. Independence was declared in 1975, but the struggle led to a long period of civil conflict that lasted until 2002. Ludo survived in her apartment for twenty-eight years by growing vegetables and trapping pigeons on the apartment terrace, and by burning furniture and books for heat; her family, a sister and brother-in-law, disappeared shortly before independence.

But as Ludo builds walls to block out the world at the beginning of the novel, the author José Eduardo Agualusa works to shed light on her confinement, and weaves a compelling, sprawling narrative out of her experiences. Indeed, Agualusa renders Ludo’s life as inextricably tied, but never reduced, to Luanda’s peoples and topography, and to the 800px-Luanda_feb09_ost05legacies of violence and colonialism that continue to influence its development today. A powerful sense of history is woven throughout this teasing text, which is also entwined with the stories of a host of other characters: from Jeremias Carrasco, the Portuguese mercenary who survives summary execution by Angolan freedom fighters and begins a second life among the nomadic Mucubal people; to Little Chief, a political prisoner who discovers diamonds in the carcass of a roasted pigeon; and a host of non-human animals, such as Phantom the albino Alsatian and Fofo the performing pygmy hippo.

Although a relatively short book at 243 pages, every character is richly portrayed, and the text is embellished with fragments of poetry and Ludo’s own writing. Each new chapter adds a further layer of narrative and meaning that both resonates with what has come before and unexpectedly reconfigures it, creating a shifting, organic tale. For instance, it is revealed over the course of the narrative that Little Chief’s pigeon ingested diamonds when it was lured onto Ludo’s balcony by their sparkle. Ludo used the diamonds as bait, but set the pigeon free after finding a love note attached to its leg: a note sent by the lover of the very police officer who first imprisoned Little Chief.

But this intricate recycling of lives and objects is also negotiated at a deeper textual level. At one point, Agualusa gives Ludo a poetic voice with which to explore her solitude:

I carve out verses
as prayers

words are
of demons

I cut adverbs
I spare my

Titled “Exorcism,” this verse casts language as both a curse and a blessing for Ludo, who survives her ordeal because she carves into language for release rather than her own flesh, enacting a metaphorical transaction which liberates her voice even as it perpetuates her imprisonment.

The book as a whole is preoccupied with trying to discover deeper meaning in painful memories and ordeals, and with the potential for mistakes and misinterpretation to offer more profound truths than what is assumed to be correct. At one point, Ludo thinks she has gone mad when she sees Fofo the hippo on a neighbour’s veranda, and describes the experience of reading with failing sight: “I get things wrong, as I read, and in those mistakes, sometimes, I find incredible things that are right.” The reader is also involved in this process of interpretation and invention, being challenged at one point to think of a better word than “heart” to explain a person’s deepest desires.

This fascination with the slipperiness of language is doubly significant given that the book is itself a piece of translation. Ludo reflects upon the creative potential of such lexical transformation when she considers the Portuguese name for pomegranates: “I even likepomegranate-946118_640 the Portuguese word for them – romã – the morning glimmer it has to it.” While the real life Ludo did not speak English, she did become alienated from her native tongue during the revolutionary war. Thus, her struggle with emotional isolation and cultural alienation in the text is itself a process of translation. She does learn to love the language again, and ultimately embraces the world beyond her apartment by choosing life over oblivion.

Agualusa creates a rich, moving tale in A General Theory of Oblivion, where people, objects, and memories circulate and collide, and where nothing is ever quite as it seems. It is the story of a community of souls struggling to stay rooted even as legacies of violence threaten to tear them apart. As Ludo puts it at the book’s close: “Monsters, show me the monsters: these people out on the street. My people.”


IMG_2650_2Matthew Lecznar is a PhD student at the University of Sussex. His doctoral research explores the cultural legacy of the Nigerian Civil War in different forms of material culture. Through a comparative analysis of portrayals of the war in literature, art, film and photography, he considers the effect of international institutions on the production of these works, and the impact of the conflict on Nigerian cultural memory and artistic innovation. His wider research interests are in anglophone African literature, postcolonial conflict literature, gender and sexual dissidence, and world literary book history.


800px-José_Eduardo_AgualusaA General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker, 2015) was written by José Eduardo Agualusa, an Angolan journalist and writer. Agualusa studied agronomy and silviculture in Lisbon, Portugal. He currently hosts a radio program about African music and poetry, A Hora das Cigarras, on the channel RDP Africa. His many works of fiction have been translated into twenty-five languages.

Daniel Hahn is a British writer, editor, and the translator of A General Theory of Oblivion from the Portuguese. His non-fiction books include a series of reading guides for children and brief biographies of the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for his translation of José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons.

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