Book review: A General Theory of Oblivion is an enthralling tale of solitude, loneliness and memory
A General Theory of Oblivion
José Eduardo Agualusa
The world of fiction has its fair share of prisoners, many of whom toil or languish in jails, gulags or camps. In Emma Donoghue’s Room, the occupants make do with restricted pleasures; in George Orwell’s Room 101, the captives confront their worst nightmares. Very few fictional characters are prisoners of their own choosing – for that we have to turn to real-life religious figures who wrote down their divine revelations while in self-imposed solitary confinement.
The prisoner-protagonist of José Eduardo Agualusa’s remarkable new novel is a kind of secular anchoress, an agoraphobic woman who retires from the world by bricking herself into her home for 30 years. It is an original conceit and one that should, by rights, be limiting for an author. However, Agualusa ensures that Ludo’s thoughts and actions carry weight, and at regular intervals turns his gaze from her tragic plight to the disintegrating society outside her window.
Ludo is Portuguese and moves to Luanda to start a new life with her sister and her fiancé. But soon after settling down both go missing, leaving Ludo alone with just her albino puppy, Phantom, in her apartment on the top floor of one of the city’s most luxurious buildings.
On the eve of Angolan independence she barricades herself in and becomes a hermit. She grows vegetables on her terrace, tends to her flowerbeds, traps pigeons and listens to international bulletins on the radio about the unfolding revolution. She also keeps a diary in which she records her dreams, fears and observations.
But, in time, there is trouble in her enclosed paradise. Her food supplies dwindle, her eyesight deteriorates, her radio-listening is curtailed by blackouts and she is forced to burn her beloved books in order to cook. When Phantom, her Man Friday, dies, the void is filled with madness, sadness and loneliness.
That is until seven-year-old Sabalu shins up her scaffolding and brings her Coca-Cola, bread rolls and a tin of guava jelly.
He tells her what is happening down below on the streets: “For the woman it was like having an extraterrestrial revealing the secrets of a distant planet to her.”
An unlikely friendship develops in which a young boy and an ailing woman find human warmth and connection after years of hardship. Angolan-born Agualusa, together with Mozambique writer Mia Couto, are among the most inventive writers at work in lusophone Africa.
As with Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons, the 2007 winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, A General Theory of Oblivion is an immersive and allusive journey into Angola’s turbulent past. Now and again, Ludo will peer over her terrace, “bitterly studying the submerged city”.
In dribs and drabs, via her sweeping glances and snippets from the radio, we learn of demonstrations, strikes and rallies, and hear gunshots and explosions as the country makes its bloody transition from colony to socialist republic, and from civil war to fragile peace.
Once he has spent long enough with Ludo, Agualusa takes us outdoors. We meet Daniel, “a specialist in disappearances”, Monte, a former intelligence officer-turned-detective, and Portuguese mercenary Jeremias, who enjoys a “second life” after surviving a careless firing squad.
Their lives and stories, along with those of a nurse, a political prisoner and a musician, eventually collide and intersect.
Agualusa’s plot thickens to incorporate stolen diamonds, a murder by snakebite and a puzzling message attached to a bird’s foot. On occasion it feels too busy for its own good, and we find ourselves craving the less hectic but just as absorbing company of Ludo and Sabalu, complete with their hard-hitting histories and hopes for the future. Even when their quotidian reality is mechanical and uneventful – unscarred by violence, free of threats and illness – it is always conveyed in beguiling, lyrical prose. “The days slide by as if they were liquid,” reads one of Ludo’s diary extracts.
“The day was unfurling itself,” Agualusa writes later, “a warm yawn of a day.” Once again, Daniel Hahn translates with flair and delicacy.
“We should practise forgetting,” Ludo says at one point, preferring the oblivion of the book’s title to the taxing ordeal of remembrance.
Agualusa’s novel is a powerful examination of personal recollection and public upheaval, and a penetrating study of isolation and the cost of freedom.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.