Read African Writers: A General Theory of Oblivion, by José Eduardo Agualusa

general theory of oblivionangola“I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.” José Eduardo Agualusa’s wonderful novel — A General Theory of Oblivion, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn — feels like a dream, a strange alternative reality from which I didn’t want to stir.

Ludo, a middle-aged Portuguese woman, lives in Luanda, Angola, with her sister and her sister’s Angolan husband. When the war for independence breaks out, Ludo’s sister and brother-in-law disappear and — after an attempted robbery — Ludo locks herself in her apartment. For years. Agualusa leads us through Ludo’s struggle for survival along with a series of other tales that intertwine, some sooner, some later. This is a novel of tragedy and suffering, and it is a novel of dreams and poetry and hope, with just a touch of humor and fantasy mixed in. It is lyrical and surprising and I did not want it to end.

This book was on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. (It lost to Han Lang’s The Vegetarian, which I liked but not as much as this.) It is inspired by a true story.

A few lines that stayed with me

  • “Women have more power, here, than people think.”
  • “A man with a good story is practically a king.”
  • “God invented music so poor people could be happy.”
  • “Our capital is full of mysteries. I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.”

What other reviewers had to say

  • Claire Kohda Hazelton, The Guardian: “Beautifully sprawling and poetic.”
  • Jane Bradley, The Scotsman: “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.”
  • Jeff Bursey, Numero Cinq magazine: “This short novel, written with confidence and poise, contains sharply sketched characters, an evolving and engaging main narrative around Ludo, and years of conflict succinctly summarized and easily understandable.”
  • Matthew Lecznar, Africa in Words: “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.”
  • Jennifer Bort Yacovissi, Washington Independent Review of Books: “Agualusa originally wrote this story as a screenplay, and the novel retains that sense of immediacy. Certainly his economy of words heightens its impact.”
  • Dustin Illingworth, The Quarterly Conversation: “A General Theory of Oblivion is both more and less than its title; it certainly provides a kind of blueprint of the encroaching obscurity inherent to living and dying—at times bemoaning its certainty, at times celebrating the assured darkness—but it is also a general theory of love, of life, and, finally, of literature. Working in the fertile ground between fiction, philosophy, and enchantment, Agualusa has accomplished something strange and marvelous here, a whirling dervish of joy and pain, blood and memory, whose many high points I found myself re-reading immediately, eager to experience the shine of the prose like spun gold. It left me in awe of these stories we tell ourselves: those we need to survive, those that change us, and those that change with us.”

This is book #17 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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