Translated by Daniel Hahn
The trouble with reading books from around the world is that there are so many war stories. Sometimes it feels as though every work of translated fiction I read is set in a war zone, past or present. Obviously I recognise the importance of hearing people’s stories and being informed of the personal significance of country-specific events. But surely there are many books written by authors from other continents and ripe for translation that are not war literature? The alternative would be as ludicrous as if the only fiction to be translated from English into other languages was set during, say, the Second World War.
A General Theory of Oblivion, though, set during the Angolan War of Independence (1961-1974) and the civil war that followed (1975-2002), provides a welcome new perspective on conflict. Although described by Agualusa as a work of “pure fiction”, in the Foreword he also acknowledges a debt to the apparently true story of a Portuguese woman living in Angola, who, on the eve of independence, bricked herself into her apartment in the country’s capital, Luanda, and survived there alone for decades.
The novel was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, but lost out to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. However, it subsequently succeeded in winning the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award.
The story is related by an omniscient narrator, who pursues a number of disparate strands, then expertly weaves them all together. I found the novel at times somewhat reminiscent of Louis de Bernieres’ The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, and at other times it reminded of Salman Rushdie‘s intellectual ebullience, but without his air of self-congratulatory smugness.
The most fascinating parts of the story, for me, were the accounts of the day-to-day survival of Ludo who, following the disappearance of her sister and her brother-in-law, bricks herself into her luxury apartment with only a dog, Phantom, for company, creating as the years pass a “general theory of oblivion”.
Angola proves itself adept at creating a sort of oblivion, too, through its post-independence inconsistencies and reversals, enacted by a cast of colourful characters.
“After the death of the first president, the regime experimented with a hesitant opening-up. Those political prisoners not linked to the armed opposition were released. Some received invitations to occupy positions in the apparatus of the State.“
“Guys who just months ago had been railing against bourgeois democracy, at family lunches and parties, at demonstrations, in newspaper articles, were now dressed in designer clothing, driving around the city in cars that gleamed.”
This is one of the first books in translation I’ve read where I’ve paused to consider just how skilful the translator is. Although I don’t read Portuguese, and so don’t know the language of the original text, passages such as this impressed me, with their careful alliteration and assonance:
“The dogs held out on the city streets for some years. Wild packs of pedigree dogs. Gangly greyhounds, heavy asthmatic mastiffs, demented Dalmations, disappointed pointers...”
I really loved the overall conceit of the novel, as well as its implementation and the use of language. I also found appealing the flights of imagination, with bizarre tales of an orphaned pygmy hippo that is taught “to dance the Zaire rumba“, and pigeons carrying hidden messages between lovers. Overall, an original and satisfying read.