Now to my really favorite writer, North of Limpopo, South of Sahara, West of the Atlantic and East of Indian Ocean, José Eduardo Agualusa. I know it sounds like an exaggeration but there are many reasons to love this writer. His writing is fresh air in the real sense of the word. You only have to open a page and breathe, breathe.
How he does it, he defies genre. He has a leg in fantasy, a big leg, surrealism, realism, and magic realism on the border margins. Metafiction and mutable identities are his game. The role of memory in remembering, forgetting, un-forgetting, suppressing and then recreating is a big deal in this book. Don’t you just love that?
He makes Charles Dickens pale in his doubles in A Tale of Two Cities. Agualusa’s doubles are smoother, fluid and haunting. The book that charms me from page one to the last is The Book of Chameleons, which won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, 2007. Often I’ve picked up a good book that’s been translated and wished that I knew the books original language so as to compare. If it feels and reads so good in English, how does it really feel in its first language; Spanish, French or Portuguese? Reading The book of Chameleons, I couldn’t help but wish that I knew Portuguese. But then when a translation is so good, it renders itself invisible on the page. What shines is really the text in all its true glory.
High chances are; if you liked Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Rubem Fonseca, Jorge Amado and Jorge Luis Borges, then Agualusa and his Book of Chameleons will seduce you. In fact, the narrator, a beautiful and charming gecko, is Borges given a second chance! (According to an interview with Agualusa). He’s such a witty and amusing gecko, spends time philosophizing, dreaming, watching and meets his death at the hands of a Scorpion as the book is ending (Felix Ventura, the main character, mourns him, and in an emotional farewell buries him in the yard by the trunk of an avocado tree, the side facing the setting sun, damp and covered in moss, always shady because like the albino, he never liked the sun). At that time much has been resolved, a murder committed and absolved, and new lives fabricated, new realities created.
All his life the gecko has lived with Felix Ventura, an albino, who introduces himself as a genealogist. He is a dealer in memories and sells people a new past, fabricates a whole new family tree, which basically works for majority of folks whose past lives are scars of Angola that had better be left forgotten (political realism). They’ve worked hard to secure a comfortable future for themselves, but are so uncomfortable about their past lives (either due to their participation or effect of the Angolan civil war, Marxist dictatorship, and post Independence era). They have a great need to re-invent themselves, so they pay Felix Ventura, who creates a whole dignified past for them. What’s surprising is that the characters start to actually believe in their new fabricated past, and go to weird length to prove that it indeed exists and have other folks believe it.
Felix Ventura’s own past of course is equally fascinating and ethereal. His great Grandfather is Frederick Douglass, and Felix has his portrait hanging in the living room, and other pictures with his grandfather and father. In his drawers he has authentic birth certificates that prove the connection.
The book has the dream-like and enchanting quality of Scheherazade, but is distinct in the way it offers both psychological and physical movements across the world. The characters are seasoned travelers, some quite restless—Angela Lucia and Jose Buchmann, and as professional photographers are able to wander across America, the Amazon basin, Africa, Europe, Middle East and back to Angola, in journeys that are crucial to the characters and the novel’s plot. One of Agualusa’s greatest strength in this book is that the characters and gecko take over the story. At no time do you sense a contrived plot. The stories flow and connect into smaller and bigger worlds, as the characters go on to amuse and reveal who they really are, both in their invented newness and unspoken past. The transformations are (in)credible and have a lightness that’s pleasing. Everyone is a chameleon, so to speak, with hidden identities, changing and changeable.
This book has been special to me because it provides a clear picture of a successful book: I can read it again and again. There are many good books, even great books, but very few that one would wish to read again. When you find one that you can revisit from time to time, now that’s a rare find. I first discussed The Book of Chameleons in 2009 at Suffolk University Campus, Dakar. Two years later I’m still thrilled by it, and in between I’ve read about 400 fiction books. I’ll definitely enjoy teaching this book in future. Click here to skim through some pages.
Agualusa’s other engaging novels available in English (translated by Daniel Hahn) are Rainy Season, My Father’s Wives, and Creole.