Book of Chameleons (Angola)

Book coverby Jose Eduardo Agualusa

winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Literature, 2007

“Reality is painful and imperfect [she said]. That’s how we distinguish it from dreams.”

“The principal difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is that in the former there exists only one truth, the truth as imposed by power, while in free countries every man has the right to defend his own version of events.”

The writing in this book is so gorgeous I was tempted, upon finishing, to start again at page one. It reminded me of the better films of the Cohen brothers – you need to have things explained when you finish. At least I do.

Lots of people call this a murder mystery. I question whether they’ve actually read it or are quoting from some other review. There is certainly a mystery here, but the order of events is a departure from Agatha Christie.

The Gorgeousness

What did I love about the book? To quote David Sedaris, “he talk pretty.” And it’s funny. And the characters were interesting, especially the black albino Felix Ventura and the client whose past he invents. Felix isn’t above inventing some of his own past – his new girlfriend recognizes one of his ancestors (in a portrait on the wall) as Frederick Douglass.

The bits of history are very subtle, but they’re here – slaveowners, Brazil, Portugal, Marxism-Lenninism. There are a lot of descriptions about the light. How it is different in Luanda and the provinces and Paris and East Berlin. This isn’t one of those books where you get a feel for what life is like in everyday Angola, or even very much about Angolan life at all.

Angolan flagThis is a rarified circle of Angolans, rooted in the past in both gentility and violence. The author says in the Q & A that what is most Angolan about the book is the desire people have for respectable pasts…he was talking about middle-class Africans wanting acceptance from the snobbish, Portuguese-speaking upper class, but…

I would paraphrase – some characters desire pasts that don’t really belong to them. Pasts they haven’t earned; pasts they aren’t entitled to – whitewashed pasts, with no blemishes.

Definitely read the Q & A with the author at the end of the book. It answered the question I still had at the end of the book, about that narrator who is a gecko?

Since that landmine blows up on page 16, I’m not giving much away. It is the Book of Chameleons after all…but I totally didn’t get that there was way more to the gecko than that…

Angolan bankAnyway, if you enjoy language in the hands of a master craftsman, you’ll love reading this book.

Five Esperancas!

(The albino’s servant, old Esperanca, was once spared being killed in a massacre because the commandant thought it was funny to save her until last…since Hope dies last. Then he ran out of bullets.)