Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Book of Chameleons

The Book of Chameleons / José Eduardo Agualusa; translated by Daniel Hahn.
New York: Simon & Schuster, c2008.
192 p.
In this strange and short novel by Portugese speaking Angolan author Agualusa, our narrator is a gecko. (In interviews he says that the book is an homage to Jorge Luis Borges, and the gecko is Borges reincarnated -- due to my lack of familiarity with South American fiction I didn't catch that while reading, but it makes perfect sense now that I've seen it mentioned.)
Our gecko (a charming narrator) lives in the house of Felix Ventura, an albino who makes his living by creating illustrious pasts with a full complement of ancestors for those who feel rootless. There is nothing criminal in his creations; at least, not until he is approached by a large-sized foreigner, who wants a complete new identity. Felix's work provides new futures for his clients, but how much can really be forgotten? And can one's personal life truly escape the political reverberations of the Angolan Civil War?
This is a brief novel, with only a few characters, and most of it takes place in Felix's house -- but it feels expansive. It abounds in ideas -- in meditations on identity, on truth and memory, on literature, but it is not drily cerebral. Rather, it is very sensuously told, the heat and the scents of the country creating an enchantment over you while reading which makes you believe you are really listening to a gecko speaking. It is a dream which is abruptly shattered at the conclusion as political realities intrude on the attempt to forget the past and reforge a more palatable future. There is a thread of mystery throughout the novel; who is the foreigner? Are the people who visit Felix telling him the truth about their lives? Why does Felix seem to be the fulcrum for these lives to intersect?
This is a brilliantly told, fascinating novel drawing on South American, Spanish and Portugese literary traditions. The author, born in Angola, lives partly in Angola but also in Brazil and Portugal. His well-travelled, wordly mind is in evidence here, to dazzle us with an original and unusual tale. He has written 7 novels, 3 of which have been translated into English so far. I'm looking forward to finding more of his work, and hope there will be further translations as well. The original title of this one was O Vendedor de Passados. However, I think the English title, The Book of Chameleons, manages to capture the ever shifting nature of identity in the story, even though the main narrator is actually a gecko. ;) If you'd like to read a very different kind of African book, this is well worth searching out.


  1. I love the cover of this book.

  2. I love different...thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

  3. This books sounds really great. I need to read more books in translation, and this would be an excellent choice. Thanks for the review!


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