This is my first foray into Angolan fiction, or for that matter fiction from that part of Africa, having limited myself, sadly, to Achebe, North Africa and thereabouts. However, this rising star of African and Portuguese fiction, who has won numerous prizes, including the Grand prize for literature, Independent foreign fiction prize 2007 and others is being considered as a rising star in Portuguese literary circles. He is also the first Angolan writer to be translated into English and having come across this writer on the Internet and at Three percent, I took the chance to buy two of his novels Creole and The Book Of Chameleons.
One must perhaps ask whether this is Angolan or Portuguese fiction and whether both are actually the same? Is Salman Rushdie an Indian writer or an Indian writer writing in English, though his nationality is British. Indian readers of Rushdie's fiction are perhaps reading a different writer compared to his English readers. This question might be academic or perhaps political. Agualusa is white and Angolan but the novels are written in Portuguese which to me are not the same. However, that, maybe later.
I decided to read The Book Of Chameleons, published in the Portuguese as, "O vendedor de passados," which simply means The seller of pasts though the English title is different, there being not even one chameleon in it. This novel has been described as "Strange, elliptical, charming" and "humorous and with a fierce originality" with the Independent claiming that "not since Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis have we had a convincing non-human narrator". The narrator of this novel is a gecko, who in a previous life was a man. This gecko lives in the house of Felix Ventura and we are introduced into Ventura's world slowly. Ventura invents pasts for people if they are unhappy about it, with new lineage and new memories, photos and a completely new biography. Into this strange world, as the gecko lets us in, comes a man who wants a new past which he is easily given. but as it turns out, this new past turns out to be this man's , Buchmann he is called, as actually his real past, memories and all.
The gecko, who meditates and reflects on these events and lets us share his own past, his dreams and his memories, and his conversations with Ventura, clearly is amazed at this turn of events but not surprised. For the gecko is convinced of the frailty of human memory and the state of human desire. His conversations or his narrations have the flair of poetry sometimes and usually they are grim and sad thoughts of his own previous life, childhood and so on.
I am surprised as to why the narrator of this novel is a gecko and what is the purpose? Is this of a symbolic or allegorical importance? Even though Angola has gone through a traumatic civil war with millions displaced, there are flimsy references to these events though the invention of past for a Government minister serves some purpose at least. The style of this novel is impressive, it is not weighty, in fact I breezed through this novel. It is easy reading, compact and at times rises to attempt poetry but fails at the final moment when words usually overflow over the brim. Some passages are quite good, the evocation of Luandan smells and sights, its evenings is at times well done. However, nowhere does this novel rise above the level it takes to become really great. I find it still readable but I doubt whether I will read it again.
Ventura gives a few insights into his profession and at one point says...."name a profession - any profession - that doesn't sometimes have recourse to lying, a profession in which a man who only tells the truth would be welcomed." "I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature,” he told me conspiratorially. “I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into reality.” Nowhere did I feel that our gecko reminded one of Samsa and I find this comparison unnecessary.
There are some very good reviews of this book here and here, the authors website ( I think he is quite good looking) To be honest, I am not really sure what I think of this novel. May be I didn't even understand it. I am hoping that creole will be better for it looks into slavery, Angolan history and related issues. I am quoting this passage, which I thought is the best in the entire book.
"Memory is a landscape watched from the window of a moving train. We watch the dawn light break over the acacia trees, the birds pecking at the morning, as though at a fruit. Further off we see the serenity of a river, and the trees embracing its banks. We see the cattle slowly grazing, holding hands, children dancing around a football, the ball shining in the sun. We see the calm lakes where there are ducks swimming, rivers heavy with water where elephants quench their thirst. These things happen right before our very eyes, we know them to be real, but they are so far away we cannot touch them. some are so far, some very far away, and the moving train so fast, that we can't be sure any longer that they did really happen. Maybe we merely dreamed them my memory is already failing me, we say and maybe it was just the darkening of the sky".