The 48th book in my Reading Around The World Project, A General Theory Of Oblivion is a kaleidescopic novel covering three decades of upheaval in an African nation as witnessed by a motley collection of characters.
On the eve of Angolan independence, Ludovica Fernandes Mano (known as Ludo) bricks herself into a top floor apartment in one of the most luxurious buildings in the capital city of Luanda. Cut off from the other occupants, and the entire world, she survives initially on left-over food supplies, produce she grows on her balcony and pigeons she manages to ensnare. For company she has her dog and a vast collection of books.
Many of the books have to be sacrificed, along with furniture and floorboards, for fuel. Once her supply of notebooks is exhausted, she resorts to using the walls to keep a journal in which she record her thoughts and experiences.
Is Ludo a figment of imagination or was there indeed such a woman? José Eduardo Agualusa proves to be somewhat of a tease in this respect. In his foreword claims to have had access to documents written by the “real” Ludovica Fernandes Mano, as well as photographs of her apartment and texts. He says he used much of her first-hand account or the novel. But he also adds a word of caution: ” What you will read is, however, fiction. Pure fiction.”.
A General Theory Of Oblivion might be “pure fiction” but it’s far from being a straight forward work of prose. It’s not a linear narrative for one thing, but hops about in time and from one character to another. There are even some non human characters in the form of an albino Alsation and a performing pygmy hippo.
Ludo’s secluded life is told via a third person narrative which is broken up by snippets of her diary and some poetry, both giving insight into her changing mental state. Through her observations from the balcony and from short chapters focused on other characters, we discover the formative years of the new country. The history of the independence movement is handled with a light touch — no long expositions mercifully — so we get to discover almost in passing how it disintegrated into factional fighting and civil war.
The early part of the novel was confusing yet intriguing because it wasn’t evident what roles all these people have in the story. The links between them, and to Ludo, do materialise by the end. But the brief set piece in which a bunch of them manage to turn up simultaneously at Ludo’s apartment strained at the boundaries of credulity for me.
As the title indicates, the key theme of the novel is clearly that of oblivion in the dual sense of forgetting and disappearance. Many of the characters wish they could physically separate themselves from what is happening in their country or that they could obliterate from their minds, some events in their past. For Ludo, seclusion and distance from the world is her way of dealing with a traumatic incident in her earlier life (“the Accident”). She’s suffered with agoraphobia ever since but alone in the apartment, she reflects on a more complete withdrawal from the world:
If I still had the space, the charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting, a general theory of oblivion. I realise I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library after I have died all that remains will be my voice.
What she learns is that total separation from the world is not possible. It constantly intrudes in the voices she hears from neighbouring apartments and the life she observes through her windows. Ultimately, the outside world proves to be her salvation.
There was poetry in the prose which isn’t surprising because Agualusa began his writing career as a poet. As an example we find: “The night, like a well, was swallowing stars.” and the Haiki:
I am oyster-sized
kept apart here with my pearls
shards in the abyss
An interesting book but not without its flaws. Ludo was the most fully formed character, and though those chapters were often the shortest (sometimes lasting just a page), they had the most emotional depth. I came to view the chapters focused on other characters as an irritant, a distraction from discovering more about Ludo’s life.
The poetry and the characterisation of Ludo made the book enjoyable but I wouldn’t class this as a memorable read.
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa: Footnotes
José Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola, and studied agronomy and forestry before turning to literature. He is considered one of the leading literary voices in Angola and the Portuguese-speaking world. His novel Creole was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature, His 2007 novel The Book of Chameleons won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A General Theory of Oblivion
A General Theory of Oblivion, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, was published by Vintage in 2016. It won the International Dublin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.