A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn
“Some biologists argue that a single bee, a single ant, is nothing more than the mobile cells of one individual. The true organisms are the beehive and the ant nest.” In A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa presents us with the beehive of Luanda and its recent history. Beginning with the extraordinary premise of a Portuguese woman who bricks herself into her apartment on the eve of Angolan independence, the novel gradually introduces character after character, their stories tessellating in unexpected ways.
With no connection to the city, Ludo views the events with puzzlement from her eleventh-floor eyrie, showing us scraps of Angola’s complex development varying from brutal arrests to a domesticated pygmy hippo. All around her, however, others are involved directly and we come to hear their stories too. Agualusa’s patchwork structure perfectly reflects the city’s organized chaos over twenty-eight years, each chapter standing alone but skilfully fitting into the whole.
Embedded within a convincing fiction of its own, the novel basks in the joy of slow storytelling. Poets are swallowed up by the earth, lovers separated and reunited, men killed and resurrected, the rich become poor and the poor become millionaires. The author enjoys teasing us with revelations we could never have seen coming, and as he does so his characters flesh out and take on unforeseen dimensions. There are no simple judgements here – just as Ludo moves from outright racism to love of Luanda and her neighbours, so a mercenary finds a family and a torturer finds morals. Each shift arranges the novel’s reality anew.
Agualusa’s language is pared down but equally inventive, using diaries and poetry written in charcoal on Ludo’s walls, humorous asides and words in local languages. Daniel Hahn has written a subtly sparkling English version, his translation never overpowering the original but helping Anglophone readers with inconspicuous interventions. The translator plays with English sounds, giving us poets with “more interest in pursuing the booze than the muse,” “gangly greyhounds and heavy asthmatic mastiffs” and “young people with lustrous, rust-coloured skin.” Hahn’s rendering of a fourteen-word poem retains beauty, brevity and wordplay – a great accomplishment.
Even while A General Theory of Oblivion details starvation, torture and killings and revolves around our need to forget, its tone and message are concerned with love. One of the novel’s pivotal animal characters is even named Love. It is love that redeems Ludo and others, and it is love for the novel’s Luanda setting that steeps the narrative in idiosyncratic detail. The writer gives his readers both understanding and hope, taking Angolan stories and making them universally applicable. No one is truly alone in José Eduardo Agualusa’s Luanda beehive, and his characters make us, too, feel deeply connected to the world.