Jose Eduardo Agualusa; Trans. Daniel Hahn

Winner of the 2017 Dublin International Literary Award and shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn, tells the story of the 1970s Angolan war for independence and its aftermath.

The story unfolds by patching together a series of vignettes, snippets of diaries, poems, snapshots of events, characters who participate in the mayhem and those who avoid it, the back stories of each character, and their interlocking threads. The narrative alternates between first person and third person.

The war is seen through the eyes of several characters, primarily through the eyes of Ludo, a victim of rape who suffers from agoraphobia. At the onset of civil turmoil, Ludo walls herself up in her apartment. Living in total isolation for nearly 30 years, she survives by restricting her diet, growing her own fruits and vegetables, and consuming the occasional pigeon she has killed. The events outside her apartment are experienced at a distance through hurried snatches and glimpses: demonstrations, people chased by mobs and shoved into vans, corpses abandoned on the roadside, residents in neighboring buildings, and gangs of young men with guns roaming the streets. She hears gunshots and listens to the radio. She records what she sees, what she thinks, and what she feels in her diaries, and when she runs out of paper, she writes on the walls.

Weaving in and out of Ludo’s narrative are the stories of characters who experience the events from differing vantage points. Among them are a former prisoner who survived torture, a security official who tortured him, a young boy living off the streets, and a former orderly at the hospital. Their lives intersect in a tangled web that is gradually revealed as the events unfold. All the characters converge in Ludo’s apartment at the novel’s conclusion.

For the most part, the prose is straightforward and concise, but occasionally, a line will jump out at you for its sheer lyricism and beauty. The format is unusual. Each chapter is introduced with a telling, succinct phrase. Chapter lengths vary from a few short lines to several pages. The format reinforces the episodic nature of the narrative—from short vignettes to descriptions of longer episodes. The focus is not on the tumultuous events but on the impact they have on individual lives. The characters are caught up in circumstances beyond their control. They struggle to survive amid the horror and brutality. Some do it by physically hiding while others disengage psychologically. But all lapse into some form of oblivion or a yearning for oblivion as a means of coping.

The episodic nature of the narrative with snapshots here, glimpses there, and interlocking threads widens the scope but provides little depth to the events or characters. What emerges from this unusual format is a panoramic view of a civil war and its impact on the lives of individuals. The fleeting glimpses barely skim the surface of character development. But this may be intentional as it opens the possibility that the characters are not intended to be well-rounded and unique. Their experiences and forays into oblivion transcend the individualistic. Instead, they are generic and speak to the universal experience of all who have lived through the turmoil of a civil war and who wish to bury nightmare memories deep in the shadows of oblivion.

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review