Thursday 19 July 2018

Books: A tale of 30 years of solitude

Fiction: A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa, Harvill Secker, hbk, 256 pages €20.50

Inspired by real life: José Eduardo Agualusa's novel forces the reader to question where the line between truth and art might lie.
Inspired by real life: José Eduardo Agualusa's novel forces the reader to question where the line between truth and art might lie.
A General Theory of Oblivion

Ruth Gilligan

From the beginning of José Eduardo Agualusa's new novel we are told: "Ludovica never liked having to face the sky". So instead, Ludo decides to brick herself into her apartment for three whole decades with nothing but a monkey called Che Guevara and an albino dog for company. Ironically, this act of enclosure takes place on the eve of Angolan Independence, a political backdrop which only penetrates Ludo's world through snatched voices on the radio or occasional bouts of gunfire from the street below.

As one of Angola's most prominent writers and journalists, Agualusa's fiction has always sought new ways to explore his country's turbulent past. Winner of the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature, he was also awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for his excellent novel The Book of Chameleons in which an albino named Félix makes a living by fabricating new histories for those trying to alter their lives.

In A General Theory of Oblivion, Ludo has replaced Félix as the oddball protagonist (though her albino pet is undoubtedly a nod to her predecessor). Meanwhile, a series of histories and lives appear here via the countless subplots which weave themselves around Ludo's plight, each minor character afforded an elaborate and intertwining back story.

Unsurprisingly, Agualusa has cited Gabriel García Márquez as an influence, and certainly the style here is wholly reminiscent of the Colombian master's (even if Ludo doesn't quite manage one hundred years of solitude, only 30 of them).

Over the course of this solitude, Ludo burns her furniture and books for warmth, writes quotes on her walls and poems in her diary, extracts of which feature throughout the novel in very short, elaborately-titled chapters: "IN WHICH A DISAPPEARANCE IS CLEARED UP (ALMOST TWO), OR HOW, TO QUOTE MARX: ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR".

These diaries in turn recall Agualusa's original inspiration for the story, as explained in the novel's foreword. For a real-life woman named Ludovica did indeed shut herself away in her apartment for 28 years, during which she kept a series of diaries which Agualusa read and "made use of". And yet, despite this, Agualusa insists that the book is a work of "pure fiction", thus calling to question where the line between truth and art might actually lie.

In the novel's afterword, Agualusa offers another revelation - that the book originally started life as a screenplay - and this time, there is no question, no surprise. For while A General Theory of Oblivion includes some exceptional images and set pieces - each page brimming with imagination - we never fully succeed in getting inside Ludo's head; in truly feeling her anguish. So that while we happily watch this curious world unfold, the recluse herself ultimately remains sealed away from the reader, too.

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