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Saturday 15 December 2018

International Dublin Literary Award 2017: José Eduardo Agualusa wins for A General Theory of Oblivion

Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa poses for a photograph with his book A General Theory of Oblivion at a photocall in London on May 15, 2016, ahead of the announcement of the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. PHOTO: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa poses for a photograph with his book A General Theory of Oblivion at a photocall in London on May 15, 2016, ahead of the announcement of the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. PHOTO: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Angolan author José Eduardo Agualusa has been announced as the winner of the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award 2017 for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion.

Agualusa beat nine other shortlisted titles from across the world, including Irish author Anne Enright's The Green Road, to claim the prestigious €100,000 prize which he shares with his translator Daniel Hahn.

Nominations for the award, which aims to promote excellence in literature, are made my public libraries in major cities globally and panel of judges then decides the shortlist and ultimate winner.

Speaking to Independent.ie, Agualusa said, "For me the most important thing is the prize is given by public libraries and I think that it is a wonderful model.  I really appreciate that. And also the fact that the prize is also for the translator.  I really like that also."

The prize is divided into €75,000 for the writer and €25,000 for the translator, who are often unsung heroes of the publishing world.

"I completely agree.  A large part of the success of a book, if the book has success, is because of translation.  I have luck to have Danny since the beginning as my English translator," says Agualusa.

"Bear in mind I’m sitting next to him as he does this interview!  I don’t allow any interviews without me being present," jokes Daniel.

They have worked together for several years with Daniel translating Jose's previous books Creole, The Book of Chameleons, My Father's Wives, and Rainy Season from Portuguese to English.  Trust is a hugely important part of the relationship.

Daniel adds, "I had a conversation not long ago with a writer and we were trying to describe the parasitic relationship between a writer and a translator and as we spoke I realised that each of us thought the other one was the parasite in the conversation," he laughs.

"The translator thinks 'he’s using my voice and my language' and the writer thinks 'he’s using my stories and my voice'.  It’s a symbiotic relationship, I would say, rather than parasitic!"

Six of the final ten shortlisted titles for the International Dublin Literary Award are works translated into English.  Agualusa feels this indicates English speaking European countries Ireland and Britain are beginning to become open more to books written by authors from different countries.

"The translations to English are very few," he says, "When you are looking at other European countries the largest part of fiction comes from other languages.  In the English speaking countries it’s just a tiny part, like 2 per cent.  In Portugal or France it is more than 50 per cent.  But it seems something is changing now."

When he's writing he is aware that most of his readers will not be Angolan.

"African writers have more readers outside of our countries than inside our countries," he says. 

"The majority of people in Angola have no access to books, no public libraries.  That’s why I love so much public libraries.  Books are very expensive.  So that’s why we have more readers in Europe."

A General Theory of Oblivion is set in Angola and revolves around a Portuguese woman, Ludo, who, on the eve of Angolan independence, bricks herself into her apartment where she remains for the next 30 years, living off vegetables and pigeons and writing her story on the walls of her home.

The outside world slowly seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of a man fleeing his pursuers and a note attached to a bird’s foot. Until one day she meets Sabalu, a young boy from the street who climbs up to her terrace.

"It’s completely fiction," says Agualusa, who was a journalist in a previous life.

"It came to me some years ago.  I was working as a journalist in Angola.  I lived in [the capital] Luanda during some time in an apartment similar to that of the book, a building that was from colonial times, a building for rich people. And then it was completely occupied by poor people and when I was in this apartment it was in the middle of becoming a rich building again.  It was a very politically hard time in Angola because I was a journalist, I wrote for newspapers, and the government didn’t appreciate so much my work.  I had a lot of problems at that time.  Sometimes I felt more comfortable at home and I started thinking what if I never come out?  It comes to me, this character, a Portugese woman, and I start thinking as her.  Some friend of mine asked me to write a script [for a film] and I told him about this story and he bought it.  I wrote a script first but because he never did the movie some years later I decided to write the novel."

The process took more than ten years.  Although the political landscape of the time (the book starts in the mid 70s) is complex and the characters lives unfold against that backdrop, character is his priority.

"For me the politics is not the most important thing," says the author.  "The most important thing is the character and the how and why she was so afraid of the others.  It’s not important to understand what’s happening in the outside world I think."

He reveals he "prefers" to write as a woman. 

"For me it’s a challenge but just because of that, exactly because of that, I prefer to write as a woman," he reveals.

"It’s much more interesting when the main character is different to  you.  I think it’s best to be the 'other', this experience of being the other, being very different to you, it’s a challenge and also you write to discover things.  That’s why we write.  We write to discover the other.  I really love this character because she is very different from me."

After it's decade-long gestation, it's wonderful to see the book, which last year made the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, being devoured by fans all over the world.

"For me it’s interesting to understand what people think about the book," he says.  "For me it’s very important to know what people think, what my readers think.  I just know what I have written so after I publish the book and after people talk to me and say, ‘I like your book’ because of this or that....  I really think a book is not complete if there is no reader to help me understand what I have written."


I just finished a new novel which was just published in Portugese so I promote that in Portugal and then I am going to Brazil.  I hope so!  Daniel just signed the contract two days ago.

I don’t get to escape so easily.  H keeps writing novels.

When I die Daniel will continue writing my books after!

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