Wednesday, 19 September 2012

José Eduardo Agualusa

And yet another review for Africa Reading Challenge:

Angola. I keep returning to it in this challenge. First I reviewed Luandino Vieira’s Luuanda, then Pepetela’s The Return of the Water Spirit. Obviously I felt an obligation to review the third great name in contemporary Angolan literature: José Eduardo Agualusa. Born in 1960, he’s the author of a vast oeuvre that includes novels, short-stories, travelogues, children’s books, poetry and theatre.

Perhaps I always return to Angola because of all African Portuguese-speaking countries, not only does Angola have the biggest literary production but it has also met the most success with translations. Agualusa himself won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for his novel The Book of Chameleons. When I say success with translations, however, I mean he’s been lucky enough to have four of his books translated into English. His winning the prize is a good example that prizes and awards do little for foreign writers in English-speaking countries. Since then only two more novels have been translated. Agualusa is likely as forgotten as Pepetela, whose best novels have not yet seen English translations, much to the loss of lovers of good literature.

The novel I’m reviewing, his first novel, isn’t available in English. It’s called A Conjura (1989), literally The Plot. It’s a historical novel set in the final decades of the 19th century and continuing beyond the regicide of the Portuguese king in 1908 and the proclamation of the Republic in 1910, an event that Angolan nationalists hoped would result in their country’s own independence. It didn’t. It was a period in Angola’s history when the country’s southern territories were at war with the colonial authorities. It was the time of the Berlin Conference, Portugal’s disastrous dispute with Great Britain over the Pink Map, and the British Ultimatum to Portugal. It was a time when Angola was an underdeveloped backwater where the metropolis dumped its undesirables, much in the way England used Australia. It was a colony that lacked hospitals, schools, roads, trains. Progress wasn’t exactly in the colonial administrators’ minds. “What we need to do is sell alcohol and intrigues to the blacks,” a despicable official declares after arriving in the country and noticing that blacks and mulattos enjoy too many privileges for his liking. There were several class and racial divisions within society, first and second class citizens, with the blacks and mulattos nevertheless being allowed to join public administration. Under the circumstances it’s not surprising thoughts of sedition germinated. What the novel does is capture the first rumors of revolution and secret conspiracies to arouse the wretched masses against their European masters. The plot of the title comes from the plans orchestrated by a secret society that meets and discusses at Jerónimo Caninguili’s barbershop, in clear imitation of the fabled salons where the free thinkers who organized the French Revolution met.

Freshly arrived in Luanda, the gentle and peaceful Caninguili, familiar nevertheless with the anarchist ideas of Peter Kropotkin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, permits his barbershop to be turned into a club of ideas patronized by Angolan nationalists, businessmen, men of letters and journalists. “The themes went from the usual political and commercial questions to the arts and literatures, and to the unraveling of the latest mundane rumours, always huge and delicious.” Around this barbershop a cast of character orbits that gives the novel much of its life, incidents and anecdotes, for this is, in spite of everything, a comical novel.

Through the dreams, hopes and actions of the characters the author paints a vivid picture of a society divided between those who want to maintain their ties with Portugal and those who sneer at their masters. “What’s the point of being equal to a miserable, illiterate and brutish people?” asks a nationalist to an Angolan calling himself a Portuguese. “And which pretends to civilize us by sending us the worst from its social gutters: thieves, murderers, prostitutes?”

But not every Angolan sees Portugal in this negative light, like César Augusto, a sixteen-year-old mulatto with a vocation for lyrical poetry, an immense love Camões and a propensity for extolling the civilizing enterprises of white men; hated by black men for his treasonous ideals and by the white for his exaggerated love for Portugal, he’s a symbol of a society in search of an identity. “César Augusto liked to imagine himself an ancient knight, in brave crusades in strange lands, defeating moors or rescuing damsels, leading formidable armies through Portugal’s savannahs. His heroes were Justiniano Padrel and Bessa Victor and he followed closely their repeated successes, vibrated with each victory, suffered with every predicament. When visited by the muses he produced epic sonnets which he then declaimed to the seagulls in the solitude of the beaches. At the time he worked at Mr. Antoninho’s pharmacy, and he impatiently waited for his eighteenth birthday so he could enlist in the army and follow a career in the military.”

Justiniano Padrel and Bessa were military heroes of the time, famous for their roles in quelling the revolts in the southern part of the country. Many references are made to real life people, including the famous Portuguese explorer Serpa Pinto, who journeyed across Africa and wrote the travelling classic How I Crossed Africa (1880). As the news of the uprisings in the south grow, however, voices like César Augusto’s disappear from the narrative and the secret Society tries to set in motions a revolution. Anyone who has read my previous reviews of Luandino Vieira and Pepetela, however, knows that Angola didn’t become independent until 1975, so the reader can guess how well their plans fared. Because their lack of money, volunteers and weapons – although some are generously offered by Brazil, which had become a Republic a few decades before – and because the country hasn’t reached that point where it’s willing to rise as one. That will have to wait.

Luandino Vieira wrote very well of the Angola of the Estado Novo dictatorship, which was the Angola of his time, and Pepetela has done a magnificent job chronicling the changes in post-independence Angolan society. Ondjaki, whom I’ve written about elsewhere, has written what it was like to grow up in a communist Angola. This is all relatively recent history. But I liked the way Agualusa’s novel concerned itself with history. I like how this novel revealed a new nuance about this country. The author rediscovered history and brought it to life. It’s sometimes hard to know, let alone imagine, that anything of important or interesting was going on in a colony at the turn of the last century. This is one of the merits of literature, to fight this historical and cultural amnesia. For that reason A Conjura is very much worth reading. And perhaps translating too.


  1. Good review. Book of Chameleon was fabulous. I need to read him again soon..

    by the way my African Reading Challenge is rather disastrous.

  2. Ah, a shame it's not available in English! I really enjoyed your review, and think I would enjoy this book. Maybe one day it'll get translated...

    1. Hello, Andrew, thank you for stopping by and for the kind words.

      Agualusa is a very good writer and there's no reason - save monetary ones - to be so neglected in the English-speaking world.

  3. I really enjoyed "Um pai em nascimento", a book made of the chronicles he wrote for the magazine "Pais and filhos" (Fathers and sons) about the fact of becoming a father. I don't know though if it's been translated in English already. These chronicles are at the same time very deep as they express the feelings every father encounters on his way to becoming a father, the hopes of the father-to-be and the exhausting pleasures of the father after the birth of his child, and yet very light of tone, a real pleasure to read.

    1. I hadn't heard of that book, it seems very interesting.

      I recently got his travel book "Um Estranho em Goa."