People in glass houses have long memories

Posted on June 12, 2012

2 one who throws the stone forgets; the one who is hit remembers forever – Angolan Proverb

This strikes me (forgive the pun) as a particularly depressing proverb for a country that has been at war for over half a century, first in the fight for independence (1961-1975) and then in an internecine struggle for power (1975-2002). That’s a lot of stones thrown and a lot of eternal memories.  And memories are what Agualusa’s stunning, little truffle of a novel, The Book of Chameleons is about.

The plot is slim as is the book itself. An albino Félix Ventura, whose own back story is unreliable, creates pasts for those who have things to forget.  Like a sweaty, stage play, all the action centres on his house, a hot, claustrophobic space described through the viewpoint of the house gecko and narrator, Eulálio.  To relieve the tension of being in one location, Agualusa makes continual references to Brazil, Cuba, New York and Lisbon as if real life exists elsewhere. Or at least true identity exists or existed elsewhere.   Into Félix’s life come the beautiful Angela Lúcia and the mysterious, nameless until Félix names him, José Buchmann.  What plot there is unfolds near the end, with a slight shock and small shudder.  No spoiler alerts here though, you’ll have to read it. The plot, however, is not what makes this such a delicious and rich book.   This is a book of themes; identity, memory, past, forgetting, naming, reincarnation.  Honestly, you could write a dissertation on the themes in this novel and still not unpick them all. Given that it’s only 180 pages long, this gives you some idea of how extraordinary it is.

Agualusa’s skill is in dealing with these themes in such a deft fashion.  Having Félix, the creator of pasts, as his main character, the present and near past are lightly and obliquely dealt with. In post war countries, particularly after civil war, a conscious collective memory loss is not unusual but rarely has it been fictionalised in such a smart way.  Through the new identities that Félix’s clients assume, the difference between memory and past is explored and notions of becoming and reincarnating are examined – in the case of the gecko, actual reincarnation.  In Buchmann’s case, this new identity is so completely assumed that he tries to solve the mystery at the centre of his made up mother’s life – or so it seems – everything is a bit slippy.

Everything works hard in this novel.  Agualusa is a master of efficiency. Names are enlisted to build character. Félix Ventura (Happy Accident – abandoned on a doorstep and happily found), Angela Lúcia (Angel Light – obsessed with photographing light), Eulálio (Well-spoken – the narrator). And, my personal favourite, Buchmann’s nemesis, an ex-agent and current tramp, Barata dos Reis (Cockroach of Kings – ex-torturer).

Ideas of identity are further examined through a leitmotif of mirrors (notably fairground ones which reflect distortedly), and character doubles, again almost identical, but with an extra mole here, or a change of eyebrow there. Even characters are paired/doubled, Félix/Eulálio, Angela/Buchmann.   By the end of the book you feel as if you’re in a room of mirrors, themes bouncing around to infinity, able to see, as in a cubist painting, all perspectives at once.  Oh bollocks, perspective, there’s another theme.  I did warn you.  And dreams, did I mention dreams?

In his Guardian review  Nicholas Lezzard raises one criticism when he questions the translation of the title.  He notes that a direct translation from the Portuguese would be ‘The Seller of Pasts’. A title he feels would be more apt. He comments that the lizard in the book is not a chameleon but a gecko, so why have a chameleon in the title? I think he’s missing the point. Firstly, I suspect, that the title is a nod to that Portuguese classic, Pessoa’s fragmented autobiography, The Book of Disquiet which gets a mention (along with other literary giants) in Agualusa’s book. Second and more importantly, the chameleons (plural Nicholas plural) are all the inhabitants of post-war Angola. The people who come to Félix Ventura’s house looking to recreate their past, change their colours, present themselves newly minted to face the present and the future. Yet like chameleons, though they camouflage themselves, they only look like a leaf they don’t become a leaf.

Finally, Lezzard says he can’t reach a conclusion about the inclusion of a gecko as the narrator. ‘Magical realism?’ he ponders uncertainly. Frankly, I’m not sure either, but I think it has more to do with ventriloquism than magical realism, but let’s not go there. We could be here all night.