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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

permeable dreams

“I can never remember faces, only feelings,” says the narrator of Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons.

The narrator in question is himself pure feeling, pure memory. As a man he is insubstantial; in fact, he is not a man at all. As we realise with a start after the first chapter of the novel, he is a gecko. He lives in an old book-lined house in Luanda, a house that is a bit like an old steamship hauling itself through the river mud. He is the lifelong pet, or more accurately the friend, of an old man called Félix Ventura, a bibliomaniac, romantic, and dreamer.

When the story begins, Félix Ventura is inviting a nameless stranger into his house. The stranger comes with demands. Félix obliges him, for it is his work precisely to work with nameless strangers, and to turn them into men with names, with identities, with noble genealogies. This particular stranger, though, wants more than stories: he wants a passport, certificates, authentic official documents. “I invent dreams for people,” Félix says, “but I am not a forger.”

But a bag full of money, five-thousand dollars to be exact (with more on the way), soon convinces him that perhaps being a well-paid forger isn’t the worst of fates. Within a few weeks, he has created for the stranger a solid new identity as José Buchmann, war photographer, and scion of one of the most noble families of Sao Pedro da Chibia, in the south of the country.

All this is told from the point of view of the gecko. Now, I am not necessarily fond of animal narrators—I have no inclination to pick up Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, narrated by a dog, or Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home starring the eponymous bear as a New York jazz musician. I prefer my stories to be narrated by human beings. Call it speciesm. But perhaps I have misjudged the genre. Agualusa shows one way of doing it right: give the talking animal enough human sympathies to keep our interest in the story alive.

In the case of the gecko (not a chameleon, but more about that later), these sympathies come from the fact that, in a previous life, he was a human being. And so, though he is but a laughing gecko now, a rare reptile kept as a domestic pet, he is attuned to the shifts and turns, the longings and deceptions of human beings. He can scuttle to the ceiling or behind a bookcase, and be privy to any and all conversations. The reader imagines too that the narrative, with its short, sharp takes, is a mirror of the reptilian brain. Events flick in and out quickly, like a gecko’s tongue extending and retracting at speed, as it consumes mosquitos.

“Whenever I hear about something completely impossible, I believe it at once,” Félix says at one point, to Angela Lucia, another photographer he has befriended. Agualusa’s method seems to be that of accruing weirdness, defying disbelief. And though his prose style is brazenly indebted to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and to Jorge Luis Borges, I find that the sensibility also echoes that of Lusophone writers like Fernando Pessoa and Antonio Lobo Antunes—a wise, declarative style, plainspoken when viewed from one angle, but almost deliriously lush when viewed from another.

The emotional core of Agualusa’s tale is in the matter of shifting identities. Félix introduces himself as a genealogist, an inventor of pasts. But at a certain point, it’s not even clear whether he can distinguish between what really happened in the past, who was whose grandfather. All assertions threaten to become the truth within the swirl of his memory. As an albino, his appearance is ambiguous. He is neither white nor black; he is an Angolan who looks vaguely European.

His finest invention, José Buchmann, is not José Buchmann, but a man playing that role, a man who vanishes into the role invented for him. Another major character, the previously mentioned Angela Lucia, is a beautiful woman. She also happens to be a photographer, though she prefers to describe herself as a collector of light. Felix harbours hopes that she will soon invite him to bed. In her every gesture, both a yes and a no are present. Her inconstancy wafts through the old house like a perfume.

And the gecko, most intriguingly, inhabits the slippery boundary between his reptilian present and his human past. At moments, one is almost convinced that he is a personified homage to Borges himself (indeed, the epigraph of the novel is from Borges).

Scattered across the book are short, weird dreams—no weirder, it must be said, than the regular narrative of the novel—and these dreams with often involve the gecko’s past self in one interaction or another with Felix. The day afterwards, without fail, Félix would recount the exact same dream to a friend or acquaintance of his. At a loss at what to call this man who keeps appearing in his dream, Félix names him Eulalia, seemingly plucking the name out of the air. The name seems to code something: Eulalia literally means “the one who talks well.” It is an ironic name for a gecko who is restricted to an uncanny human-like laugh. The irony is deepened, perhaps, by the awareness that even Agualusa, the author’s name, is an assumed name.

The repeated telling of Félix and the gecko Eulalia’s shared dreams intensifies the playful, hallucinatory atmosphere of the book. Navigating this story is like moving through a Murakami novel that has been transposed to Central Africa. Readers who like the latter author will find much to cheer them in Agualusa.

The book, towards its end, takes a late twist into Angolan politics, a blood-soaked foray that, perhaps, does not arise organically from the preceding tale. Nevertheless, who requires an invented past more urgently than a war-troubled country? The real strength of The Book of Chameleons is not in the characters it evokes, as they are mostly fabulous and rather unrealistic, nor is it in the plot, which is barely there at all. The strength is in Agualusa’s summoning of moods: their quicksilver changes, the fleeting beauty which, in his magic-realist inflected prose, affects the reader viscerally—evocations of rain, of piano music, of feminine beauty, of the character of night.

By the time the reader lays aside the book, he or she, like Eulalia, can’t really remember the faces. Only the swirl of feelings remain. But what vivid and human feelings they are, feelings finely mixed to the point of hallucination.

Credit is due to the translator, Daniel Hahn, who Englishes Agualusa’s Portuguese very effectively. Their joint achievement was recognised with the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. I would quibble only with the decision not to render the original title O Vendedor de Passados in a direct translation, The Seller of Pasts. That, I think, would have captured the spirit of the book more poetically and more exactly.

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