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The Book of Chameleonsby Jose Eduardo Agualusa
José Eduardo Agualusa is Angolan and writes in Portuguese. Though he has authored nearly a dozen works, The Book of Chameleons is the first to be published in the United States. It was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007, and has as its origins a short story Agualusa wrote for a Portuguese newspaper.
The Book of Chameleons is a deceptively savvy piece of fiction. Simplistically told, this is the imaginative tale of Felix Ventura, a man who, by trade, sells individuals an entirely new past, replete with established genealogies and forged credentials. The story is narrated by Eulalio, a gecko whose entire life has been spent within (upon) the walls of Ventura's home. Eulalio's observations propel the story forward, yet he, too, is at the mercy of both chance and consequence. The Book of Chameleons explores identity, memory, and change, as well as Angola's anguished history. The prose is fluid and well-conceived; a rather concise book, Agualusa seemingly enjoyed writing it. Clever mystery, literary thriller, political parable, this book could be classified as many a different genre, yet it successfully defies and exceeds them all.
Agualusa, in an interview, has said about The Book of Chameleons:
This book is a tribute to Borges. It's a game I hope Borges would have appreciated. At the same time, it's a sort of settling-up of accounts. I love Borges as a writer, but think that as a man there was always something about him that was closed and obtuse, reactionary even, and he not infrequently expressed opinions that were misogynistic or racist. His relations with women were very complicated — it's believed that he died a virgin. Now, in my book Borges is reincarnated in Luanda in the body of a gecko. The gecko's memories correspond to fragments of Borges's real-life story. Somehow I wanted to give Borges a second chance — in my book he makes the most of his opportunities.
Recommended by Jeremy, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Félix Ventura trades in an unusual commodity; he is a dealer in memories, clandestinely selling new pasts to people whose futures are secure and who lack only a good lineage to complete their lives. In this completely original murder mystery, where people are not who they seem and the briefest of connections leads to the forging of entirely new histories, a bookish albino, a beautiful woman, a mysterious foreigner, and a witty talking lizard come together to discover the truth of their lives. Set in Angola, Agualusa's tale darts from tormented past to dream-filled present with a lightness that belies the savage history of a country in which many have something to forget — and to hide.
A brilliant American debut by one of the most lauded writers in the Portuguese-speaking world, this is a beautifully written and always surprising tale of race, truth, and the transformative power of creativity.
"Lovers of stylish literary fiction will rejoice at this charming tale by Angolan writer Agualusa. The elegantly translated story is narrated by a house gecko named Eullio, who in brief, vignette-like chapters, reminisces on his life (and past life) and observes the home of Flix Ventura, an albino Angolan who makes his living selling fabricated aristocratic pasts to newly successful citizens of the war-torn former Portuguese colony. Photojournalist Jos Buchmann pushes Flix's occupation into harsh reality when Jos looks into the past Flix has created for him, and the story shudders to a climax when Flix's allegedly fictitious history collides with reality. Eullio is a lovable narrator, alternately sardonic and wistful; his dreams are filled with regret and powerlessness. Flix is an equally sympathetic subject, complicated by his loneliness, his fondness for prostitutes, his insistence on the honor of his trade despite its scalawag nature, and a late-blooming sweet love story. The novel's themes of identity, truth and happiness are nicely handled and span both the political and the personal. It's very touching, in a refined way. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
The coldblooded narrator of Jose Eduardo Agualusa's novel is a gecko inhabited by the reincarnated spirit of Jorge Luis Borges. The Argentine master's name is never mentioned: Agualusa, a native Angolan steeped in Latin American literature, lets readers in on the joke in an interview appended to the book; but those unfamiliar with Borges may have trouble appreciating it. Still, "The Book of Chameleons"... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) is a worthy homage. Crisply accessible, it explores questions of identity and oppression within the confines of a beguiling mystery. The setting is present-day Luanda, but since everything is filtered through the lidless eyes of a tiny creature, the Angolan capital remains in the background. Most of the action takes place at the home of Felix Ventura, an albino bibliophile in an unorthodox line of work: He fabricates respectable genealogies for newly affluent citizens who wish to enter Luandan high society. One night, however, a photojournalist asks him for an entirely fresh identity. Despite initial misgivings, Felix accepts the job. After all, it is the next logical step in the "advanced kind of literature" he has been practicing: "I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them in a book I give them life, launching them out into reality." Of course, fiction and reality have always shared a porous border. This is why it is not too surprising when the photojournalist, now known as Jose Buchmann, starts acting as if he believes he is Buchmann. Agualusa is treading on well-worn ground. Many writers have toyed with the fluidity of self: Borges himself was especially adept at it. And yet Buchmann's strange behavior proves compelling. Is he mad or up to no good? Nothing so conventional; prepare instead for a plot detour that defies expectations. Meanwhile, Felix encounters Angela Lucia, a young woman who just happens to be a photojournalist. (Coincidences abound here.) She is not repulsed by his appearance. A lonely outcast who hires prostitutes, he is susceptible to romance. But are Angela's feelings for him genuine, or will she reveal herself to be a femme fatale? The high point of the novel, their relationship is drawn with humor, compassion and a mature understanding of the nature of love. In the end, however, they are ensnared by the legacy of the Angolan civil war. The former Portuguese colony endured decades of strife after declaring its independence. It became a proxy battleground of the Cold War, with Russians, Americans, Cubans and South Africans all joining in. Dissidents were brutalized and murdered. While things have settled down, stark reminders remain, such as the millions of land mines that litter the countryside. But psychological trip-wires also are waiting to be triggered and threaten to bring Felix's world down upon him. "The Book of Chameleons," which won the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, portrays a society in flux via a handful of characters in spatially circumscribed circumstances. The novel is breezily brief; it consists of 32 unnumbered chapter vignettes, several of which are no more than one to two pages. These often are accounts of the gecko's dreams, in which it recalls its experiences as a man or visits Felix in his dreams. The gecko itself, a device that could have quickly worn out its welcome, is a lucid observer with a wryly engaging voice capable of gnomic pronouncements such as "Happiness is almost always irresponsible" and "Memory is a landscape watched from the window of a moving train." He is also something of a literary critic: "I do like the Boer writer Coetzee ... for his harshness and precision, the despair totally free of self-indulgence. I was surprised to discover that the Swedes recognized such good writing." One knows one is in Africa when Coetzee is referred to as a Boer. Only three of Agualusa's seven novels have thus far been translated into English. "The Book of Chameleons" is the first to arrive on these shores. May it garner sufficient recognition for the rest of his oeuvre to be made available. As his clever albino puts it, "Literature is the only chance for a true liar to attain any sort of social acceptance." Reviewed by Ariel Gonzalez, who teaches English at Miami Dade College, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Cross J. M. Coetzee with Gabriel García Márquez and you've got José Eduardo Agualusa, Portugal's next candidate for the Nobel Prize." Alan Kaufman, author of Matches
"A subtle beguiling story of shifting identities." Kirkus
"A work of fierce originality." The Independent
"A book as brisk as a thriller and as hot and alarming as the most powerful kind of dream." Michael Pye, author of The Pieces from Berlin
About the Author
José Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola, in 1960. He has published seven novels, including Creole, which was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature and is a bestseller in seven countries. The Book of Chameleons won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007.
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