Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Danny Hahn

A General Theory of Oblivion
José Eduardo Agualusa
Translated by Danny Hahn (Portuguese)
Originally 2012, I read 2015 Harvill Secker hardback
243 pages, literary fiction

Many thanks to Archipelago Books, who found a review copy that could be sent to India! Archipelago’s edition was released in December 2015. 

Ludovica, or Ludo, is a solitary person who does not like to go outside the house. When her sister marries an Angolan man, Ludo moves with them to the new country (they are originally from Portugal). But then her sister and brother-in-law go missing as Angolan independence draws near and the terrified Ludo protects herself by bricking herself into her apartment. She stays there for almost 30 years, but surprisingly her actions within her small sanctuary have wide-reaching consequences.

Apparently based on a true story, this novel started as a script for a movie that unfortunately was never made.  The novel is a wonderful piece of fiction, tightly controlled and cinematic.

Silences and Omissions

The beginning part of the book, when Ludo is bricked into the apartment, is full of breaks and silences. We don’t really know much about what she did by herself for so many years. She wrote poetry on the walls. She figured out how to catch pigeons using shiny diamonds (a fortune that her brother-in-law had hidden in the house). But a majority of her activities are missing. Absent. Perhaps this is most appropriate for a novel about someone who has essentially chosen not to exist.

I’m not sure that Ludo is actually the main character of this novel. It seems that the main character is, perhaps, the absence of one.


While the novel seems to lack a main character in the traditional sense, Ludo is tightly connected – through the most circumstantial of ways – with the other characters and the action outside of her apartment.

For example, when Ludo is trying to catch pigeons with diamonds, she lets one go. This pigeon is a homing pigeon and has a message to a lover on its leg. When she releases it, it falls into the hungry hands of another character. He discovers the diamonds in its stomach and eventually becomes wealthy using that money as start-up capital – and he ends up living in the apartment next to Ludo’s bricked-up one!

Sometimes these connections stretch the limits of belief. But I have discovered that the world really is that small sometimes. In a city of a million people, you run into someone you know at the grocery store.  I once met someone from China who was studying at the same institution in Kolkata where I studied Bengali – and he turned out to be a high school classmate of one of my good friends from college (in Shanghai)! What are the odds? So I enjoyed the connections in this book; they did not seem too far-fetched to me after these experiences.

A Book Ripe for Translation

Reading this book, it seemed very unsurprising that it had been chosen to be translated. I can’t quite put my finger on what makes me think so, but this novel seemed to be complementary to the books I read for the IFFP this year. It had the same feel, of talking about some kind of universal idea (in this case war and loneliness) in a relatable way. It made me feel the same way I felt when reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, which won the IFFP and a bunch of other translation awards this past year. If IFFP were happening again next year, I would not be surprised to see this novel on the longlist, or even the shortlist.

Overall, quite an interesting novel. It’s a quick read, but one that made me think. If you enjoyed The End of Days, you would like this book as well. I am now very curious about his novel The Book of Chameleons, which won the IFFP in 2007.

A General Theory of Oblivion is available wherever books are sold. 

Further Reading: 

"A Practical Guide to Levitation," short story by the author, trans. Daniel Hahn (Words Without Borders) 
"If Nothing Else Helps, Read Clarice," short story by the author, trans. Stefan Tobler (Words Without Borders) 

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