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Interview with José Eduardo Agualusa

Agualusa explores collective and individual identity in his sixth novel, <i>The Book of Chameleons</i>.

En español | "Identity is something you construct along the way," says Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa, whose novel, The Book of Chameleons, explores collective and individual identity as "the construction of memory and memory’s traps."

 In an exclusive interview with AARP Segunda Juventud, Agualusa discusses why The Book of Chameleons—his sixth of seven novels—is the first to be translated from Portuguese for a U.S. audience, how various generations respond to his fiction, and what he’s working on now.


Why did you write The Book of Chameleons? How long did it take?


One night I dreamt of an albino. He introduced himself, saying to me: “My name’s Félix Ventura, and I sell pasts to the nouveaux riche.” The next morning I wrote a story in which the narrator—myself—met Félix Ventura on vacation in a Berlin bar. The story was published in a Portuguese magazine and met with some success. I realized that the character deserved a longer narrative. But apart from a little bit of research into Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges’s life—because the recollections of the narrator’s first life correspond to fragments of Borges’s life—this book is entirely fictional. It didn’t require much research and I wrote it in a few months.


The book is narrated from the point of view of a gecko whose memories correspond to parts of Borges’s past. The book also begins with a quote from Borges. Why did you decide to narrate from this point of view? Can you explain the influence Borges and others have had on your work?


I’ve been greatly influenced by Latin American literature, and in a certain sense I’m a product of that literature: Borges, but also [Gabriel] García Márquez, [Mario] Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, and Rubem Fonseca. The thing that most interests me about Borges is not the fantastical but the absurd. Both the fantastical and the absurd are present in day-to-day life in Angola. They’re firmly set in reality.


How would you describe this novel?


It’s a novel about the construction of memory and memory’s traps. It takes place in Angola, a young country recently exiting a long civil war and a Marxist regime, where people are seeking not just a collective identity but also in many cases a new past with which they can face their future. And out of this context emerges the figure of a man, an old second-hand-book dealer, who dedicates himself to creating pasts for the emerging bourgeoisie.


At various points in the novel, there’s the suggestion that the writing of history is also fiction. Do you believe this?


This has been the case in many countries, and especially in Angola. A good part of Angola’s official history that’s been taught in schools since independence is complete fiction—created indeed by writers of a certain renown—and today this is being challenged by historians.


How important was the setting of Angola to The Book of Chameleons?


There are many countries—probably all of them—in which a seller of pasts could prosper. The Brazilians, for example, are making a film based on the book but whose plot takes place in Rio de Janeiro. Still, I do think that Luanda offers better conditions for this sort of activity.


You were born in Huambo, Angola, in 1960, and now divide your time between Africa, Brazil, and Portugal. How do these three locations—with such intertwined pasts—fuel your work and sense of identity?


Identity is something you construct along the way. As the book suggests, we are what we remember. We are everything we experience in life. Dividing my time between these three countries has transformed me. My books are marked by all these places.

Q: Have you noticed a difference in how various generations respond to your work? Have your parents and grandparents read your novels?

A: Unfortunately my grandparents are no longer alive. But my parents have always been my first readers. My mother was a Portuguese teacher and to this day is the person who helps me most in revision. I think my novels interest people of all ages. At book fairs when I sign books, most of the people who turn up are younger—mainly women—but there are people of my parents’ generation there too. What’s most interesting is the fact that the majority of fiction readers now—and I imagine this is a universal phenomenon—are women.

Q: You have written seven novels. Why is your sixth novel, The Book of Chameleons, the first to be made available in the United States?

A: The English-language market translates very little. While in most European countries the majority of fiction published comes from other languages, in England or the U.S. it’s only an insignificant amount—less than 2 percent.

Q: What are you currently working on? Does something arise in one project that usually leads you to the next?

I’ve started work on a new novel, Luanda, 2020. I’d like to be able to give literary expression to the tropical baroque, to the torrent of characters and stories I’m confronted with every time I open my apartment door in Luanda and dive into the chaos of the streets. Imagining what Luanda might become a dozen years from now is really fun. In this case, there’s a link to my previous novel, As Mulheres do Meu Pai (My Father’s Wives). The narrator is one of the characters from that novel, but now a little older, a little more cynical, and missing an eye.
José Eduardo Agualusa's U.S. debut book is a surprising tale of race, truth, and the transformative power of creativity. Narrated by a gecko, The Book of Chameleons explores issues of identity as purchased pasts and reality collide, leading to a bewildering murder. Read the review.

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