Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Book of Chameleons - José Eduardo Agualusa

Félix Ventura , an Albino, living in Angola, has an interesting profession. He make a living by dealing with memory, by fabricating past for people. His clientele , includes the ministers, the neo-rich, the aristocrats, the diamond smugglers and other prominent personalities.  His business card reads : 'Felix Ventura. Guarantee your children a better past’.  He is a thorough professional. The past of his esteemed clients are created with meticulous details, including photographs, references, the family tree, relevant documents, establishing credentials.

There was a whole class, he explained, a whole new bourgeoisie, who sought him out. They were businessmen, ministers, landowners, diamond smugglers, generals -- people, in other words, whose futures are secure. But what these people lack is a good past, a distinguished ancestry, diplomas. In sum, a name that resonates with nobility and culture. He sells them a brand new past.

But all that is going to get a little complicated, with the arrival of a foreigner seeking his service. " I'm a photojournalist. I collect images of wars, of hunger and its ghosts, of natural disasters and terrible misfortunes. You can think of me as a witness."  He is nameless and need Felix to build his past. "I've had many names, but I mean to forget them all. I'd rather you were the one to baptize me."

The foreigner, now named José Buchmann, managed to convince Felix with a tempting offer of money, half in advance and the rest on completion. The task was done as usual with precise details and made up characters. However, the situation turned a bit creepy, as Jose Buchmann, goes in search of his ancestors and seek convincing evidences of their real existence. He travels across the globe, as described in the document prepared, collecting further details and confirmatory documentation to the surprise ( and  shock) of Felix. The fiction is turning into a reality.

A relatively straight forward story now takes a different turn with the arrival of another young lady photographer ( Angela) and an ex-agent of Ministry of State Security (Edmundo Barata dos Reis - "I'm the very last communist south of the equator" ) comes into the scene. The simple tale is now get into a serious political thriller, a murder mystery and a budding love story. Angola, the war-torn former Portuguese colony has a hidden past of turmoil  beneath the relative recent calm. Centuries old oppression and the recent histories of abduction, cheating and torture have to be re-lived once again through the stories and buried forever with appropriate act of redemption.

Interestingly, the narrator here is a gecko. A lizard, Eulálio, an re-incarnation of a human soul, trying to re-live his past through the co-habitation with human, witnessing and recounting everything he sees. The writer tactically, indicates that the lizard is indeed human, by starting with an epigraph by Borges  " If I were born again, I'd like to be something completely different". In an interview which is given in the last pages, he says this book is in tribute to the great writer.  Gecko , not  a silent spectator in this novel, he lives his own past life through the pages ( including a passage about his death), have dreams and also confide with Felix in his lonely life.

Felix on his part also goes through his past of poverty and humble living,  while creating a past for others. His dreams and childhood memories continue to haunt him.
"The priest talked of angels, and I saw chickens. To this day, in fact, of all the things I've seen, chicken are still the ones that most closely resembles angels. He talked of heavenly joy, and I saw chickens scrabbling away in the sun, digging up little nests in the sand, turning their little glass eyes in pure mystical bliss. I can't imagine Paradise without chickens. I can even imagine the Great God, reclining lazily on a fluffy bed of clouds, without his being surrounded by a gentle host of chickens. You know something -- I've never known a bad chicken -- have you? Chickens, like white ants, like butterflies, are altogether immune against evil."

There are umpteen references to living and past writers of word stage. From Marques , Borges, Kafka, Burton, JM Coertzee, Montaigne and  Eça de Queiroz, comes in his discussion. Felix's father was a second hand book dealer. Eca, he said, was my first crib. Having lived with books in his early life and acquainted with characters of various fiction, have helped Felix in his profession.

 "I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature," he told me conspiratorially. "I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into a reality."

A beautiful narration, fantastic use of style and language. A political thriller, a murder mystery all combined in one beautiful exposition by one very talented writer. 

While the translation is of first class, I am not too convinced about the title used for the English translation. I understand that the Portuguese title is called, O vendedor de passados , and a literal translation ( a seller of past histories ?) would have done more justice.


The Book of Chameleons (2004)

José Eduardo Agualusa (  translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn )

Simon & Schuster

185 Pages

Other Reviews : Guardian , New Int , Quarterly Conversation, Complete Review , Independent

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