A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (tr. Daniel Hahn). Archipelago Books. $18.00, 250 pp.
Early on in Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, the narrator offers this bit of difficult wisdom: “Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. . . . Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin.” It’s an implied celebration of literature, one that weaves itself into the fabric of Oblivion. Locked as we are within a given body, temperament, and time, literature can transport us, can transmute textual experience into an expansion of inwardness, an amplification of consciousness. The best books—which Agualusa’s charmingly melancholic novel approaches—haunt us and, indeed, cover us like “a different skin.” Here, however, writing is even more than that: for Ludo, the agoraphobic and mysteriously damaged protagonist, writing is a matter of life and death, a story she scrawls on the walls of her home with charcoal. Fragmented and densely layered, Oblivion unfolds within the possibility—and the tension—inherent between writing and identity, text and meaning, story and life.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the Angolan revolution that overthrew Portugal’s dictatorship, Oblivion traces Ludo’s quietly evocative life as “a foreign body” in a new city, her fear of the outside world such that she must wear a box to water her balcony garden. After moving from Portugal to Angola with her sister and brother-in-law, Ludo’s existence is dismantled when neither return from a farewell party of fleeing Portuguese on the eve of Angolan independence. Trapped by her agoraphobia, her only lifelines to the outside world severed, Ludo literally walls herself into her modest apartment, beginning a magical, tragic, decades-long story abounding with a positively Dickensian cast of military men, street urchins, reporters, entertainers, assassins, and animals (wild and domestic). In Ludo, Agualusa has created an ingenious narrative device: the isolated individual at the heart of a teeming, violent city—a sort of eye in the narrative storm—whose own lack of knowledge mirrors the reader’s. The larger happenings of the city (and the world) emerge in snatches and refrains, circling, often intersecting, but are revealed only at the mercy of Agualusa’s deliberate pacing. If Ludo and her memories are mere “shards in the abyss,” as she believes, that abyss is nevertheless lit up by these incandescent fragments. They comprise something of a path, which, though it may wind through the novel’s titular oblivion, still has much to offer the ever-unfolding present—and the seeming disconnect of the novel’s intricately threaded plot.
These disparate storylines are slowly revealed to be intimately—often almost magically—connected by way of Agualusa’s carefully considered structural choices. We move briskly through laconic, staccato chapters (with colorful titles like “In Which a Disappearance is Cleared Up (Almost Two), Or How, to Quote Marx: All That is Solid Melts into the Air”) whose mysteries reveal themselves to be a series of remarkable intersections in disguise. Often no more than a page, they comprise a melange of written thoughts, memories, poetry, and more traditional narrative vignettes starring Oblivion’s diverse cast of saints and rabble-rousers: Jeremias, the exiled mercenary; Daniel Benchimol, the collector of disappearances; Baiacu, the street tough; and many more than I have room to list here. Beating at the heart of these lovely, mordant sketches is Ludo, who, though isolated and losing her sight, maintains an unmatched purity of vision, of memory, of documentation. She records her thoughts (melancholy, desperate, wistful, and humorous) by inscribing them on the walls with an ever-receding stock of charcoal, burning the apartment’s incredible library, book by book, in order to keep warm and cook her dwindling food (a literature of literal sustenance). Agualusa’s short chapters are mirrored in the enforced economy of Ludo’s beautifully aphoristic wall-texts: “I save on food, on water, on fire, and on adjectives,” she writes, and we feel it; soon every word carries the gleaming heft of a precious stone.
But Ludo is not the only one telling stories; indeed, with the personal narratives of competing armed factions, mythic folklore, and the sprawling and eccentric tales of individual experience, Agualusa implies that history and identity are wrought through competitive storytelling, even when under the nominal carte blanche of revolutionary transition. “A man with a good story is practically a king,” the narrator tells us early on. But where and how one can exist as oneself within these sweeping, dominant historical through-lines is something Agualusa plays with throughout. He seems to make a case for three escapes: radical kindness (“even evil needs to take a rest sometimes”); writing (in whatever form); and disappearing into the obscurity of forgetting. Magno Moreira Monte, an intelligence agent who is tied to several storylines, “lived in terror that he would never be forgotten.” Similarly, Ludo admonishes a contrite criminal: “Our mistakes correct us. Perhaps we need to forget. Perhaps we should practice forgetting.” Our relationship to this abyss itself is something Agualusa remains fascinated with. Is the oblivion of the novel’s title something to be overcome or embraced?
Easy answers are not provided, nor should they be. And to give away too much about the novel’s many revelatory concluding moments would be to spoil Agualusa’s exceptional artistry. A General Theory of Oblivion is both more and less than its title; it certainly provides a kind of blueprint of the encroaching obscurity inherent to living and dying—at times bemoaning its certainty, at times celebrating the assured darkness—but it is also a general theory of love, of life, and, finally, of literature. Working in the fertile ground between fiction, philosophy, and enchantment, Agualusa has accomplished something strange and marvelous here, a whirling dervish of joy and pain, blood and memory, whose many high points I found myself re-reading immediately, eager to experience the shine of the prose like spun gold. It left me in awe of these stories we tell ourselves: those we need to survive, those that change us, and those that change with us.
“Ludo, my dear,” she writes to herself, her own story complete, “I am happy now.”
Dustin Illingworth is a staff writer for Literary Hub. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement, LA Review of Books, Electric Literature, Georgia Review, and The Millions. He is a managing editor at The Scofield, and a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine.
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