My Father’s Wives, José Eduardo Agualusa (trans. Daniel Hahn). Arcadia Books. 364pp.
The third of José Eduardo Agualusa’s novels to be translated into English by Daniel Hahn, My Father’s Lives follows the epistolary novel of colonial Angola, Creole, and the 2004 story of shifting identity and post-revolutionary Angola, The Book of Chameleons. This third book is Agualusa’s most ambitious yet to reach our shores, a far-reaching exploration of his favorite subjects: identity, truth, memory, and the nearly invisible line that separates fiction from reality. Readers familiar with Agualusa’s earlier work will not only recognize the subject matter; they’ll also recognize his take on post-modern storytelling techniques, both the metafictional and the magical.
What separates His Father’s Wives from these earlier works is the scope of the novel and the confidence which with Agualusa proceeds in the telling of his story. The book ranges across southern Africa, from Luanda to Mozambique Island, stopping off in roadsides, cities, and beaches and exploring the lives of a wide range of wildly different characters, from a handless piano player to a homeless, and apparently ageless, teenaged prostitute. The confidence with which Agualusa narrates this wide-ranging work is most clearly evidenced by the narrative’s overall structure, a highly elaborate assembly that continually contrasts the story told within the novel against the story of the novel’s creation, the latter told in a series of journal-like excerpts.
At the book’s beginning, Agualusa and his friend, the filmmaker Karen Boswall, discuss a film they’d like to make, “a film with a strong element of music . . . on the situation of women in the cone of southern Africa.” Over the course of several hours, they sketch out the plot for the film:
Karen came to pick me up at the hotel and we walked down to the beach. We spent part of the morning, and several hours after lunch, talking about the movie. We sketched out a plot. We want to tell the story of a Portuguese documentary-maker who travels to Luanda for the funeral of her father, Faustino Manso, the famous Angolan singer and composer. At a certain point Laurentina decides to trace her father’s travels, which saw him in the sixties and seventies covering the whole southern African coast from Luanda to Mozambique Island. Faustino would spend two or three years in each city, sometimes a little more, start a little family, then get back on the road. In each city she visited Laurentina would record testimonies from Faustino’s widows, and his countless children, as well as from many other people who spent time with him. The picture that begins to emerge bit by bit is of a mysteriously complex man. At the end Laurentina discovers that Faustino was infertile.
And that is more of less the novel we read: Laurentina journeys to Luanda with her boyfriend, Mandume, a Portuguese born of Angolan parents, in pursuit of her father, Faustino Manso. They arrive in Luanda just in time for the famous artist’s funeral, and at that point the goal of their journey changes, as they decide to go on in search of Manso’s women. Laurentina hopes that among them she will find her mother. In Luanda they take on Bartolomeu, one of Laurentina’s “cousins,” and a driver named Pouca Sorte who ferries them across the continent in a car he has named Malembemalembe.
In pursuit of the idea for their film, Agualusa and Karen Boswall journey all over southern Africa, and their experiences repeatedly inform the novel, as in the following passages:
[From the "journal":]
“Hours later I [Agualusa] met Orlando on the veranda, sitting in a plastic chair, eyes lost in the vast darkness. I wanted to know who this Dancer was. My friend smiled. An engrossed smile.
“No one,” he said. “She lived here . . .”
“She lived here?!”
“That’s it. She lived here. She lived with a sapper. The Dancer and the sapper. Can you imagine a stranger love story than that?”
“What do you think happened? One day the sapper went to work and never came back. One of the mines exploded while he was defusing it. The next day they found her dancing, naked, on the minefield.” . . .
“And what’s she doing here?”
“Just sits and breathes. She doesn’t do anything any more. A while ago she knocks on the door and I let her in. She’s sort of a ghost, but without the impertinence that ghosts have.”
And in the next chapter (as told by Bartolomeu):
I invited her to sit with me. I ordered a passionfruit juice for her. Another for me. Passionfruit has a calming effect, they say. I wanted to know who she was. I was burning with curiosity. The Dancer drank her juice delicately. Then, as though choreographed, she unhooked the strap from off her right shoulder, unhooked the other, got up and the dress slipped in a gentle caress to her feet. She had a perfect body. Round breasts, with little brown tips, a flat belly, her navel like an exclamation mark above the dark forest of her sex. There was a silence, a stunned silence, like that of a boxer at the moment his opponent’s fist strikes him between the eyes, and the blood flows, a light that links everything together, and I was aware of the whole city looking at us. I knew I ought to get up and cover her with a towel. I didn’t. I remained silent in my place, as she crossed the narrow strip of sand into the sea. She dived in head-first, disappeared, and the whole city sighed—ôôôôôôô—just like that, their mouths open, little hats on their heads, after which they all started speaking at once. Only then did I grab the towel and go to meet her at the water’s edge.
While these moments of fictionalized reality and autobiographically based fiction are fascinating on their own, their greater benefit is to reveal Agualusa’s assured storytelling abilities. He recounts some chance meeting that he had, and this small adventure is very simply and straightforwardly described, just a well-written journal entry. Immediately following is the fictionalized (or perhaps more heavily fictionalized?) version of the event, and it is revealed both how Agualusa has transformed his small adventure, how he has taken it beyond the realm of the quotidian into the world of fiction, and how he has integrated it into the larger vision he had for the novel, working it effortlessly into the plot and using it to illustrate some small, or large, aspect of the character he happens to be exploring at that particular moment. Because we know the rough outline of the novel, Agualusa places a large burden on the way that he tells those stories: if he includes an ill-fitting true-life event so that he can later fictionalize it, this will poke out and he will have diminished his book’s appeal.
Showing a great facility with his self-imposed form, Agualusa bears this burden lightly. For all of this technique, which never feels as obtrusive as it may sound when described outright, it is the stories that make His Father’s Wives so remarkable. Each woman who Manso romanced was affected both by Manso’s close emotional presence and also by how that relationship was viewed by the people who surrounded the woman in question. It is the stories of these women—how they came together with Manso, how he left, how he sometimes returned, how they bore the sadness of his absence or presence, how they managed “his” children, how their communities viewed them after their encounters with him—that make up the true backbone of the novel. While we’re following Laurentina and are concerned with her story, and that of Mandume and Bartolomeu and Pouca Sorte and the myriad other characters met along the way, all of which in itself is truly engrossing, Agualusa is simultaneously drawing his picture “of the situation of women in the cone of southern Africa.”
His Father’s Wives is a remarkably complex novel, one with a profusion of stories and some out and out magic, but Agualusa is so skilled that this complexity is bewitching, not bewildering. Each layer he adds to his novel manages to draw us closer to its characters and to improve and develop its intriguing, satisfying story.
E.J. Van Lanen is the senior editor at Open Letter, a new press dedicated to publishing innovative works of fiction from from around the world.
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