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January 16, 2019

Book Review: A comic tale of tragedy and survival


It seems improbable that a person can remain locked up in their home for 28 years. But the novel A General Theory of Oblivion by Portuguese journalist José Eduardo Agualusa is loosely based on the life of a woman in Angola who withdrew from the world.

Ludovica is a Portuguese woman living in the city of Luanda with her sister and her Angolan brother-in-law. She experienced a traumatic childhood, relocated to Angola, and for a while, life is manageable, although she disdains Africans. The year is 1975, in the weeks leading up to independence and nationalist tensions are growing. 

One evening, Ludovica’s sister and brother-in-law go to a party and never return. Alone and frightened, her agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) intensifies and she refuses to exit the 11th floor apartment for months and then years. 

With the country heading into war, everybody forgets about the solitary woman in the upper floors or why the flat door is sealed off. Ludovica survives by growing vegetables on a roof garden and a pet dog is her only companion. Radio news broadcasts connect her to the outside world, and a stash of stolen diamonds links her to life before the war. Food runs out, she burns furniture and books to keep warm, and fills the flat walls with charcoal sketches, poems and recollections.

Across Angola, other stories are playing out through an assorted cast of people. A French journalist who likes investigating disappearances arrives in Angola. There is a nurse that secretly supports the freedom fighters, a former government official turned private detective, a mercenary that has lost his voice, homing pigeons and a pygmy hippopotamus. Far in the countryside is the case of a vanished village and a tribe of red-skinned shepherds.

Three decades later, a withered and muddled Ludovica is almost resigned to a lonesome death when an orphan boy called Sabalu suddenly appears in her home intending to rob her. He inadvertently becomes her saviour, she his ‘grandmother’, and Ludovica emerges as the pivotal piece in this jigsaw puzzle of disparate people and side stories. 

The novel was translated from Portuguese to English, but has not lost its energy or humour in the process. Agualusa, who was born in Angola, inserts poems and reflections that make the book feel like a personal journal. Intriguing headings start off the chapters, such as Che Guevara’s Mulemba Tree and A Pigeon Called Love. The story moves between Angola and Portugal, and randomly from one unconnected event to the next, then back to Ludovica. The context is a volatile period in Angola that can be disorienting for those not familiar with the history of the country. Yet it is refreshing to read a novel not from Anglophone Africa, and Agualusa keeps you engaged to the end of this unusual tale of surviving tragedy. 

A General Theory of Oblivion was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and received the International Dublin Literary Award, worth 100,000 Euros, in 2017.


Star Rating: 4/5

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