Published by Arcadia Books. First published in Portuguese in 2004, published in English in 2006, translated by Daniel Hahn.
The Book of Chameleons won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. Agualusa was again nominated earlier this year, for the same prize – merged with and now called Man Booker International Prize – with his second novel published in English: A General Theory of Oblivion. My GR book club are reading both books, but I chose The Book of Chameleons because it was the shorter of the two, and it actually won the prize :) (The winner of 2016 Man Booker International is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I read and reviewed this year too.)
Just a few weeks before I started reading this book, I actually met someone from Angola, who told me lots of stories about the bad political situation in Angola. Funny how things often just come together around the same time. Prior to this, I’m not even sure whether I knew where Angola was.
A brief introduction to Angola: it’s a country in Africa – south west coast, its capital is Luanda. It used to be colonised by Portugal and only won independence in 1975. The effect of Portuguese colonisation cannot be underestimated. The two countries seem to be tightly knit. Angola’s official language is Portuguese, and both my friend and Agualusa spent considerable time in Portugal. In fact both of them also have close relationship with Brazil. Agualusa divides his time between the three countries, and my friend married a Brazilian. I’m curious how much the three countries’ cultures have in common, and would really like to read books from Portugal and Brazil soon.
So back to the book, The Book of Chameleons is narrated by a lizard, who acts as the fly (predator) on the wall. His human friend is Felix Ventura, who creates people’s past for a living. He doesn’t quite do forgery – it’s more romantic than that. People who don’t like their past can be given an entirely new past, full of better memories, lineage, photos, and little items to back up the stories. There are a few characters that come into Felix’s living room who require his service, and we get all the stories through the lizard.
Now this book apparently has been compared to Borges or Kafka. The downside of comparing a contemporary author with classic big name authors is that most often than not, it doesn’t live up to the expectation. I happen to love Borges and Kafka. So really Agualusa didn’t start fairly for me, and frankly, had no chance.
I think the premise is actually quite promising, and has a good potential, but I didn’t think it was substantial enough. The book is 180 pages and has a lot of blank pages, because the chapters are so short. Almost all chapters are a few pages long, some are only half a page. Some chapters felt like fillers – there was nothing in it, like vignette of unrelated dreams. In Borges’s hand this would be a short story – dense and full of twists and turns. In fact any one story in Ficciones would be comparable to this book. And better. While Kafka is funnier and more emotional, and simply weirder.
I’m probably being a bit unfair, but how you read one book is a combined result of all the books you’ve read in the past – and in practice there’s no way to read one book in full isolation.
Having said all that, I think it’s a pretty good book. Just not brilliant. Read it if you’re interested in translated fiction, and/or would like to tick off Angola from your reading goal. If you haven’t read Borges, as a companion piece, I’d recommend Emma Zunz short story.
Mee’s rating: 3.5/5