A General Theory of Oblivion

general theory of oblivion

Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion begins on the eve of Angolan independence (presumably in 1975). Ludo lives with her sister, Odete, and brother-in-law, Orlando; Odete and Ludo are Portuguese whereas Orlando is Angolan and husband and wife argue over whether they should leave for Lisbon:

“Terrorists? Never use that word in my house again… These so-called terrorists are fighting for the freedom of my country.”

Ludo is not only excluded from the discussion, but left behind when they do disappear. Alone in the apartment, she is subjected to threatening phone calls and an attempted robbery, and decides that the only solution is to brick up the doorway (that there are bricks and cement lying around to allow her to do this is only one of many coincidences that it will not benefit the reader to examine too closely). Orlando’s reluctance to leave, and then his sudden disappearance, are connected to diamonds he has acquired by less than legal means – the diamonds referred to in the phone call (“we just want the stones”), and which those behind this message later come to collect, only to be recognised as on the wrong side of the revolution and shot:

“I do feel that two white men out in the street wearing Portuguese army boots in these troubled times seems a little to bold.”

In this Agualusa conveys the damage the country’s mineral wealth has inflicted, as well as the danger of the uprising.

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Ludo, meanwhile, running out of food, takes inspiration from her dog, Phantom, when she sees him devouring a pigeon he has caught. Lacking his agility, she sets a trap, baiting it (of course) with diamonds. In this way she catches a number of pigeons until she encounters one with a message attached from one lover to another. In sympathy she lets the pigeon go, and turns her attention to her neighbour’s hens instead. The pigeon cannot outfly its destiny, however, and is caught by Montes (the man who earlier shot the Portuguese soldier, Jeremias) who is now homeless and equally in need of sustenance. He, of course, finds the diamonds inside. (And in case you thought we were done with Jeremias, he too will reoccur until the final pages).

You may be fearing that this summary reveals the novel’s plot, but at this point we are barely one fifth of the way in. Agualusa weaves his plot as a spider its web – an object of beauty from afar, but less appealing to be stuck inside where the intricate connections can seem random at times. These connections are largely at the expense of character – even Ludo, the story’s centre piece, is ‘the woman who bricked herself in’ and, though she develops a relationship with a boy later, she remains oblique. Other characters, such as Montes and Jeremias (there are more), undergo changes, but these tend to be related to adopting new identifies in response to persecution or opportunity rather than character growth. The frequent chapters can give the impression of a stone skipping across the water, only making light contact with events before moving on.

This is not to say that Agualusa cannot write – the novel is littered with wonderfully turned phrases (praise for this is, of course, also due to translator Daniel Hahn):

“The demands all ended in exclamation marks. The exclamation marks got mixed up with the machetes the protestors were holding.”

Or this, describing Montes hiding in plain sight by pretending to be mad: “his lucidity travelling like a stowaway.” But if these are diamonds, there is a danger that the reader is the pigeon, delighting in words, but oblivious to the suffering behind them. Such is Agualusa’s love of story-telling that there is little time to experience the deeper emotions of his characters, and, in a novel which deals with violence and persecution, this can appear glib. A General Theory of Oblivion is an enjoyable read but one, as its title suggests, which does not leave a strong impression.


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16 Responses to “A General Theory of Oblivion”

  1. Man Booker International Prize 2016 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill […]

  2. 2016 Man Booker International Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] Grant’s at 1stReading […]

  3. roughghosts Says:

    I agree with you final assessment here. I wondered if my tolerance level for magical realism of this sort has been exhausted. I enjoyed the book but have been surprised to see it show up on both translated book long lists. Then again both lists are very diverse, style-wise which is, in the end, a good thing for translated literature.

    • 1streading Says:

      Diversity is always good, but, like you, I’m not sure how this particular novel has made it on to both lists when I can easily think of better books which have missed out.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Interesting. In light of your summary, I’m wondering if this sounds like a bit of a lost opportunity (at least to some extent) especially given the setting and political context at the time?

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s probably unfair to call it a lost opportunity as this seems to be very much Agualusa’s intention / style but to my mind it has the effect of glossing over the suffering that clearly occurred, while also providing no political / historical context.

  5. Bellezza Says:

    The idea of contrived coincidences really puts me off; every time I’ve started this book, one which I’ve placed on hold at the library comes in and I’ve set it down again, but now I wonder how eager I’ll be to pick it up. The notion of her living in “solitary confinement” did/does intrigue me though. I guess it just appeals to the introvert in me! Loved your review.

    • 1streading Says:

      Like you, I found the original idea interesting (I’m not clear whether it’s based on something which actually happened) but this writer’s style just doesn’t seem to appeal to me.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It all sounds a bit suffocatingly meaningful. Contrivance in the service of making a point is fair enough of course, but too much of it and I wonder why there’s a skin of realism over the top at all and whether it might have been better to go more fantastic as say Jeanette Winterson does sometimes (she chooses settings for resonance as best I can tell, but has no interest in accuracy and because that’s apparent it works rather well).

    • 1streading Says:

      I know exactly what you mean. I’m not sure I would describe it as too ‘meaningful’ however – it actually feels too ‘light’ in places – too in love with the dynamics of the plot to want to spoil it by making a point.

  7. Bellezza Says:

    Did not like this book. At all.

  8. A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Man Booker International Prize Long List) – Dolce Bellezza Says:

    […] Frankly, I didn’t like it. It is my least favorite of the long list so far. Find similar thoughts, with a better plot summary, from 1st Reading. […]

  9. 2016 Best Translated Book Award Longlist – combined reviews | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] Grant’s at 1stReading […]

  10. Man Booker International Prize Shortlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill […]

  11. 2016 Best Translated Book Award Shortlist – combined reviews | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] Grant’s at 1stReading […]

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