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.
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.