Wednesday, 14 May 2008

the book of chameleons [w. josé eduardo agualusa]

This is a book written from the point of a view of a lizard. This put me off. I picked the book up wearily. Lizards, Africa... it sounded too saccharine for my tastes. Sacchirine and dry, with a hint of tragedy. Like a slightly stale digestive. Anyway, I picked the book up, and prepared myself for whatever was coming. And within a page I realised I was wrong, and remembered that prejudice is pointless.

The lizard, or gecko, is christened Eulalio. It makes a pointed remark at one stage about another Angolan writer who builds his career selling national horrors to the West. The Book of Chameleons hints at the history that has shaped the perceptions of the book's characters, but it does so elliptically. Felix, who owns the house the lizard inhabits, makes his living as a genealogist who invents family trees for people. The suggestion being that history can be overruled, at least on a temporary basis. However, the main narrative of the book concerns a man who comes to Felix, is re-christened as José Buchmann, embraces his new self to such an extent he begins a quest for his lost 'new' mother, and yet in the end comes face to face with the daughter he believed he had lost in the civil war which ravaged Angola for so many years.

In a way Agualuca's delicate prose, detailing a woman who travels the world collecting different experiences of light, an albino who communes with the gecko, and a gentle, pastoral setting, seems to be acting in wilful opposition to all that history has thrown at the writer's country. Structured in a succession of fleeting chapters, it has the kind of lightness of touch which is in danger of being described as charming; and yet there lurks just below the surface a notion of another history. Just as the gecko doesn't live in an idyll, threatened as it is by the predatory scorpion which would kill it for no apparent reason at all. The lightness and humour of the book have a precision which keeps the reader on their toes, never knowing in which direction the narrative will turn, when the sting will come.

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