Another novel from the Angolan, this time an epistolary, historical mini-epic, spanning three continents, thirty two years and no more than a hundred and fifty pages.
Most of the letters are written by the Portuguese adventurer, Fradique Mendes, who reports back on his findings to a variety of correspondents. Part of the fun of the book is realising that there are sometimes large temporal gaps between letters which don't at first appear obvious. However, it's hard not to feel at times when reading the always-entertaining Agualusa that there's a great big epic novel screaming to be let out of the book's thin pages. As though the author is dipping his toes in the river rather than diving right in. All the links between the slave trade, Brazil, Europe and Africa are in place and explored, and Fradique's voyage through the murky waters of late 19th century colonialism are fascinating. However, Agualusa resists the lure of narrative, preferring to cast shards of light on the occasional place and time (early Rio, downtown Luanda, the bush) before brushing the shards under the table and skipping forward.
Agualusa has an eye for an image and a nose for a story. I look forward to reading The Rainy Season, about the more recent Angolan struggles. It feels as though the writer wants to tread a delicate line between commenting on his country's history, without wishing that history to become a burden to either his narrative or the reader. So the love of Fradique's life may be seized and thrown into slavery, but this only becomes the cause of the hero's next adventure, and results in a happy ending where Fradique finally gets his girl. Fradique's jaunty tone works wonderfully for relating the curiosities of the expanding world he explores, but is rather less effective in capturing the growing pains of the new countries whose development he participates in with such gusto.