Sunday, 21 February 2010

rainy season [w jose agualusa]

Rainy Season is composed of 9 sections, each of which consists of several miniature chapters of their own. The book seems at first somewhat lop-sided. The early sections are given over to an account of the life of a female Angolan poet, Lidia do Carmo Ferreira. (The author's use of the figure of a lost female poet having uncanny resonance with the work of Bolano.) Then the narrative moves forward in time, towards the seventies and the event of the Angolan revolution, when the Portuguese were overthrown. A host of characters are introduced, including Lidia's daughter, Pauleta, her flatmates and fellow political activists and local characters. The narrative feels somewhat random, and becomes hard to follow. The narrator's first person voice gradually becomes more important, and his story begins to be told.

For a while it seems as though the author's material is in danger of spiralling out of control. Rainy Season is a concise book, and the shifts from character to character, from Luanda to Lisbon to Berlin to Olinda and back to Angola seem too much for the narrative to bear. And then the story focuses in on the aftermath of the revolution. When Lidia, the narrator, and all the other sundry characters, become political prisoners, their lives at the mercy of whichever faction is dominant within the new Angola, riven by civil war.

In this coalescence, this pulling together of its divergent strands, the book changes gear, and like a puzzle where the pieces finally find their home, a terrible clarity emerges. The short, precise chapters offer all the information that the narrator has at his disposal. Information takes on a different quality within the confines of a prison, a prison lost in a lost conflict. Timelines are immaterial, and blurred. It might be a year between chapters, it might be ten. Information is a current that flows, rather than a clear chronology. Things are lost along the way. Some remain constant - such as the narrator's awareness of Lidia's fate; such as the presence, although not the pre-eminence, of death. The fate of tangential, marginal characters reveals as much as the fate of the figures at the heart of the story, a story whose tendrils stretch across the devastated land.

I think that I commented earlier about Agualusa that I wondered how his work might tackle the events of Angola's recent history. That at times his style seems too gossamer, too fragile. Here, those qualities are revealed to be a by-product of a world where there is no real expectation of survival, and the notion of history has become the loosest of dreams. The fragility of day-to-day existence permitting little space for reflection on what has caused the chaos, or where the chaos might lead. A time when everything seems marginal, precious, slight. Agualusa's book is like a spider's web, which somehow encompasses fifty years of history, a history which at any moment might have been blown away. In its opaque way, it reveals as much about the tragedy of political imprisonment, and the vicissitudes of late twentieth century living for so many societies, as many a weightier tome. In a world where words and stories are dangerous, his book suggests that even used sparingly, they retain great power, and his narrative reveals that a tragic order can be constructed out of what appears to be chaos.

I read it in stages, never quite knowing where it was taking me, finishing it on the train to Ipswich yesterday, astonished at its capacity to move me, something I'd never have guessed as I tried to make sense of the early sections, never knowing the power of the connections that would come to be revealed.

No comments: