In the future, when the transition between 20th and 21st centuries is studied, it may show that a preoccupation with memory loss and memory building, with memoirs and with refreshing memory, through "reviews of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s" decades was a worldwide cultural common thread. Some preoccupation with memory should probably be expected at a time when the baby boom generation becomes elderly. Elderly dementia, memory loss or diseases like Alzheimer's are around the corner for many. Hollywood films dealing with memory problems have been very successful with the public and the box office: Memento, The Bourne Identity, Fifty First Dates, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Different aspects of memory are reviewed with a great deal of humor in José Eduardo Agualusa's The Book of Chameleons. The original Portuguese the title [ O vendedor de passados - The seller of past histories] is a direct reference to the occupation of Felix Ventura, the book's main character, who makes a living at concocting as detailed a past for anyone of his clients as possible. The fantasy includes the name of their ancestors, the client's birthplace, professions of his parents, grand-parents, great-great-grandparents, where they had immigrated from before arriving in Angola, and so on. Felix Ventura is even able to produce -- though not always included in the traditional anecdotal and genealogical package -- documentation that could support his client's newly adopted family tree.
Some may find that Agualusa's narrative falls into the realm of "magical realism." It is a bit of a fashion, nowadays, to attribute magical realism to writers whose mother language comes from the Latin family, as is the case with Portuguese. I am against such a definition, for I find it reductive. It is true that life as depicted in this novel doesn't exist as far as we know. But then, Kafka's insect in the Metamorphosis should also place that novel in the category of "magical realism." Truth is Agualusa's imagination is rooted in an animistic-ghost-believing-dream-prophesizing-dialoguing-with-spirits culture. What for the WASP mentality is "magical realism" is the quotidian life in Angola.
The book is cleverly narrated by a gecko, who remembers his past life, and who converses with Felix Ventura through their dreams. Ventura also remembers these dreams. He remembers them almost as well as his clients remember the past Felix weaves for them, using fact and fiction promiscuously in a clever myth of what had never been.
Throughout the book we are reminded that memory is identity. That memory is fiction. That memory is relative. That memory is imprecise. That memory can be stored in unconscious ways that we don't understand and that memory can play tricks. That memory is a singular, individualistic fable. It is to be questioned, to be embroidered. The details will be representative of the spirit of the times.
This is a must read, fast-paced, funny novel. It is a quick read. And it makes us think. It is for keeps, for I am sure I will read it again and again.