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The Book of Chameleons: A Novel Paperback – Jun 17 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Lovers of stylish literary fiction will rejoice at this charming tale by Angolan writer Agualusa. The elegantly translated story is narrated by a house gecko named Eulálio, who in brief, vignette-like chapters, reminisces on his life (and past life) and observes the home of Félix Ventura, an albino Angolan who makes his living selling fabricated aristocratic pasts to newly successful citizens of the war-torn former Portuguese colony. Photojournalist José Buchmann pushes Félix's occupation into harsh reality when José looks into the past Félix has created for him, and the story shudders to a climax when Félix's allegedly fictitious history collides with reality. Eulálio is a lovable narrator, alternately sardonic and wistful; his dreams are filled with regret and powerlessness. Félix is an equally sympathetic subject, complicated by his loneliness, his fondness for prostitutes, his insistence on the honor of his trade despite its scalawag nature, and a late-blooming sweet love story. The novel's themes of identity, truth and happiness are nicely handled and span both the political and the personal. It's very touching, in a refined way. (June)
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"A subtle beguiling story of shifting identities." -- Kirkus
"A work of fierce originality." -- The Independent
"Without doubt one of the most important Portuguese-language writers of his generation." -- Antonio Lobo Antunes
"A book as brisk as a thriller and as hot and alarming as the most powerful kind of dream." -- Michael Pye, author of The Pieces from Berlin
"Cross J. M. Coetzee with Gabriel García Márquez and you've got José Eduardo Agualusa, Portugal's next candidate for the Nobel Prize." -- Alan Kaufman, author of Matches
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
The chapters in book read like short stories, somewhat disconnected, yet at the end one can find the thread. The style is very similar to magical realism with a small dose of murder mystery and thriller. Here's one of my favorite passages, where Felix talks about his childhood
"The priest talked of angels, and I saw chickens. To this day, in fact, of all the things I've seen, chicken are still the ones that most closely resembles angels. He talked of heavenly joy, and I saw chickens scrabbling away in the sun, digging up little nests in the sand, turning their little glass eyes in pure mystical bliss. I can't imagine Paradise without chickens. I can even imagine the Great God, reclining lazily on a fluffy bed of clouds, without his being surrounded by a gentle host of chickens. You know something -- I've never known a bad chicken -- have you? Chickens, like white ants, like butterflies, are altogether immune against evil."
Beautiful. I highly recommend this book.
Ventura's client Jose Buchmann brings things to a head when he takes his fake past a little too seriously. A photojournalist, he traces the history of his fake parents, and sets out to visit and photograph his so-called birthplace. At Ventura's home, he runs into Angela Lucia, a fellow photojournalist and professional nomad who roams the world photographing light. The connections between the characters become clear through a surprise twist in the end.
The book is enlivened by gecko's perspective. He and Ventura dream individually but the stuff of their dreams is the same in content, and thus the two main characters communicate with one another. The gecko's knowledge transcends this life into his past incarnation as a mama's boy. In this book of fake and creatable pasts, Eulalio's is the memory that is deepest.
The book is not without its flaws. The gecko/first person narrative leads to a few stilted sentences, since the writer has to explain how a gecko comes across this knowledge, but these are few and far between. The prose reads like poetry and the free flow of the writer's style causes the pacing to suffer at times.
However the book also works on several levels - as a mystery/thriller, as a meditation on spirituality, as a satirical commentary on how money can buy anything -including a past. An interview with Agualusa at the end of the book reveals several interesting tidbits. The book is set at a point in Angolan history soon after the country gained its independence from its Portuguese rulers. A new class of nouveau riche came into power, and with this new wealth came a craving for new histories as well. The author mentions that he has based the gecko character on Jose Luis Borges.
We live in times of relentless and Google-able documentation, and hence poor memory may no longer be an acceptable excuse. As I write this, China's doctoring of a gymnast's date of birth is being unearthed via Googling, and a Bigfoot hoax was revealed after several incriminating videos were found on Youtube. But this tale shows us how imprecise histories can be and why it might sometimes even be necessary to have a certain fluidity to memories, histories and life in general.
'The Book of Chameleons' is told in a simply way but is still able to convey its weighty theme :'What is real/reality' very well. It makes you consider the proposition that for most of our lives we are in denial of our past or at least reinventing it so it appears more glamourous or in touch with impact events.(If everyone who claims to have been at Woodstock was believed, the attendence was more like 25 million strong!)
That Agualusa writes and sets his novels in Angola with a slave trading past and a brutal civil war in its recent past gives depth to the idea of reinventing oneself;reinventing history; to make the present seem more amicably arrived at and complete.
An unusual book that is easy to read, makes you think,never bogs you down with its weighty themes and is well plotted and keeps you reading.