(Review by Daniel Whatley. Daniel Whatley has published in Gulf Stream, The North Stone Review, and New Letters. He posts at Under the Big Black Sun. Read his contributions to The Quarterly Conversation.)
"God gave us dreams so that we can catch a glimpse of the other side," exclaims a character in Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s award-winning novel The Book of Chameleons. "To talk to our ancestors. To talk to God. And to geckos too as it turns out." It is a short novel that trips lightly across the page, quick-moving and filled with the sunlight of warm climates—namely, Angola, where native Agualusa is based.
Remarkably, Chameleon marks Agualusa’s first appearance in the States; Creole, an earlier novel, was the recipient of the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature, though it is not yet available here, perhaps a victim of the current vexed commercial status of translations. Agualusa has stated that all translations are of necessity re-creations, and it is to Daniel Hahn’s credit that he has produced an excellent translation of this book, one that was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2007.
Felix Ventura, an albino native in Luanda, works as a dealer in home-fabricated historical pasts for the needy individual. He specializes in providing genealogical documents and portraits of fictional forebearers to those who have the means to pay for it. One day a nameless war photographer requests Ventura’s services. When Ventura receives an excessive initial payment, he learns he must go beyond his typical inventions into the realm forged identification documents. He creates the persona of Jose Buchmann and a long detailed history emblematic of Angola’s colonial past. When Buchmann becomes so pleased that he goes against Ventura’s warning in search of his past, he finds actual tombstones of Ventura’s inventions, and in a movement reminiscent of Borges and the subsequent heyday of Latin American Magical Realism, fiction transforms into and creates reality.
Much has been made of the book’s debt to Borges, most evidently in the epigraph from the master himself; "If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different." The novel is narrated by Eulalio, who happens to be a Gecko in Felix Ventura’s house, observing and interpreting everything for us. The author playfully suggests that Eulalio is the reincarnation of Borges; some reviewers have not seen any gain from having this perspective propel the narrative. Perhaps though, the final line of the epigraph, "Not Uruguayan, though—that’d be too much like just moving down the street," suggests that moving from human to gecko is not the leap it seems.
Felix Ventura, long deriving his human need for closeness from the company of paid lady friends (who amusingly are "alarmed at the stack of books in the bedrooms and the corridors"), eventually succumbs to one of the novel’s repeated injunctions: "The worst is sins is not to fall in love." Angela Lucia comes into his life, ironically yet another photographer. The unraveling of the relationship between the two photojournalists who claim to not know one another proves the basic narrative thread, with dramatic revelations against a post-colonial landscape where there still remains 10 to 20 million undiscovered land mines.
Not that any thread to the narrative is immediately detectable; most of the chapters are short, each encompassing a mini-narrative of their own. The cumulative effect is a meandering river of a tale, often reflecting bookish sub-texts in Calvino’s manner. The name-dropping of influential writers, such as Coelho and Garcia Marquez, though, is often distracting. (As is the mention of Coetzee, though Eulalio’s one-line summation of that South African Nobel laureate is as good as any I’ve seen: "I do like the Boer writer Coetzee, for instance, for his harshness and precision, the despair totally free of self-indulgence." Pretty good for a lizard.)
One of the most vivid characters is Felix Ventura’s cook Esperanca, who after Ventura constructs a wall around his fruit trees against theft, observes that "it’s the wall that makes the thieves." She once survived a shoot-out between warring rebel factions and the subsequent mass-execution when, at her turn to be executed, the ammunition ran out, subsequently leading her to believe that she is "immune to death." One wishes this slim novel had made room for more of her plucky exploits.
Felix Ventura progresses to writing a memoir for a customer that then gains a reputation as a historical text; soon after, his beloved friend Eulalio has a fated encounter with a scorpion. The Book of Chameleons is not precisely like any novel you’ve likely read, though its antecedents and influences are numerous. Agualusa has mixed his elements with a light hand, balancing his blend with the same earthly poignancy that the gecko Eulalio perceives in the multicolored sunsets of Angola that he cherishes so much.