A General Theory of Oblivion

On the eve of the Angolan revolution for independence, an agoraphobic called Ludo bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years.  The story of Angola is told as if heard through her walls, overheard and second-hand, Ludo’s story told from the scrawling on her words, the journals she keeps and the books she reads over and over again.  José Eduardo Agualusa has gathered her story into A General Theory of Oblivion.  It’s an incredible premise, promising so much.

Ludo stays in a safe space the only way she knows how – by keeping herself in and others out.  In the madness and upheaval of the revolution, all memory of her and knowledge that her apartment is even there disappears.  She is unknown and happy, keeping herself warm by burning furniture, and fed by catching pigeons on the balcony.

Slowly however she realises that there is an echo of loneliness in her life.  Because the gunshots outside were scary enough, she didn’t keep her television or radio, completely isolating herself.  Sometimes though there are moments of humanity that sneak themselves through to her, reminding her of what else is out there:

“She pressed her ear to the wall. Two women, one man, several children. The man’s voice was big, silky, lovely to listen to. They were talking to one another in one of those enigmatic, melodic languages that she would sometimes hear on the radio. The odd word would come loose from the pack and leap about, like a coloured ball bouncing back and forth inside her brain: Bolingô. Bisô. Matindi.”

But this story is bigger than Ludo.  Agualusa is telling the story of Angola and it’s battle to define itself free from colonialism and the inequities it entrenched.  That’s a big job, and how Agualusa tackles it is by…not.  The story of the country, the life of Ludo, these are all told from a remove as if we too were listening through the walls.  His style is oddly distancing, and perhaps it is deliberate but the end result for me is one of dissatisfaction.

“‘We’re the Greek chorus. The voice of the nation’s conscience. That’s what we are. Here we sit, in the gloom, passing comment on the progress of the tragedy. Giving warnings to which nobody pays heed.'”

Perhaps they are impossible stories to tell or show, so we are given snippets and moments instead, knowing how much more there is.  The outcome of that though is just when you think we’re getting into a character or a time, we pull back out again, moving on.  It is a conscious, knowing style of storytelling.  But it is not in depth, or inclusive, and feels like the reader is being held back from knowing more.

Yes, the premise of Agualusa’s novel promises so much but it just does not deliver.  The story of this extraordinary woman or the raucous times of a country are left alone as the author refuses to give us more.  It was completely tantalising and a little disappointing.

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