José Eduardo Agualusa ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’

Ludovica never liked having to face the sky. While still only a little girl, she was horrified by open spaces. She felt, upon leaving the house, fragile and vulnerable, like a turtle whose shell had been torn off. C2F764A0-5DD1-4BEC-865C-E80B3905C946When she was very small –six, seven years old –she was already refusing to go to school without the protection of a vast black umbrella, whatever the weather. Neither her parents’ annoyance nor the cruel mockery of the other children deterred her. Later on, it got better. Until what she called ‘The Accident’ happened and she started to look back on this feeling of primordial dread as something like a premonition.

I remember Angola from the news reports of the seventies as a battle ground involving Cubans and mercenaries fighting over the remains of the country, Here, read for Spanish and Portuguese lit months, Agualusa brings me up to date with what actually happend, not concentrating on the political detail but on the events in Angola over twenty five years seen through the eyes of Ludo, who as the opening quote tells us sufered from agraphobia.

Agualusa was given the documents on which he based this story, including photos of Ludos walls, covered in writing, by Sabalu whose roll we discover towards the end of the story. Ludo was a Portuguese woman living with her sister and brother in law in Luanda in 1975 as Angola obtained its independance from Portugal and the chaos began. When one evening her sister and bother in law did not make it home, she manages to frighten off the kidnappers who came to the door of her appartment looking for diamonds which her brother in law was supposed to have stolen, shooting and killing one of them. Ludo then, using building material that was at hand and food and drink left behind by the other Portuguese in her building in their hurry to leave the country, builds a wall across her corridor just before her appartment door where she then lives without ever leaving for a period of twenty five years with her dog Phantom and the dead body of the kidnapper which she plants in a flower bed on her terrace. Her understanding of events is based on what she witnesses through her window.

I was woken by gun shots. Later, through the living room window, I saw a very thin man running. Phantom was restless all day, running in circles from his own fear, biting his paws. I heard shouting in the neighbouring apartment. several men were talking. Silence followed. I was unable to sleep all night. At four in the morning
I went up to the terrace.
The night, like a well swallowed the stars.

That’s when I saw a truck loading the bodies.


Agualusa also mixes in chapters on other people living through the chaos who have an impact on Ludo’s life, such as the thin man, Jeremiah Carrasco, observed in the previous quote, who had been one of the kidnappers and whom we follow through the events surrounding his life, his arrest and summary execution, his being left for dead but surviving, and his twenty five years of being reborn and living clandestinely as a Kuvale cowherd up to his eventual meeting with Ludo. We follow the torturers and he tortured, up to the day when Subalu, à child, climbs a scaffolding and enters Ludo’s apartment and finding her in a state worst than himself leaves her bread which she discovers on waking.

This is a rich story full of unlikely characters of which Ludo is just one of many. At the end of the book we discover Ludo’s secret, of the “Accident” and of the tragedy of her life. Her twenty five year ordeal is somehow a positive event for her, a cleansing of her mind. A marvellously poetic story.

First Published in Portuguese (Angola) as “Teoria geral do esquecimento” in 2012 by D. Quixote.
Translated into English by Daniel Hahn and published as “A General Theory of Oblivion” by Archipelago in 2015
Translated into French by Geneviève Leibrich and published as “Théorie Générale de l’oubli” in 2014 by Editions Métailié

2 thoughts on “José Eduardo Agualusa ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’”

  1. This sounds great even if your “marvelously poetic” summation seems to clash with the violent storyline. Thanks for reviewing this, Pat–I know next to nothing about Angolan authors but will keep this book/author in mind after such high praise.

  2. Agualusa had access to Ludo’s diaries and to her poems and thoughts as source material, he also asked Christiana Nóvoa, the Brazilian poetess to write Ludo’s poems in chapters called Haïku and exorcism.

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