Pedro Mairal ‘The Uruguayenne’

Just that morning, I’d looked at your earrings in the bathroom, large silver hoops, expensive, thrown down there…and I remembered that saying from the Caribbean: she shakes her hoops with anyone. Who shook your hoops Catalina? Your earrings from Ricciardi bouncing around in your sexual endeavours, your rings from avenue Quintana ringing in deceit, chiming like a crystal chandelier in an earthquake.***

Lucas Pereyra, an archetypal loser, weighed down by money problems, owing a book to his editor, not meeting many people or so it would seem outside of his participation in literary festivals can save himself, his self esteem and his marriage in this book read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month. But then there is Guerra the Uruguayenne he met at a festival months ago, with whom he has stayed in touch with WhatsApp and whose name he has called out in his dreams.

The Argentine Peso is not exactly a stable currency, and the taxes! Pereyra arranges to be paid in a bank in Montevideo and leaves early one morning to take the boat across the Rio De la Plata, and will meet up with Guerra. But wasn’t his own wife not above suspicion, as his thoughts are given in the opening quote.

But a loser is a loser, Lucas picks up the money in cash which he hides in a secret money belt. And he is careful, watches all around himself as he strolls in the pleasant sun filled avenues of Montevideo, reminiscing of the time he had wanted Guerra, where they had nearly had sex together on and around the beach but we’re always interrupted, a loser. He has a few drinks and relaxes a little and as he meets up with Guerra and then drinks a lot more and smokes weed his defences weaken:

You have to watch out with Uruguay, especially if you turn up thinking that it’s like a province in Argentina but better, kinda like there’s no corruption or péronisme, you can smoke weed in the street, it’s the little country where everyone is nice and likeable and all that shit. If you don’t watch out Uruguay will fuck you from behind!***

He should have read the previous quote before going. A short easy read, a well worthwhile change of horizons.

First Published in Spanish as “La Uruguaya” in 2018 by Libros del Asteroida
Translated into French by Delphine Valentin and published as “L’Uruguayenne” in 2018 by Buchet-Chastel
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Ce matin justement, j’avais regardé tes boucles d’oreilles dans la salle de bains, de grandes anneaux en argent, coûteuses, jetées là…et je m’étais rappelé cette expression des Caraïbes: Elle fait trembler ses créoles avec n’importe qui. Qui faisait trembler tes créoles, Catalina? Tes boucles de chez Ricciardi se balançant dans la cavalcade sexuelle, tes boucles de l’avenue Quintana tintant dans la tromperie, cliquetant comme le cristal d’un lustre en pleine secousse sismique.

Faut faire gaffe avec L’Uruguay, surtout si tu débarques persuadé que c’est comme une province argentine mais en mieux, genre il n’y a pas de corruption ni de péronisme, on peut fumer de l’herbe dans la rue, c’est le petit pays où tout le monde est gentil et aimable et toutes ces conneries. Tu lâches prise et l’Uruguay te baise par derrière.

David Machado ‘The shelf life of happiness’

The vacuum cleaner scheme went like this: the company that sold them (it was called WRU, though I never found out what that stood for) rented equipment by the week to its employees—me and everyone else who had been selected—so we could do demos. We were expected to arrange these demos ourselves, … They didn’t give me a desk, just the address of a warehouse where I’d go pick up the vacuum cleaners. Everything else was done over the phone. I didn’t have a contract, which allowed me to keep collecting unemployment, and I earned a commission for each vacuum cleaner I sold, between 7 and 11 percent, minus rental fees. In other words, I had to pay to work. I accepted the job immediately.

David Machado’s Daniel had a job, a family and friends and them came Portugal’s financial crisis. In this book read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, as Daniel ‘s wife moves back in with her parents at the other end of Portugal to find work, and then Daniel’s well paid job as a lunch pin in a travel agent’s just get’s swept away in the internet tsunami, We follow Daniel as he fights to survive in a world that no longer really exists, unable to face up to what is happening to him. There are no jobs out there and in order to try to keep the appartement his family no longer live in he is forced towards degrading jobs, like the one in the opening quote.

The story is told as a conversation between Daniel and his friend, Almodôvar, who is in prison and we slowly learn that despite himself, Daniel is there for his friends and their families around him, for instance for the seemingly asocial Xavier, who has not left his room for a decade and who was more Almodôvar’s friend where we hear of the website the three friends had tried to create to try to bring people together to help each other:

In Xavier’s room, time slows down, things take longer to happen, as if our bodies become denser there, as if nothing—no gesture, no sentence, no silence—could ever really end. After about three minutes, he spoke. “We messed up,” he said. “What do you mean, ‘we messed up’?” “The site,” he said. “The site isn’t working.” Can you believe it? The dude was still working on the site. You hadn’t been around for over six months and Xavier had kept working on that shitty site. … He was right: the site wasn’t working. But I had forgotten about it a long time before. Meanwhile, a year later, Xavier was still messing around with it. I didn’t want to have that pointless conversation, so I tried to be patient. “What do you want to do about it?” I asked him. “We can’t put in more money.” He closed his laptop, and his face went dark. “There are people using the site,” he said. “The problem is that none of them need any help.”

And for Almôdovar’s son, Vasco, who, since his father has been jailed, has become mixed up with other kids of his age, first of all filming themselves pissing on drunks and then posting the films on line, films which, to Daniel’s surprise, have tens of thousands of views a day “who would want to watch this?” And then when Daniel has lost his appartement and is living in his car, as he is talking to Vasco, these same friends set fire to his car.

It takes a road trip in a van with Xavier, Vasco, Daniel’s troubled children and a pensioner who had posted on their website to say he had a seven seater van, in order to help the first person that had ever asked for help on their website, for Daniel to see that everyone struggles and that he needs to let go of the past to redefine himself. And as for Almodôvar, well the clue to what’s happening there is in the first page.

First Published in Portuguese as “Índice médio de felicidade” in 2013 by Publicações Dom Quixote
Translated into English by Hillary Locke and published as “The Shelf Life of Happiness” in 2016 by AmazonCrossing

Fernando Aramburu ‘Homeland’

Txato shared his grave with his maternal grandparents and an aunt, at the edge of an alley on a gentle slope, in a row of similar graves. On the gravestone there were the Christian names and names of the dead, his date of birth, and that of the day they killed him but not his nickname, Txato. In the days leading up to the burial, family members in Azpeita, had advised Bittori not to have any allusions, emblems or signs, which would identify Txato as a victim of ETA, carved on the headstone. That way she would avoid problems. She protested;—Come on, they’ve already killed him once. They’re surely not going to start again. Not that Bittori had thought of having a comment on the death of her husband carved on the headstone; but it only needed for someone to try to dissuade her from doing something for her to dig her heels in. Xabier agreed with the family and the only things carved on the grave were the names and the dates. In Saragossa, Nerea had the cheek to suggest that they falsify the second date. Astonishment. What do you mean?—I thought we could put a date either before or after the attack. Xabier shrugged his shoulders. Bittori said it was out of the question.***

This story, read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, begins as three men wearing ski masks and white cloaks, Klu Klux style announce to the world that ETA are finally giving up the armed struggle. Fernando Aramburu, then takes us in a wide sweeping story of the tragedy of these years, centred on the story of two families in a small Basque village, impressing on us that here, as with any other terrorist organisation, the very people that they are fighting for must become their victims for them to fuel the fight. We first discover Bittori, an old woman living in San Sébastien but making clandestine trips back to the village to see her house, and of her husband Txato, dead these many year, killed by ETA and of her children, Xabier and Nerea both scared of ETA, Nerea to the point of not attending her father’s funeral so that her friends and professors in her new life in Saragossa would not link her to the assassination. The opening quote tells us something of the time of Txato’s murder.

We also follow the story of Miren and her husband Joxean, the families, like the wives are close friends until the “armed struggle” begins when events take them along different paths, the wives both stubborn for their own reasons:

Before Txato’s tragedy she was a believer, but not anymore. She had been, however, devout in her youth. She had even nearly become a nun. Her and that friend from their village that it’s better not to remember. Both of them had changed their minds at the last minute when they had already one foot in the door of the noviciate. Now , she takes all those stories of resurrection of the dead, of eternal life, of the creator and the Holy Ghost for nonsense.***

Txato, who has built up a transport business in this poor, high unemployment area, receives anonymous letters to pay the “revolutionary tax” in order to fuel ETA, which of course he pays, but as he pays, the demands increase until he can no longer pay. Aramburu then tells us something of the randomness of the terrorists as the local bar owner fuels hatred of Txato in the community by organising graffiti against him including targets next to his name and with his previous friends then out of fear staying away from him. This is in itself not enough to get him killed, but then as the ETA organisation sends autonomous cells into the country side, avoiding contact with the locals so as not to be betrayed. These cells then, in this case at least read street graffiti to identify potential targets.

In parallel, José Mari, Miren’s oldest son, passes from delinquent to full blown ETA soldier and is seen in the village the night before Txato’s assassination. As the story begins he has been in prison, far from his family and the Basque Country, in Andalusia for many years. This long and engaging story then follows the slow breakdown of resistance as Bittori, before her death, wants to know the true story of what happened that day, hear of Joxe Mari’s role and wants him to ask her for forgiveness and the roles of the different family members in this process. The difficulty of the task is placed before us at the start, as on hearing of the ETA announcement Miren says:

They’ve given up the struggle, in exchange for what? Have they forgotten the liberation of Euskal Herria? And the prisoners rotting in prison? Cowards. We must finish what we’ve started.***

An excellent study of grass roots terror.

First Published in spanish as “Patria” in 2016 by Tusquets Editores
Translated into French by Claude Bleton and published as “Patria” in 2018 by Actes Sud.
Translated into English in by Alfred MacAdam and published as “Homeland” in 2019 by Picador.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le Txato partage sa tombe avec ses grands-parents maternels et une tante, au bord d’une allée en pente douce, dans l’alignement de sépultures similaires. Sur la pierre tombale figurent le prénom et les noms du défunt, sa date de naissance et celle du jour où on l’a tué. Mais pas son surnom. Dans les jours précédant l’inhumation, des membres de la famille, à Azpeitia, avaient conseillé à Bittori de s’abstenir de graver sur la pierre des allusions, emblèmes ou signes qui identifient le Txato comme une victime de l’ETA. De cette façon, elle s’épargnerait des problèmes. Elle protesta :—Dites donc, on l’a déjà tué une fois. Ils ne vont quand même pas recommencer. Non que Bittori ait envisagé qu’on grave un commentaire sur le décès de son mari ; mais il suffit qu’on cherche à la dissuader de faire une chose pour qu’elle s’y accroche. Xabier donna raison à la famille. Et ne furent inscrits que les noms et les dates. À Saragosse, Nerea au téléphone avait proposé, quel culot, de falsifier la seconde date. Étonnement. Comment cela ?—Je me suis dit qu’on pourrait mettre sur la tombe une date antérieure ou postérieure à l’attentat. Xabier haussa les épaules. Bittori dit pas question.

Avant la tragédie du Txato, elle croyait, mais plus maintenant. Et pourtant, elle était dévote dans sa jeunesse. Elle avait même failli prendre le voile. Elle et cette amie du village qu’il vaut mieux ne pas se rappeler. Toutes deux renoncèrent à leur projet au dernier moment, alors qu’elles avaient déjà un pied dans le noviciat. Maintenant, elle prend toutes ces histoires de résurrection des morts, de vie éternelle, de Créateur et de Saint-Esprit pour des sornettes.

Ils renoncent à la lutte en échange de quoi ? Ont-ils oublié la libération d’Euskal Herria ? Et les prisonniers qui croupissent en prison ? Lâches. Il faut finir ce qu’on a commencé.

Idra Novey ‘Ways to Disappear’

When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeão International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in…Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the sticky sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere. Her cab driver had a body as well, much of it on display beneath his pink muscle shirt, all of it glistening with sweat.

The famous Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda is seen climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase and then dissapears at the beginning of this book by Idris Nova about the author and her young English translator, Emma Neufeld, which although written in English, is set in Brazil and so I am proposing this for the Spanish And Portuguese lit month. Emma having translated all of Beatriz’s works and remembers a prison warden climbing a tree in one of them decides to travel to Brazil and look for her. As always when she arrives the shock to her senses awakens her body as illustrated in the opening quote.

When she comes to Brazil, Emma always stays with Beatriz and this time as she arrives she finds Beatriz’s grown children Raquel and Marcus. Raquel is exasperated to see her and cannot understand why someone who has read everything she has written should presume to know her mother better than her, thinking that it was more important to know what she hadn’t written down. They quickly discover that Beatriz is persued by a loanshark due to an on line gambling habit.

As Emma meets up with the loanshark, quickly painted in a few brush strokes by Idra Novey, she quickly learns that he doesn’t quite understand the meager amount of money in play in translated literature:

Listen, he said to her breasts, fuck the story. You know what I want? I want the six hundred thousand fucking dollars she owes me. Okay? I know she’s broke. So you need to get the damn book from her. Whatever you get for it in your country, half a million is mine, and then I won’t have to kill her.

To underline the translating theme, the book is interspersed with definitions and dry humour examples from the text, such as the one below inspired by the previous quote:

PROMISE: From the late Middle English prom-is. First known use 15th century. 1. A declaration of what a person intends to do, which may correspond to what a person actually does, or may not. 2. A verb used to assure of a certain outcome, as in: With time, a translator gets used to promising the impossible the way a loan shark gets used to promising carnage.

We meet many other characters, including Beatriz’s Brazilian publisher in this successfully humorous book as Emma follows successive leads searching for Beatriz, who cannot afford to be found. A fun book that lived up to its hype (Oh, and Emma and the good looking Marcus….).

First Published in English as “Ways to Dissapear” in 2016 by Daunt Books

Lídia Jorge ‘The Night of the Singing Ladies’

The maestrina describes us as five magnificent girls, with different backgrounds and natures, simultaneously attracted, from several places in Africa by the sound of a piano. img_1288Five young girls dispersed, born and brought up in different regions and nevertheless equally fascinated by the same music. It was the beautiful sound of the Grand piano, the Yamaha, forgotten in a garage looking out on the Tage, it was this piano that called us, one after the other, as its magical teeth moved constantly day and night.

In this book of litten up by the narrator, Solana de Matos’s song writing and read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, Lídia Jorge tells us the story of five young singers in Lisbon, singing in a garage as in many other garages elsewhere in the world in 1987, of Gisela, the maestrina, of the two sisters Maria Luisa and Nani Alcide, trained clasically in a conservatory, of Madalena Micaia, the African Lady and finally of Solana de Matos. This is the story of the end of the Portuguese empire in Africa, all of the singers were children when they fled Africa with nothing and came back to Portugal with no help from the government, no state of emergency was announced, what was left behind was lost and many of those that came back died of depression or depression related causes. These girls were the survivors.

The book begins twenty years after at a television show where the singers, with the exception of The African Lady who could not be reached in her village in Africa, were reunited in what was a “perfect night”, Gisela navigating easily the television stage and introducing the other singers, as described in the opening quote. but as we are taken back to those months of 1987 we discover a very different story. At the outset there was Solana de Matos, a student and her friend Murillo, with the contrast between his view of world politics and injustices, of getting ahead by small steps and Solana’s view of the world, a view of a shrinking horizon, of coming back with nothing, of being ready to give everything for her passion, of her parents striking example of building up a farm with hundreds of livestock in less than ten years from literally nothing. Her life was the opposite of small steps. There were the Alcide sisters whose parents were amongst those that had died since their return from Africa, there was Madelena Micaia with the Jazzy voice and then there was the ultra driven Gisela for whom money seemed to be no problem, she asked her step father Mr Simon and people were paid.

This is a story of awakening for the young Solana, discovering the world for what it is, she leads a chaste love affair with João de Lucena the dance coach for the group. Amidst Gisela’s one minded tyranny to keep the girl’s focus, insisting they do not see men, even humiliating Nani in front of the other girls after she discovers she is seeing a boy, getting her to repeat after her in front of the others, over and over again:

I will concentrate night and day on my role since I will only have in mind to give my all.

Why does Gisela does not admonish Solana, she must know of their discreet afair? When Solana discovers the truth, she learns to handle it as a song writer she looks for rhymes for what she sees, words to rhyme with lecherous, or shame.

Things don’t go as planned as Madalena gets pregnant putting pressure on the girls planned opening concerts, leading to tragedy. Finally the relationships between the different characters are more complex than Solana’s first assessment as she learns to handle Gisela.

First Published in Portuguese as “A noite das mulheres cantoras” in 20011 by Publicações Dom Quixote.
Translated into French by Geneviève Leibrich and published as “La nuit des femmes qui chantent” by Editions Métailié in 2014

Santiago Roncagliolo ‘Red April’

“Associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar left the hospital feeling out of sorts, he was pale. Terrorists he thought, only they were capable of something like this, they had come back. FFD11E72-802C-444D-9EE5-ABE96113828EHe did not know how to sound the alarm or even if he should…..The prosecutor thought that perhaps, after all, the deceased was a case for the military courts, he did not want to interfere in the anti-terrorist struggle, the military had organised it, they knew it best.

This story read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, is set back in the year 2000 when victory in the twenty year war against the Maoist inspired Sendero Luminoso has been declared by the then President of Peru, Fujimori. Roncagliolo has chosen to treat this period by way of a crime thriller centred in the town of Ayacucho, a town which had been at the centre of the guérilla warfare which over the twenty year period up to 2000 saw about 70000 deaths or disappearances of which about half were attributable to Sendero and a third to to government security forces.

So it is against this background that associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar arrives from Lima to work in Ayacucho where he finds himself confronted with the discovery of a badly burnt and mutilated body, so badly burnt that despite the official line that the rebellion is over, he hesitates to attribute the murder to terrorists as illustrated in the opening quote. As the Holy Week festivities approach and the bodies mount up Félix Chacaltana Saldívar discovers troubling secrets about the past twenty years concerning the terrorists and the exactions of the security forces and he retreats behind his written reports to the military command, it is clear he has doubts about the past, when Commander Carrión questions him:

“You think we’re a gang of killers isn’t that right Chacaltana?” The commander’s question came after a long silence when they were already on the highway back to Ayacucho, between the mountains and the river. He was driving the vehicle himself, they were alone.
“I do not know what you are referring to commander.”
“Don’t act like a prick Chacaltana I know how to read between the lines of reports and I know how to read faces too. Do you think you’re the only one here who knows how to read?”
The prosecutor felt obliged to explain himself. “We waged a just war commander.” He said it like that using the first person, “that is undeniable but sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy and when that happens I begin to ask myself what exactly it is that we fought against.”

As Chacaltana investigates he finds disturbing links between the security forces and the church as well as links to religion in the actual murders and then in an attempt to understand the motives he visits one of the jailed terrorists, Comrade Alonso who leaves him little doubt that the Sendero Luminoso would not use religious signs and tells him the following story:

“What do you think will happen after death?“
Comrade Alonso gave a nostalgic smile, “it will be like the Indian servants dream, do you know it? It’s a story by Arguedas, do you read?”
“I like Chocano”
Now the terrorist laughed sarcastically there was something like cultural petulance in his attitude, he did not consider the prosecutor to be an intellectual, “I prefer Arguedas, they don’t let us read here, but I always think about that story it’s about an Indian, the lowest of the slaves on a plantation, a servant of the servants one day the Indian tells the master that he has had a dream, in his dream they both died and went to heaven, there god ordered the angels to cover the Indian with manure until all his skin was hidden by shit, but he ordered the rich man to be completely bathed in honey the master is happy to hear the Indians dream he thinks that it’s reasonable he thinks that it’s exactly what god will do, he urges him to go on and asks and then what happens the Indian replies the when he saw the two men covered in shit and honey respectively he says now lick the others body until it is completely clean.”

As Chacaltana realises that the main link between the murdered people is that he had interviewed them all he begins to look closely around himself amid a certain despair at the events for which Commander Carrión has the following fatalistic explanation for events in Ayacucho:

“Our work of two decades has just gone all to hell, we can’t even guarantee our own security we’ll never stop them, they’ll keep coming back. But it is our job.”
“To fight the sea?”
“After all I’ve been reading during the days that I’ve been inside, Ayacucho is a strange place, the Wari culture was here, and then the Chacana who never let themselves be conquered by the Incas, and then the indigenous rebellions because Ayacucho was the midway point between Cusco the Inca capital and Lima, the capital of the Spaniards and indépendance in Quinua, and Sendero, this place is doomed to be bathed in blood and fire forever.”

As the investigation advances, the assistant district prosecutor who begins as a quiet decent man hiding behind written procedural reports permitting him to avoid responsibility and strangely close to his dead mother whom he addresses as a living person, metamorphoses into a persistant investigator ready to ruffle feathers. The pressure he endures pushes him towards behaviour which after a few weeks leaves the reader wondering what the difference between Chacaltana and the other guilty protagonist of the twenty year dirty war would have been had he have been there over that period.

A recommended read.

First Published in Spanish as “Abril Rojo” in 2006 by Alfaguara.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “Red April” by Atlantic Books in 2010
Translated into French by Gabriel Laculli and published as “Avril Rouge” by Editions Le Seuil in 2009

Pablo Martín Sánchez ‘The Crucial Moment’

“Sure, I lived four years in Santiago. But I never worked for Allende. I went for a symposium at the University of Chili, I was taken in by his project and I stayed on. 7DBC8600-4510-495A-960E-593CB0CC4EBCThen along came the mother-fucking military and everything went haywire. Though, the truth is it was Allende’s fault. As one of my friends says: if you’re only half a revolutionary you might as well dig your own grave.”***

The story, read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, takes place in Barcelona in 1975, just before the first democratic elections after the Franco period and incidentally the day of the author’s birth, in six time periods, midnight, dawn, morning, midday, afternoon and evening of a single day, slowly building up to the Crucial Moment.

In Parallel, at the beginning of each section, Sanchez tells the story of a baby being born that day.

The story has six narrators at each time period, seemingly unrelated but on a collision course for the evening, there is Gerardo Fernández Zoilo, a university teacher having spent time in Chili, illustrated in the opening quote, and Carlotta Felip Bigorra, a student investigating stolen babies and who sleeps with her teacher Gerardo at midnight.

There are José María and María Dolores Ros de Olano Y Figueroa, he a wealthy and corrupted business man formed by the Franco years and she a photo of his dead mother, observing from the living room wall:

“A light comes on in the building opposite, where the young widow lives. Then again, these days, she could just be single. Or worse still, divorced! These civil marriages are a real crime: When you want to get married, you get married as God wished and good luck. But I’m sure she’s a widow, we widows recognise each other at once, even after the mourning period.”***

Finally There are Clara Molina Santos, a bullied school girl and the greyhound Solitario VI, at the end of his useful career, we are introduced to him in the kennels at night with the drunken keeper, Atilano, who beats the dogs and one of the new greyhounds, Mogambo, who begins to howl:

“Stop howling boy, stop howling. Atilano lowers his head, half shuts his eyes and rocks back and forth, from toe to heal, again and again and again. Finally he clears his throat and advances down the central corridor….far from calming down, the howls become louder and break into barking, the voices of the other new dogs quickly add to the mayhem….Atilano seizes his cane and begins to bang on the bars of the cages, and occasionally lets slip between the bars, judging by the yelps. Other greyhounds in the stable join in in protest. Me, I sit back and howl at the nearest light….Atilano turns back….I pretend to be sleeping.”
“I heard you Solitario, Carry on like that and you’ll wind up in Casablanca.”***

As the day goes on each one of the narrators, with the exception of Maria Dolores, the photograph, makes a decision that leads to the final showdown, Maria Dolores had made her decision many years before, when trapped on the fifth floor of a burning apartment with her baby son.
An intriguing read.

First Published in Spanish as “Tuyo Es El Mañana” in 2016 by Editorial Acantilado.
Translated into French by Jean-Marie Saint-Lu and published as “L’instant Décisif” by Editions La Contre Allée in 2017
*** my translation

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