Like Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa and Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, Portuguese-Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa is a literary trickster who dazzles with his artificial fictional creations. But unlike his headier forebears, his work is rooted in the more complicated and bloody everyday world of colonial and post-colonial Africa.
Basing his new novel, "A General Theory of Oblivion," on the story of a woman named Ludo, who bricks herself into an 11th-floor apartment building on the eve of Angolan independence and stays there for almost 30 years, Agualusa claims to extrapolate his "pure fiction" narrative from her notebooks and photographs of the writing she did on her walls, but he, in fact, invents the entire thing.
Looping through a series of spirographic circles, Agualusa's narrative draws the story of Ludo's self-confinement into the starry revolving sphere of her adopted country's revolutionary and counterrevolutionary growing pains, encompassing diamond smugglers, government assassin/torturers, disappearing poets and redeemed mercenaries within its scintillating web.
Ludo came to Angola with her sister Odete and brother-in-law Orlando, who works for a diamond company, and when intrigue causes the other two to disappear, Ludo has nowhere to go and barricades herself in against the various agents who want to root out Orlando's stolen diamonds.
Every practical aspect of her self-sequestration is totally unbelievable, from how she eats and relieves herself (a problem that's never mentioned) to even the relationship between the building and its surroundings, but Agualusa hilariously seems to thumb his nose while daring the reader to call his bluff.
An outlandishly orchestrated series of coincidences brings all the revolving characters together into a confrontation outside Ludo's recently opened door, yet the resulting resonances are as profound and affecting as that in any conventional flesh-and-blood chronicle. Agualusa is a master of varied genre structure, and he has great fun shifting from spy novel to pastoral narrative to interior reflection, but his heart is deeply invested in his characters, and each individual's story burns itself into the reader to make us reconsider our capacity for empathy and understanding.
Finally finding human connectedness after so many years, Ludo also unwittingly facilitates connection between the revolving cast around her, creating in this highly artificial novel a profoundly satisfying and merciful sense of human family.
David Wiley is a writer living in Philadelphia: firstname.lastname@example.org.