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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

A General Theory of Oblivion

by
José Eduardo Agualusa


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A General Theory of Oblivion



Title: A General Theory of Oblivion
Author: José Eduardo Agualusa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 247 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: A General Theory of Oblivion - US
A General Theory of Oblivion - UK
A General Theory of Oblivion - Canada
A General Theory of Oblivion - India
Théorie générale de l'oubli - France
  • Portuguese title: Teoria Geral do Esquecimento
  • Translated by Daniel Hahn

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing if not entirely satisfying kaleidoscope-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 17/7/2015 Angel Gurría-Quintana
The Independent . 27/2015 Jethro Soutar
TLS . 5/8/2015 Lara Pawson


  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he subject matter seems perfectly suited to Agualusa, an author with a taste for the outlandish. (...) Luanda itself emerges as an important player, gradually changing from a cradle of revolution and civil war into a city of unbridled capitalism. Even from Ludo’s detached vantage point, Agualusa excels at conveying the city’s wild, dark enchantment." - Angel Gurría-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "Agualusa has many a good story here: the 37 chapters work as standalone shorts, while intertwining and coming together at the end. His storytelling is sometimes wilfully flamboyant (...) but then these were strange and frenzied times." - Jethro Soutar, The Independent

  • "Although comedy breathes across the book, Agualusa is committed to capturing the sinister quality of Angola’s recent and often bloody past before it is forgotten. (...) What is disappointing is that the narrative unfolds so abruptly, leap-frogging time and often skirting details of place. Even when the wall to Ludo’s apartment is finally knocked down, this is such an anti-climax that it’s hard to believe it ever mattered. Despite the promise of the story, and the skill this important writer has displayed in previous books, A General Theory of Oblivion is unlikely to be remembered quite as fondly as Agualusa’s other work." - Lara Pawson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A General Theory of Oblivion begins as the story of Ludovica Fernandes Mano, born in Portugal and from childhood on preferring the comfort of her own four walls to going out. At some point something bad happened to her -- "what she called The Accident" (the details of which are only revealed midway through the book) -- and she became even more reclusive, living with her sister after their parents died. When her sister fell in love and married, Ludo made the move to distant Luanda, in Angola, with the newlyweds.
       Ludo lived with her sister and brother-in-law -- and then the dog he bought her for company --: "in a huge apartment on the top floor of one of the most luxurious buildings in Luanda", with an extensive library. With the Carnation Revolution in Portugal upheaval followed in Angola, which soon declared independence; Ludo's sister wanted to leave the country immediately, but they hung on for a while until finally, just before independence was declared, they finalized plans to leave. Going out to a party in the days before their planned departure the couple never return (another mystery that is only cleared up late in the novel). Ludo is left alone with the dog -- and almost immediately faces external threats as the world outside is turned upside down. Her solution ? Take the supplies meant for the swimming pool that was to be built on the apartment's terrace -- cement, sand, and bricks -- and build a wall in the hallway, cutting herself off from the rest of the building -- and the entire world.
       Ludo survives off the left-over supplies -- there's enough food for a while (though not the long term) --, planting food on the terrace, and eventually catching pigeons. And she lives this way for decades, watching the Angolan turmoil from afar (well, above), oblivious to its transition from supposedly communist to supposedly capitalist state. She burns many of the books -- after she's burnt everything else -- for fuel, but quite a few are left over. She records her thoughts in notebooks and then even on the walls, covering them all -- until:

If I still had the space, charcoal, and available walls, a general theory of oblivion.

I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book.
       It's a great premise for a story -- a woman living walled off in her own little world while a city and country go though tremendous upheavals. In fact, however, A General Theory of Oblivion doesn't quite begin with Ludo's story; rather, there is a brief Foreword, in which Agualusa claims that a Ludovica Fernandes Mano died, age 85, in Luanda in 2010, and that he had access to her notebooks, diaries, as well as photographs of her apartment and texts. Agualusa writes that in writing this novel: "I have made use of much of her first-hand account" -- but immediately adds: "What you will read is, however, fiction. Pure fiction."
       The suggestion that what follows is based on a true story, that it is in part very documentary, while at the same time insisting it is completely fiction (and acknowledging at the end, for example, that some of the poems ascribed to Ludo were written by someone else (indeed, commissioned by Agualusa)) makes for an odd tension to the novel that Agualusa isn't quite able to resolve.
       As wonderful as the premise is, Agualusa also isn't entirely able to contain it -- or his protagonist. A General Theory of Oblivion isn't the 'huge book' of Ludo's apartment. It isn't entirely internal, closing in on itself; Ludo doesn't venture out, but Agualusa ranges widely. So also the biggest barrier, the wall, comes down about halfway through the story. And Agualusa sprinkles in a variety of other stories in his short chapters -- pieces that have to do with Ludo's life and experiences, at least peripherally, but which stretch the novel to near the point of pulling it apart.
       In his montage of Angolan life across some three decades, Agualusa offers a quick succession of lives (and deaths), and quirky details -- pigeons and diamonds; a baby hippo (that moves in next door to Ludo ...). Ludo loses family, but gains some too: a grandchild, of sorts, as well as a child. And Agualusa does put the pieces of his various puzzles together nicely by the end -- what happened to young Ludo in Portugal; what became of her sister and brother-in-law; what of the pigeon-message, etc.
       For better and worse, A General Theory of Oblivion is a kaleidoscope-novel, of surprising turns and images, but also shifting abruptly between them and never quite coming together. Agualusa can't resist turning to Angola at large, and the dog eat dog world regardless of ruling ideology (as he nicely points out how easily the locals slip from taking advantage of one system to taking advantage of the next, where eventually capitalism: "thriving like mold amid ruins, had already begun to rot everything, to corrupt everything and, thus, to bring about its own end"). Shifting vantage points -- even as he is tempted to focus in on Ludo, he can't stick to her story alone -- and the 'human story'-angle, as Ludo's own long mysterious (long-)past catches up with her also tug the story apart. Yes, the pieces -- and some of how they fit together -- impress and move, and yet A General Theory of Oblivion has the feel of falling short of its ambitions.
       A General Theory of Oblivion is a fine work, and insightful about what has happened in Angola over the past thirty-some years. It reads well with its short, well-crafted (and often eventful) chapters, too -- but it doesn't quite add up.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 April 2016

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Links:

A General Theory of Oblivion: Reviews: José Eduardo Agualusa: Other books by José Eduardo Agualusa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Angolan author José Eduardo Agualusa was born in 1960.

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© 2016 the complete review

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