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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Book of Chameleons

José Eduardo Agualusa

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To purchase The Book of Chameleons

Title: The Book of Chameleons
Author: José Eduardo Agualusa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 180 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The Book of Chameleons - US
The Book of Chameleons - UK
The Book of Chameleons - Canada
Le Marchand de passés - France
Das Lachen des Geckos - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative, appealing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 15/10/2007 Myriam Anderson
Financial Times . 21/7/2007 Rose Jacobs
The Guardian . 21/10/2006 Jerome de Groot
The Guardian A 30/6/2007 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 24/11/2006 Amanda Hopkinson
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2008 James Crossley
The Telegraph . 9/8/2007 Max Porter
The Times . 26/5/2007 Kate Saunders
TLS . 23/9/2005 Stephen Henighan
TLS . 1/12/2006 Nora Mahony
The Village Voice . 13/5/2008 Alexis Soloski
The Washington Post . 16/10/2008 Ariel Gonzalez

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very impressed -- though quite a few question the English title

  From the Reviews:
  • "Enigmatique et lumineux, le roman partage l'intonation "mi-slave, mi-brésilienne" de ce personnage insaisissable en pleine métamorphose, et mêle rire et inquiétude, métaphysique et poésie, avec le naturel d'un jeu d'enfant. Un émerveillement." - Myriam Anderson, Le Figaro

  • "The mystery slowly becomes a meditation on -- you guessed it -- metamorphosis, which is not to say plot ever loses out to pondering. Or, put another way, the tail never wags the dog." - Rose Jacobs, Financial Times

  • "There are dream sequences and brief but exact meditations on topics from doubles to light to communism to the Portuguese book trade; the tone is easy and strange at the same time. Wilfully odd, The Book of Chameleons is a collection of thoughts and impressions rather than a book with a subject, but it is charming none the less." - Jerome de Groot, The Guardian

  • "To tell the truth, I am not confidently sure why the narrator is a lizard. If there is a symbolic point, it eludes me. But that is actually a strength of the novel, its not being shackled to an interpretation. From a storytelling perspective, it's very useful: Ventura treats him as a pet, and confides in him; and, being able to climb over any surface, even inverted ones, the gecko can observe anything he wishes. In short, an ideal narrator: Agualusa himself, indeed, who by writing under a pseudonym can himself be said to have an interest in mutable identities. (...) The only thing wrong with the book is its English title." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "On one hand, Agualusa -- among the most striking authors of a generation to emerge from the African continent -- has created a morality tale for the Truth Commissions of our times; on the other, a work of fierce originality, vindicating the power of creativity to transform the most sinister acts. His writing is brought vividly home to us by Daniel Hahn." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

  • "In description, the novel may come across as a bizarre and confusing mix of the horrific, comical, political, sexual and intertextual, but in the reading, all these elements blend naturally, with subtle and supple results." - James Crossley, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "José Agualusa's characters are charming and his beguiling narrative style is well translated. This prize-winning novel is rewarding and original with a fine sense of humour." - Max Porter, The Telegraph

  • "The winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is elegantly written (and translated), but you might have a problem with the fact that the narrator is a lizard." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "Told in short, ironic scenes, O Vendedor de Passados is consistently taut and witty. Unfortunately, the novel's violent conclusion, which re-enacts the gruesome fate of the couple who staged the 1977 coup attempt, does not emerge organically from events in Ventura's bookshop; the story's final twists feel imposed." - Stephen Henighan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "To label simple achievements as virtues may seem disingenuous, but considering how many notable contemporary novels revel in the obscure, the ambiguous and the downright underbaked, Agualusa's latest work, as translated by Daniel Hahn, is a triumph. (...) Daniel Hahn's translation reads with the soft cadence for which his translation of Creole (2002) was so admired. Only the title disappoints; it is a far cry from O Vendedor de Passados and the French translation, Le Marchand de passés." - Nora Mahony, Times Literary Supplement

  • "At only 129 pages, the book also feels unnecessarily slimmed, with characters more cited than enfleshed. Agualusa describes memory as "a landscape watched from the window of a moving train." Perhaps with his next book he'll have the patience to slow that journey down and disembark at more stops along the way." - Alexis Soloski, The Village Voice

  • "The Book of Chameleons, which won the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, portrays a society in flux via a handful of characters in spatially circumscribed circumstances. The novel is breezily brief; it consists of 32 unnumbered chapter vignettes, several of which are no more than one to two pages." - Ariel Gonzalez, The Washington Post

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:

       The Book of Chameleons is a book of changing identities, with most of the characters having at least some chameleon-like characteristics (though it is, for the most part, narrated by a gecko named Eulálio -- not quite a chameleon, but the UK/US publishers presumably figured it was close enough ...). Eulálio has, in his present gecko-form, never left the house of Félix Ventura, an albino (i.e. easily passing for white) in Angola who: "dealt in memories, a man who sold the past, clandestinely, the way other peple deal in cocaine" -- hence the original title of the novel, O Vendedor de Passados ('The Seller of Pasts'). However, Félix is no simple forger of papers: what he offers is something different: "I invent dreams for people", is how he sums it up. Or, as he also puts it:

     "I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature," he told me conspiratorialy. "I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into a reality."
       In a country like Angola there's considerable demand for such services, as people have pasts to hide or want new identities -- and:
There was a whole class, he explained, a whole new bourgeoisie, who sought him out. They were businessmen, ministers, landowners, diamond smugglers, generals -- people, in other words, whose futures are secure. But what these people lack is a good past, a distinguished ancestry, diplomas. In sum, a name that resonates with nobility and culture. He sells them a brand new past.
       Among those seeking Félix's services is a photojournalist ("You can think of me as a witness"). Félix obliges, making of him: José Buchmann, a fifty-two-year old photographer. But as it turns out, even in invented pasts can come with considerable baggage .....
       The Book of Chameleons is presented in short, varied chapters. The gecko-narrator isn't you usual housepet; he's an independent, observant -- and bookish -- creature. He also has a past, in a different human form (with Agualusa pushing the literary connexions, as the book comes with a epigraph by Borges (starting: "If I were born again, I'd like to be something completely different" ...) and is a tribute of sorts to that author).
       A mix of dreams, brief philosophical and literary excursions, and the mystery of the man who becomes José Buchmann, The Book of Chameleons is a constantly shifting text -- but Agualusa doesn't get too carried away with the playfulness. It's an enjoyable read, with creative surprises and appealing twists. If it doesn't quite come together in its resolution it's still a very rich and far-reaching book for its size.

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The Book of Chameleons: 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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