"The Book of Chameleons"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage AUG 9, 2008)
“You could argue that we’re all in a constant state of change. That’s right, I’m not quite the same as I was yesterday either. The only thing about me that doesn’t change is my past: the memory of my human past. The past is usually stable, it’s always there, lovely or terrible, and it will be there forever.”
In the unusual mystery novel, The Book of Chameleons, from Jose Eduardo Agualusa, the narrator is a Gecko named Eulalio. The Gecko lives in the house of Felix Ventura, an albino Angolan who makes a living by creating and selling fabricated pasts to those who can afford his services. Angola’s bloody, savage past—first as a Portuguese colony, and then as a brutal, totalitarian communist state, certainly creates the need for its residents to doctor their pasts. And the Gecko, who observes Ventura’s clients as they pass through the doors, has a past of his own to remember. Ventura’s customers are an assorted bunch, and although they have a range of reasons for wanting new pasts and new identities, they all share one thing: they have the money to buy a fabricated past:
“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. [Ventura] sells them a brand new past. He draws up their family tree. He provides them with photographs of their grandparents and great-grandparents, gentlemen of elegant bearing and old fashioned ladies.”
Ventura isn’t perturbed by the morality of his profession; he simply feeds a need, and indeed, a portrait of Ventura’s “ancestor” Frederick Douglass is displayed prominently in his home.
When war photographer, Jose Buchmann hires Ventura, it’s obvious that Buchmann is an unusual client. Buchmann wants more than just a fictional past with hijacked photos of well-heeled ancestors. Buchmann also wants an entirely new identity—along with “authentic official documents that bore out this identity.” At first Ventura, who protests he is not a forger, refuses, but then he caves and agrees. Although Ventura hands Buchmann a fictional background, Buchmann proceeds to confirm the details as he embarks on a global search to explore his new identity. And in time, Buchmann undergoes a strange “metamorphosis” as he gradually becomes his fictional identity.
In this tale of intriguing contrasts, lies and truth collide explosively with the past and the present. A fascinating mystery that dissects the nature of truth, The Book of Chameleons explores revenge and justice and the inescapability of fate. While Agualusa’s novel has references to Portugal’s’ Carnation Revolution and the egregious human rights violations of the Portuguese bloody rule of Angola, The Book of Chameleons is not explicitly political. Instead, the novel examines the after effects of decades of colonialism, bloody conflict, perverted ideology and the human cost of war.
On another level, Agualusa’s Gecko is the reincarnated Jorge Luis Borges, trapped as an observer in a body of a lizard, but still possessing the wisdom of that great Argentinean author. While The Book of Chameleons deals with complex ideas, this is still a highly readable book, and the author does not sacrifice narrative to esoteric ideas. It would be handy if we could slot The Book of Chameleons into the category of magical realism, but that doesn’t quite fit the book’s description. I’m not a fan of magical realism at all, and I rather enjoyed this book for its quirky, yet delicate approach to its multi layered plot. (Translated by Daniel Hahn.)
- Amazon readers rating: from 10 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Conspiracy (1989)
- Rainy Season (1996)
- Creale (1997; 2002 in UK)
- A Stranger in Goa (2000)
- The Year in which Zombie took the River (2003)
- The Book of Chameleons (2004; 2008 in US)
- My Father's Wives (2007; 2010 in US)
- African Lisbon (1993)
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- Official website for José Eduardo Agualusa
- Wikipedia page for José Eduardo Agualusa
- Reading Guide for The Book of Chameleons
- Quarterly Conversations review of My Father's Wives
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About the Author:
José Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola in 1960, spent many years in Lisbon, moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1998, and returned to Luanda, Angola in 2004. He has published several novels, collections of short stories and a volume of poetry and is also a freelance radio and newspaper journalist.
He spends most of his time in Portugal, Angola and Brazil.