Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. (Angola, Simon & Schuster)
Although this is the first (and only, at least so far) book of Agualusa’s to be published in the U.S., he has been making a name for himself and garnering lots of attention and praise from an international audience. Fellow fiction longlist member Antonio Lobo Antunes has called Agualusa, “Without doubt one of the most important Portuguese-language writers of his generation.” And in 2007 he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Book of Chameleons.
He now has two additional titles available in the UK from Arcadia, including Creole and the recently released My Father’s Wives. (A review of which will appear in an upcoming issue of Quarterly Conversation.)
Arcadia is also bringing out a fourth—_Estação das Chuvas_ or Rainy Season—and over at Book Trust, translator Daniel Hahn is currently blogging about his experience working on this book. (His posts range from addressing specific translation issues to the book’s jacket copy—the blog is worth checking out, and is updated on a weekly basis.)
In terms of this particular book, it’s necessary to point out right from the start that it’s narrated by a gecko. A gecko who lives with an albino book dealer and “seller of pasts” (the title can be literally translated as “The Genealogy Salesman”) who provides his clients—who are well-off and have a nice future ahead of them, but nothing special in their lineage—with a complete background.
For one of these clients, Felix Ventura doesn’t just create a past, but provides “Jose Buchmann” with a whole new identity, complete with stories of his mother and her death. Against Felix’s advice, Jose decides to look into this past of his, visiting his native home, etc.
This idea of reinvention ties nicely into the Borges quote that opens the novel:
If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different. I’d quite like to be Norwegian. Or Persian, perhaps. Not Uruguayan, though—that’d feel too much like just moving down the street.
In the Simon & Schuster “Reading Group Guide,” Daniel Hahn asks Agualusa about the influence of Borges on the novel:
This book is a tribute to Borges. It’s a game that I hope Borges would have appreciated. At the same time, it’s also a sort of settling up of accounts. I love Borges as a writer, but think that as a man there was always something about him that was closed and obtuse, reactionary even, and he not infrequently expressed opinions that were misogynistic or racist. His relations with women were very complicated—it’s believe that he died a virgin. Now, in my book Borges is reincarnated in Luanda in the body of a gecko. The gecko’s memories correspond to fragments of Borges’s real life story. Somehow I wanted to give Borges a second chance—in my book he makes the most of his opportunities.
Not sure if the book is all that, but E.J. sums up some of the books qualities in his review:
The Book of Chameleons is not the kind of book that can be completely absorbed in a single reading, and Agualusa packs an impressive amount of narrative depth in the short volume. It’s a novel about writing that manages to not be distractingly metafictional, and it’s also a reflection on what the past means in a country that has been repeatedly wounded by war. That he is able to treat these ordinarily difficult subjects with such a deft touch, and so entertainingly, is a credit to his abilities as a writer.