“A General Theory of Oblivion” by Jose Eduardo Agualusa [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by George Carroll, former BTBA judge, sales rep, and international literature editor for Shelf Awareness. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)
In Why Geography Matters, Harm de Blij writes that Americans have a dangerous geographic ignorance of other countries, particularly China. And if we’re iffy on China, we’re totally clueless about Africa, and worse, we don’t care.
So it’s satisfying that two of my favorite books on the BTBA longlist are set in sub-Saharan Africa—Tram 83 (Fiston Mwanza Mujila / Roland Glasser / Deep Vellum) and A General Theory of Oblivion (Jose Eduardo Agualusa / Daniel Hahn / Archipelago Books)—Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, respectively. Both books are also on the Man Booker International Prize—you know, the other translation prize.
The basic plot of A General Theory of Oblivion is that a light-sensitive agoraphobic walls herself and her white German Shepherd in her Luandan apartment for 30 years, eventually living off roof garden fruits and vegetables and the pigeons she traps, using diamonds as bait.
Outside her building, Angola is approaching the tail end of the War of Independence.
Dark and brutal when it needs to be, sensitive and thoughtful when it should be, the book is a bit of a riffle shuffle. It’s the callbacks,1 for a lack of a better word that I loved most in A General Theory of Oblivion. Characters who seem like one-offs or throwaways re-enter the book as major characters. It all leads to a denouement, minus all of the chuckles of, say, Comedy of Errors.
If the book title isn’t enough to entice you, the chapter titles should be:
Our Sky is Your Floor
The Substance of Death
On the Slippages of Reason
The Subtle Architecture of Chance
About God and Other Tiny Follies
Daniel Hahn’s translation is up with the best of his work. Is there anyone as consistently good as Hahn?
The reason A General Theory of Oblivion should win the Best Translated Book Award, or at least advance to the shortlist, is that the number one seed, the other book translated from the Portuguese shouldn’t be a shoe-in. Seriously—Villanova beat North Carolina. Leicester City could win the Premier League.
1 My favorite part of the television series Arrested Development was the callbacks. Well, second to the classic lines:
Michael (to GOB): Get rid of The Seaward.
Lucille: I’ll leave when I’m good and ready
I made a fool of myself with one of the series writers, now novelist Maria Semple at a book tradeshow. Rather than tell her I that was excited/interested in her book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I asked her a raft of questions about how they writers built callbacks into the episodes