Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret – Ondjaki, Translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Hennighan, Angola
At thirty-six years old, Ondjaki is one of the most prominent figures in Angola with a stream of diverse works to behind him to solidify his status as a mainstay African writer. Not to mention his list of awards: winner of the 2013 Jose Saramago Prize, an Africa39/Unesco City of Literature 2014 African Writer Under 40, a Guardian Top Five African Writer 2012, and winner of the Grinzane Prize for Best Young Writer 2010. His novel is the little novel that could. It came up slow on the judges, but it won’t leave. It’s a tough sell amongst the Cortázar, the ubiquitous Ferrante, the brilliance of the Hrabals, the seriousness of the Echenoz, or the linguistic leaps and narrative complexity of Can Xue. Admittedly, I am reluctant to get excited about a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps I am too old with too much cynicism. But that is what is beautiful about this novel – despite the historical setting of the civil war that lasted decades which would cause any country’s citizens to be cynical, especially their artists, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is light, almost effervescent, a testament to the true nature of resilience and hope.
Why should it win?
1. Rarely does a novel make me laugh out loud and I often question the mental state of reviewers who say “this book kept me laughing out loud,” but these few lines got me.
We ran forward, then went in stealthily along the side of the veranda so that Granma wouldn’t call us. The yard was dark. The parrot His Name shouted out to expose us: “Down with American imperialism.” We made an effort not to laugh: the words came from a television commercial that hadn’t run in a long time. Just Parrot finished off: “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola.”
2. The originality of Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is present in his characters, in his scenes and in the overall narrative. It’s fun. It’s fun book to read but not in a “guilty read” type of way, but in a stylized, well-crafted literary way. The unnamed narrator’s cast of characters is unique and refreshing. Residing on Bishop’s Beach in Luanda, there’s Granmas, Soviets or “blue ants”, Comrade Gas Jockey whose gas pump is just water, Comrade Gudafterov because of the way he says ‘good afternoon’, and Pi. The way the narrator explains how a friend arrives at a particular is always entertaining:
That was how he got his name, Sea Foam, there on the shoreline of Bishop’s Beach, where there was a huge blotch of white foam deposited by the breaking waves to ensure that the water merely lapped against the sand. Only if you walked far out did you lose your footing. There the foam disappeared, but closer in, where we also liked to pick up pretty seashells, it was just clean white foam, completely white as you looked to the right and the left, with Sea Foam’s body making a dark stain in the whiteness.
“Oye, niños, es el cabello del mar… The hair of the sea, do you understand? I mean, hahaha…” He went under for a second, dipped all of his hair in the foam awash with sand and shattered seashells, came up almost breathless and then puffed a like a little whale. “I mean…I’m just a louse in the white hair of the sea.”
4. The voice is so winsome. We don’t know the narrator’s name, but his voice just captivates with its loss of innocence and his love for his friends and his Granma. Yet, it never becomes syrupy or sickening. It is simply poignant:
And I stood still.
It wasn’t only the fingers or the toes, the legs or the head and the eyes, that liked to look one way then the other. It was the stillness itself. Within me. The voice that speaks within me had nothing to say, or else it wanted to practice silence just like that.
Still from not thinking.
To feel the evening? To await a signal from the wind, a whistle like a segregated conversation taking account of the fact that the birds cried in a far-away and I could hear them? Wanting to hear mysterious sentences from Granma Catarina? Contemplating the things of Bishop’s Beach that I thought I alone saw?
Inventing minutes that were mine within the minutes of time?
Growing up with a heart and body that were fleeing from childhood? “Is someone running behind the child?” Granma Nineteen was in the habit of asking. Was time pursuing me with a body to frighten me? I felt the whole world there in the small square of Bishop’s Beach.
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is one of those rare charming novels full of spirit, humor and the craziness of politics and power’s effect on its victims. It’s not often that a gem like this can be delivered through the voice of a young boy in such a whimsical way. The styles of Ondjaki and Hennighan are simpatico and deserve the Best Translated Book Award for this redemptive and enchanting work.
Félix Ventura, an albino, is an antique book dealer and a ‘seller of pasts,’ or genealogist as he tells strangers, who fabricates impressive genealogies for those Luandans who feel that their social station demands a more elevated (or more politically correct, given the bloody and recent revolutionary past of Angola) family history. As Félix says:
“I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature,” he told me conspiratorially. “I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into reality.”
Félix’s closest friend (well, really more of a silent interlocutor), and the narrator of the story, is a gecko who lives in his house. The gecko-narrator is a reincarnated human being, who, in addition to telling Félix’s story, provides details of his former life, and, in short chapters, the details of his dreams.
One day, Félix is approached by a photojournalist and war photographer who asks Félix to not only create a past for him, but to create a new identity for him as well. Somewhat reluctantly, Félix creates the identity ‘José Buchmann’, providing the newly dubbed Buchmann with a passport, driver’s license, several photographs of his parents and a detailed family story.
Despite Félix’s admonitions, Buchmann travels to his ‘ancestral home’, seeking evidence of the truth of the fictions that Félix has created. Things begin to take a darker turn when Buchmann comes back with that evidence.
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.
My enthusiasm for The Book of Chameleons is tempered somewhat by the ending. The hazy, pleasingly bewildering atmosphere that Agualusa generates in the first three quarters of the book, which could have sustained me for a long time, is squandered a bit by an ending that happens too quickly, and perhaps too perfectly.
However, I think José Eduardo Agualusa is definitely a writer worth following, especially in light of his excellent Creole, and I’m hopeful that Arcadia, and Daniel Hahn, will continue to bring his books to an English speaking audience.
The Book of Chameleons
José Eduardo Agualusa
translated by Daniel Hahn
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