One of the complaints I get from time to time—about both Three Percent and Open Letter—is our lack of poetry coverage. This is primarily my fault, since I rarely ever read poetry. Probably some sort of reading deficiency, blindspot, or problem with my soul, but, well, there you have it. (It’s not as if this is my only flaw! Even my best-friend could provide a list as long as a summer day.)
To try and make up for this, Open Letter is launching a poetry series (one book a year, starting in February or thereabouts) and below you’ll find a poem that I came across in the new issue of Zoland Poetry. (BTW, the new issue isn’t actually featured on the website . . . yet. Whoops. There is a mention of the pub date—March 23rd—but that’s it. I can confirm that yes, this really does exist, and that it’s filled with good stuff.)
“Invented Memoir” by Manoel de Barros, translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey
I leaned into the morning the way a bird leans and a vision appeared: the afternoon running behind a dog. I was fourteen. The vision must have come from my origins. I don’t remember ever seeing a dog outrun the afternoon. I made a note of it anyway. Such leaps of the imagination are what make our speech more beautiful. I made a note in a phrasebook. By this point, I was already saving visions like this one. I had another that month, but first I should tell you the circumstances. I transported parts of my childhood between the kitchen wall and the yard. I pretended to put a yoke on the frogs behind our kitchen. We understood each other well. I fixed things so the frog’s skin matched the color of the ground. It seemed right, since they were of the ground and grimy. One day I said to my mother: A frog is a piece of the ground that jumps. She said I was mixed up, that a frog isn’t a piece of the ground. Now that I’m older, I think of the prophet Jeremiah. He was so distraught at seeing his Zion destroyed and dragged through the fire that a vision came to him in his home: even the stones in the street were crying. Later, calmer, writing to a friend, he remembered the vision: even the stones in the street had cried. It was such a beautiful sentence because there was no reason in it. He said this.
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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