Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Book of Chameleons

The Book of Chameleons
Jose Eduardo Agualusa (author), Daniel Hahn (translator)
Simon & Schuster
978-1416573517, $12.00

How are personal histories made? What exactly are memories made of? The Book of Chameleons (original Portuguese title O vendedor de passados) by Portuguese author Jose Eduardo Agualusa explores these fundamental questions. The protagonist of this book, an Angolan albino called Felix Ventura, is a vendor of pasts. For a fee, he will concoct a history for you, as complicated and detailed as you want it to be, provide you with adequate documentation such as birth certificates, family tree, even photographs and similar. In his home resides the narrator of this tale – a gecko named Eulalio, so christened by Ventura because his words are so pleasant to the ear.

Ventura’s client Jose Buchmann brings things to a head when he takes his fake past a little too seriously. A photojournalist, he traces the history of his fake parents, and sets out to visit and photograph his so-called birthplace. At Ventura’s home, he runs into Angela Lucia, a fellow photojournalist and professional nomad who roams the world photographing light. The connections between the characters become clear through a surprise twist in the end.

The book is enlivened by gecko’s perspective. He and Ventura dream individually but the stuff of their dreams is the same in content, and thus the two main characters communicate with one another. The gecko’s knowledge transcends this life into his past incarnation as a mama’s boy. In this book of fake and creatable pasts, Eulalio’s is the memory that is deepest.

The book is not without its flaws. The gecko/first person narrative leads to a few stilted sentences, since the writer has to explain how a gecko comes across this knowledge, but these are few and far between. The prose reads like poetry and the free flow of the writer’s style causes the pacing to suffer at times.

However the book also works on several levels – as a mystery/thriller, as a meditation on spirituality, as a satirical commentary on how money can buy anything –including a past. An interview with Agualusa at the end of the book reveals several interesting tidbits. The book is set at a point in Angolan history soon after the country gained its independence from its Portuguese rulers. A new class of nouveau riche came into power, and with this new wealth came a craving for new histories as well. The author mentions that he has based the gecko character on Jose Luis Borges.

We live in times of relentless and Google-able documentation, and hence poor memory may no longer be an acceptable excuse. As I write this, China’s doctoring of a gymnast’s date of birth is being unearthed via Googling, and a Bigfoot hoax was revealed after several incriminating videos were found on Youtube. But this tale shows us how imprecise histories can be and why it might sometimes even be necessary to have a certain fluidity to memories, histories and life in general.

No comments: