The author of A General Theory of Oblivion, winner of a PEN Translates award and shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, talks to PEN Atlas about his reclusive main character, the city of Luanda, living through troubled times, and the value of being translated.
Translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, interview by Tasja Dorkofikis.
Your novel examines the troubled past of Angola through the life of a woman locked away from the world. Why did you choose this detached perspective?
I thought it would be interesting to have a distant observer, like an apathetic God, someone who could watch the whirlpool of history as though looking down on it from a balcony.
Ludovica, the main character of the novel, is said to be based on the life of a real woman. Did she really exist, and if so who was she?
No. Ludo is me, or was me, during a certain period when I was living in Luanda, in that very building. They were days of great political intolerance. I would stay locked away in my apartment all day, working, while the city moved around me. I’d look at the city, out there, and it scared me. It was around that time, I think, that the character of this woman came to me. Someone who isolates herself out of sheer terror. Because she is afraid of the vastness she does not know.
Apart from Ludovica, the novel has a wonderfully rich cast of characters. Are any of them based on real people too? Have you done much research for the historical part of the novel?
There’s once character, a state security agent, who overlaps in several of my books, from Rainy Season to My Father’s Wives. I called him Monte and he was created based on a real person. A famous torturer who died the very day I published Rainy Season. He was killed by a satellite dish, just like in the novel.
I didn’t need to do much research. I lived through those years. I followed some of the war as a journalist, as well as the years after the death of Jonas Savimbi and the end of the military conflict. I know Angola’s recent history very well.
The novel’s patchwork structure is a perfect reflection of conflicting and shifting allegiances and stories. How did you decide on this structure and the inclusion of poems?
The novel’s structure arises for me as the plot progresses. In this case it was slightly different, however, in that I had previously written a screenplay. I wrote the novel with recourse, partly, to the structure of that screenplay. From a certain point it became clear to me that the novel needed this poetic madness. A certain mystery and uneasiness that poetry and bring with it. Because the main character demands this. She is a disturbed person. At the same time, she’s also a person possessed by the spirit of poetry.
Ludo tries to forget but discovers that it is not possible. But she says that: ‘Our mistakes correct us. Perhaps we need to forget. We should practise forgetting.’ Is this the advice you would give to Angola too?
No. I believe the opposite: I think the first thing we need is to remember. People first need to remember, to cry together. Only then will they be free to forget.
Luanda is one of the main characters of the novel. How has Luanda influenced your writing?
If it weren’t for Luanda, I might never have become a writer. Luanda is an extraordinary setting, a place where the most brutal reality and the most delirious imagination merge noisily together. It’s a big, tough city, where you can still find magical thinking with rural origins. In the streets of Luanda you’ll come across adventurers from all over the world mixing with farmers, ex-soldiers and guerrilla fighters, sorcerers, diamond traffickers, mercenaries, etc. It’s a whole catalogue of characters.
You were born in Huambo, Angola, and now divide your time between Africa, Brazil and Portugal. How do these three locations – with such intertwined pasts – fuel your work and sense of identity?
The language I work with is global Portuguese, not just Angolan Portuguese. The fact that I divide my time between all these different territories helped me first of all better to understand the Portuguese language. To take possession of it.
African Lusophone writers have recently become more visible in English-speaking countries. How important are the translations into English for you? And how important is the shortlisting for the Man Booker International Prize? Are there any other Angolan writers who would also be of interest to English-speaking readers?
Translations into English are important because they can be read by people who speak other languages. A book translated into English has, right from the outset, a greater possibility of subsequently being translated into other languages. Being on the shortlist for the Booker is directly reflected in the sale of rights to other languages.
And yes, I think so. There are Angolan writers who I’m sure could have a lot of readers in the Anglophone universe: the anthropologist, filmmaker, poet and novelist Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, whose fiction mixes all these other areas of expertise and talents he has. It’s strong, original work, focussing on the nomadic peoples of the Namib desert in the south of Angola. Also the poet Ana Paula Tavares.
How do you see your role as a writer in a country like Angola, which is still recovering from the long civil war?
I think writers in Angola have an important role to play in asking questions, contributing to an open debating of ideas. Even for the process of national reconciliation. As I’ve said before: we need first to remember, then we can forgive.
Who do you think your readers are? And who do you write for?
Many different readers. People interested in dilemmas of identity, in questions relating to memory and the process of constructing identities.
How do you think Angolan writing is influenced by Brazilian and Portuguese writing and vice versa?
Brazilian literature was – at least until the late 1970s – very important for the development of Angola’s writers. Essential, even. It doesn’t seem so important now. All the same, it does still have more impact than Portuguese literature.
Do you work closely with your translators?
Yes, with some of my translators. Especially with Daniel [Hahn, Agualusa’s English translator], and also with my Dutch translator, Harrie Lemmens, and my German translator, Michael Kegler. Today they’re my friends. Translators are a lot of help in making a book better, they find all the mistakes that the editors, proof-readers and literary critics miss. Translators are always our best readers. I actually think a book shouldn’t really be published in its original language till a good translator has cast their careful eye over it. I make a note of their corrections for the new editions in Portuguese. My new Portuguese editions are corrected, practically speaking, by my translators.
I have books translated into 26 or 27 languages. Unfortunately I don’t know most of my translators.