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An Interview with José Eduardo Agualusa, Winner of the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award

Aaron Bady By Aaron Bady Published on June 21, 2017

Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa has won the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award for his 14th novel A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn. Author and translator share the €100,000 prize; the author receives 75 percent and the translator 25 percent. Both author and translator are donating a portion of  their prize money to found a library and a literary translation prize. A General Theory of Oblivion, first published in Portuguese in 2012, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Like so much of Agualusa’s work, it delves deep into the forgotten histories and buried memories of a country that’s been embroiled in a civil war for nearly the entire half century that it has been independent from Portugal. The story is told through Ludovica, or Ludo, who closes herself into her apartment on the eve of Angolan independence.

Angola, or at least segments of it, has also been part of a broader Lusophone world for centuries, and Agualusa himself has lived between Portugal, Brazil, and Angola for years. It’s this sense of historical memory—and of trans-oceanic space—that animates his work, which builds on itself. A journalist too, Agualusa has written novels, collections of poetry, and stories in Portuguese, though little of his work has been translated into English. He plays with the boundaries of fact and fiction, hiding true stories in fiction and telling lies under the guise of reportage; what matters, he told me, is that it’s a good story. When he was writing A General Theory of Oblivion Agualusa said, “In Angola, we are so tired of war and violence that we need a kind of utopia, to believe in something, to believe in forgiveness.”

Following, is an edited interview with Agualusa that took place last year:

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You have said that violence leads to violence; do you see that as continuity?

Yes, completely. You can understand Angola if you understand that. The civil war was, in larger terms, a war of cultures. It was never a question of ideology. I mean, the Russians and the Cubans used ideology, but the very, very important question was that it was a war between city people against the people from the country. It was Luanda against the rest of the country; this ancient, urban Creole culture against a native African culture. The MPLA, the party that has ruled the country until now, is an urban party, created by people from the town, who speak Portuguese as their mother tongue. And UNITA was basically a party of people that came from the country. And there’s religion too, because the people from Luanda are Catholics, and the rest of the people are Protestants. The Catholics are much more permissive, in sexual terms, and the Protestants are much more repressive. That is what is UNITA is. You must understand that, to understand the war. The way the urban people distrust the country, and the way the country hasn't trusted the city, from the very beginning.

At the risk of saying something very fatuous, you are a very Angolan writer. These novels are all so rooted in the history of the country, in thinking about these transitions, these deep historical questions. Do you feel like writing novels helps you understand that history?

Yes. I began to write, and my first novel was a historical novel, and I began to write it so I could understand the country, and to understand myself in my country. At that time, I didn’t know it, but now it’s very clear to me: I started writing because I needed to understand. And now I think I understand Angola much better.

There is also a kind of forgetting in A General Theory of Oblivion.

Well, Ludo says, “It’s better to forget.” But I don’t believe that. You must talk, in order to forget, but first you must remember.

What made you begin the novel with that image of a woman bricking herself up in her apartment?

You know, usually I know how things come to me, but I can’t remember that. I really can’t remember. Maybe I dreamed it. I don’t know. Maybe when I wrote this for the cinema?

A screenplay?

I remember when I was writing this screenplay, I was living in Luanda, in this same building. And I was staying home alone all the time, surrounded by the deep noise of the town—it’s a very noisy town—and also the country was very bad again. In my personal life, I was almost divorcing my wife, my wife who comes from a very powerful family in Luanda, linked to power. I felt persecuted, even at home, because everyone was against me, because I was writing my articles in the newspapers. I had a column in the newspaper, and I remember that once, my father-in-law, at a dinner, he told me 'if you don’t stop writing, I will buy this newspaper, and I will put you out.'

And then he did it. So I was so alone. I think she [Ludo] just appeared to me because I was feeling like her. It was a very bad time in Angola, and in my personal life, also.

One of the things I found so compelling about it, were how specific the details were, things like the chicken and banana tree and…

When she [Ludo] appeared to me, I was not writing a book, I was just imagining. Because I lived there, it was my building. I remember that for days and days, I would go to bed thinking that, if I was alone here, what could I do to survive? This building, also, is in My Father’s Wives, as are some of the people in the building. And in Barroco Tropical, also, there are some characters who were real, who were my neighbors.

A building like that is a good metaphor for the country?

Yes, because you have all different kinds of people living there, and living together. It’s a good metaphor, also, because first you have colonialism, then communism, then national capitalism.

Your 2003 novel Rainy Season (published in English in 2010) begins with a president who is a poet declaring a moment of silence for the martyrs, but it turns out to be a novel about poetry and about a poet who has disappeared. You’re a novelist but you’ve written poetry too?

In the case of Angola, everything begins with poetry: all of the nationalist movements were started by poets, and started by poetry, with people writing poetry to resist colonialism.

I published a book of poetry, but it’s very bad poetry. Of course, I think of my books, my novels, as an exercise in poetry. The question of rhythm, melody and music is very important to me. I hope I have this in my books as well. I’m a great reader of poetry. Every day, when I start to write fiction, I read poetry. When you read good poetry, it’s like somebody’s pushing you to write. Poetry is this light that suddenly happens, a surprise. I try to do that with fiction.

Is that related to the games you play with the question of what is real, in these novels that claim to be “true” but are actually fiction?

The question is, what is truth? I think that the idea of truth is a very totalitarian thing. In democracy, there is no truth. There are versions of it. Truth is something that we had all the time during communism. I don’t want just a version; I want all the versions. That’s also why I like poetry, because poetry is not about truth. It’s too subtle [for that].

There is also the question of religion. Catholicism is a fake thing; they say they believe in one God, but it’s not true. My grandmother is Catholic but she doesn’t pray to a God, ever; she prays to St. Antonio, to lots of little gods. What’s God? It’s nothing, it doesn’t exist for her. What exists? Lots of little saints, little divinities. But when you have a religion that says there is only one God, you are refusing all the others. When you are praying to a lot of different gods, it is much easier to accept other people's gods. That’s why the Catholicism of Brazil became so linked to the African religions. It may be that the idea of sin is much more important to the Protestants than to the Catholics, too. And so, the question of truth is not so important. There are all these versions, all these gods. And I think that people who are educated in the Protestant system are much more rigid with the truth, much more worried about the truth.

You live between Brazil, Portugal and Angola. You have said how close Brazil and Angola are to each other; when you’re in Brazil, do you feel at home? And what about Portugal?

Oh yes, Brazil is completely an African country, in terms of the popular culture. Samba, Capoeira. All of that, it comes from Africa. The way people think, the way people move, the way people dance, it seems very Angolan to me. And Portugal was colonized by Africans from Morocco. They stayed in Portugal for eight centuries. Indeed, they never left! What is a Portuguese? A mix between an Arab, a Jew, and a black guy. The south of Portugal was colonized by black slaves. Even now, in southern Portugal, you can find families with Bantu names.

What authors did you read when you were younger?

I read a lot of South Americans, Brazilians, specifically. My mother taught Portuguese, so I grew up with books, and a lot of Brazilian writers. For me, when I started reading Brazilians, it was like it was the same universe.

What made them similar?

For instance, we talk a lot about “magical realism” but if you read Jorge Amado, it appears many years before it did in Spanish-America. He did it because he worked with the African religions in Brazil. Now, these religions are not exactly the same as we have in Angola, but they are very closely linked, and this kind of magical realism comes because they believe in these kinds of gods, these kinds of African gods. That’s something I can identify when I read Jorge Amado. 

When people talk about where magical realism comes from, they usually trace it back to Cuba.

Yes, and Mexico. But Jorge Amado did it some years before. He was very close to African religions in Brazil, and started to play with that. But it’s a very complex world; there are hundreds of gods. And the difference between African religions and Christianity is that there isn’t [the concept of] “good” and “bad” in these [African] religions. A god is simultaneously good and bad; it’s a question of energy, and you work with this energy.

What makes a good story?

A good story must be something that surprises and disturbs you; that puts you out of your world, and gives you a new perspective on things.

What are you writing now?

I’m writing a book about dreams…

A recovering academic, Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland, California, and a bookseller at Diesel Bookstore.