Regarded as the most traumatic and socially disturbing period in recent Angola history, civil war erupted after the country’s decolonization. The structureless and devastated Angola, was in a state of anarchy that attracted a capitalist versus communist conflict where political dominance remained up for grabs. The southern African country hosted the cold war theatre following independence from Portuguese colonization in 1975.
Winner of the Independent’s foreign fiction award in 2007, Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons captures what the life of the Angolan became proceeding the bloody struggle that took the lives of a half million civilians and displaced another million over the course of 27 years. This proxy civil war conflict kept society from knowing which of the three militant political factions best represented the Angolan people’s interests.
Published in 2004 and translated to english in 2006, the Portuguese speaking Angolan native Jose Eduardo Agualusa presents a spinning kaleidoscope view of the truth with his signature, poetic style of storytelling in his postmodern novella The Book of Chameleons. Agualusa details the effect of the ongoing civil war corrupting within the characters themselves. The artistic and emotionally rich book is narrated by a gecko, who is the reincarnation of Jorge Luis Borges oversees the story happening inside of Felix Ventura’s house at nighttime and in his dreams which are passable as reality.
In short vignettes the gecko describes the experiences and interactions of Felix Ventura, a man who tailors the ideal past for people who require a clean, impressive background and are willing to pay for it. The characters will show a general attitude or a particular belief and as they develop, they behave in hypocrisy to their original standpoints. The conflicts between the words and actions the reader discovers is the device Agualusa plays for the character’s development, as they are in a constant transition taking place at every moment.
The conflicts of this time resonate through society in the author’s false philosophies intended to entertain the different, sometimes contradictory perspective society has in conducting their own behavior. Early in the book, Felix is offered a large sum of money by a foreigner to forge him an Angolan identity with a complex family tree, with official documents. Felix immediately rejects the offer because he normally creates a distinguished genealogy and without forging documents for people.
Felix merely creates a more desirable ancestry for his clients to secure a better future for those who have a questionable past. It is clear he is against committing such crimes. “Take care my friend, take care with the paths you choose to follow. You’re no forger,” Felix contemplated aloud ( 23). He clearly has moral standards that would not allow himself to accept the bribe. Despite Felix’s virtuous conscious, he reasons that he will become a forger in time anyways, “I could do that – why not? I’ll have to do it one day – it’s the inevitable extension of what I’m doing anyway… (23). ”
This corruption of character gives him a rush of anxiety, symbolic of a change in original standpoint that his abilities are not for fraudulent acts which involve forging government documents. As the foreigner visits Felix on a regular basis, Felix is now under the impression that he is playing a game with him (page 67). As Felix’s character evolves, he is being coaxed to interacting with him.
At first Felix is at odds and would prefer to be uncooperative with the foreigner who later he will give the name and identity as Jose Buchmann. Buchmann lured Felix in by his curiosity, this trait leads Felix into contradicting his original standpoint of his moral code for hopes of a better understanding of who the foreigner really is. The narrator is the reincarnation of Borges. Agualusa incorporates Borges’ real life story and attitudes into the gecko narrator, as revealed in the interview after the last chapter.
Although the narrator represents Borges, he along with the other characters are changing with every day and experience lived through. The narrator’s perspective of memory is inconsistent. You could argue that we’re all in a constant state of change. That’s right, I’m not quite the same as I was yesterday either. The only thing about me that doesn’t change is my past: the memory of my human past. The past is usually stable, it’s always there, lovely or terrible, and it will be there forever. Agualusa 55)
The gecko recognizes his own philosophy is wrong. We are always in a state of change, however memory of the human past does change. He learns from Felix that his previous way of thinking does not hold true coincide later with his description of memory. “Our memory feeds itself to a large extent on what other people remember of us. We remember other people’s memories as though they were our own – even fictional ones (127). “