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“The Book of Chameleons” by José Eduardo Agualusa

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We experience “The Book of Chameleons” as though watching a slide show. In brief, concise chapters, these lost, searching souls grapple with painful pasts and threatening presents. One measure of José Eduardo Agualusa’s artistry and effectiveness: we certainly don’t mind that it’s narrated by a man who had returned to life as a gecko – for substantial parts of the narrative, we barely notice. Who better to tell the story of these human chameleons? As Angola struggles to emerge from decades of ruinous conflict, its citizens value nothing as highly as blending in.

Félix Ventura, an albino living in the Angolan capital of Luanda, dispenses palatable pasts to clients with something to hide, or to forget. One client takes his services, which consist of a couple of documents and a decades-old news clipping, extremely seriously. He travels to Cape Town and New York to track down his new mother, who is a highly appealing fiction. Another character, who does not seek Félix’s services, wears a ratty old red t-shirt from the Soviet Union that apparently cannot be removed. He lives in a sewer; alone among these characters, this madman longs for the past. Along the way, we and Félix meet Angelica Lucia – the angel of light – who along with Félix counterbalances the dark and disturbing forces at play.

Sr. Agualusa approaches his subject matter in such a novel way! Eulalio, so the narrating gecko is named, merges the functions of dreams and reality, throwing all of consciousness into a turmoil where meanings come and go, where interpretation rules and perception cannot be trusted. So this spare little piece, so superbly translated by Daniel Hahn, with its slivers of chapters and arresting images, bears its impressive freight of regret, yearning, hatred, bloodshed, and redemption so lightly, so effortlessly … I begin to wax on about Sr. Agualusa, and he certainly deserves the accolades he has received. Take up this highly diverting piece and let yourself be carried away, by all means! I highly recommend it.
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Abdelghafour

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