Book 54: Angola (English) – The Book of Chameleons (translation of O Vendedor de passados = The Seller of Pasts) (José Eduardo AGUALUSA)
“Lies,” he explained, “are everywhere. Even nature herself lies. What is camouflage, for instance, but a lie? the chameleon disguises itself as a leaf in order to deceive a poor butterfly. He lies to it, saying, Don’t worry, my dear, can’t you see I’m just a very green leaf waving in the breeze, and then he jets out his tongue at six hundred and twenty-five centimetres a second, and eats it.”
Félix Ventura, the seller of pasts, is an albino ‘black’ whose unusual metier is to surreptitiously construct ennobling but fictional pasts for his upstart clients. He is approached by a foreigner to go the whole hog and this time forge identity documents for him as well. The subjects have to undergo something like spy training to become at home with their new ‘legends’.
He calls himself a genealogist, which is a bit like a forger calling himself a calligrapher, but an artist nonetheless (even if only of the black arts).
Of course the trouble with weaving too many lies is that it becomes ever easier to trip over and get caught out – as does Félix himself when the portrait of his ‘grandfather’ is recognised as one of Frederick Douglass!
The book has no obvious mention of the Angolan civil war, but I suppose in the aftermath of one everyone has to reinvent herself or himself…
The story is actually narrated by his house gecko (the chameleons of the English title are the clients who ‘change their colour’). I was entranced by this idea! Anyone who has lived in or visited the tropics has probably shared their space with a gecko, who observes you glued to the wall with his suction caps, occasionally tut-tutting at you… ‘In this house I’m like a little night-time god.’
Agualusa said his novel was a “tribute to Borges” and that his gecko narrator actually IS Borges.
While it’s billed as a murder mystery, it’s also a genre bender. Don’t try to pin anything down! A marvellous book, which reminds me again of how much I would have missed if I hadn’t embarked on this exciting world voyage.
AGUALUSA, José Eduardo (1960 – ), The Book of Chameleons, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4165-7351-7