When the Man Booker International Prize was announced in mid-May, I knew that this summer I wanted to read through the shortlist, which is how I discovered the wonder of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A GENERAL THEORY OF OBLIVION.
The novel examines the life of the agoraphobic Ludo, who bricks herself into an apartment for the duration of the Angolan war for independence. Through her very brief encounters with the outside world via voices, glimpses of people, and pigeons, the war unfolds. The novel is divided into sections of varying lengths, some prose and some poetry.
Agualusa’s work is described as “a love letter to the art of storytelling itself,” which is one of the best ways to describe it. While Agualusa writes a powerful homage to the act of writing—“A man with a good story is practically a king” (165)—he also examines the allure of forgetting and the fear of being forgotten. Ludo sums it up well in one of her poems:
“If I still had the space, charcoal, and available walls,
I could compose a great work about forgetting:
a general theory of oblivion.” (104)
Ludo locks herself into an apartment in an effort to forget a horror from her past. As the Angolans fight for independence from the Portugese, Ludo nearly starves, breaks her femur, burns her furniture, and eventually her books. While the isolation protects her, frees her, it’s burning her books that destroys her—“She felt, as she went on burning those books, after having burned all the furniture, the doors, the wooden floor tiles, that she was losing her freedom. It was as though she was incinerating the whole planet” (142). Books allow Ludo to forget her trauma, whithout ever loosing her ability to explore.
This is where I empathize with Ludo the most. Ludo doesn’t feel trapped by her agoraphobia. She has books—what more traveling does she need? Ludo understands the vast power that books give us. Books can allow us to forget the present, past, and future. Nothing is there but the words. Once most of her books are gone, Ludo starts writing poems on the walls with charcoal—she writes that:
“I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After
burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice.
In this house all the walls have my mouth” (104).
Agualusa doesn’t just understand how important storytelling is, but he can communicate it thoroughly through both poetry and prose. When you need to be reminded of the sheer power of words—this is the book you want.
What books remind you of how much words matter?