Shape (and soul) shifters 

“If we could talk to the animals … ,” sang Doctor Dolittle, voicing a fond wish shared by many human beings. He might have tried Portuguese. The narrator of Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar’s 1985 gem The Centaur in the Garden is a hybrid of horse and human. Now comes a non-human character created by José Eduardo Agualusa, a native of Angola who is said to divide his time among three Lusaphonic countries: Portugal, Brazil, and Angola. The Book of Chameleons, the first of Agualusa’s seven novels to be translated from Portuguese into English, is narrated by a gecko. This literary lizard is in fact so articulate that the man he lives with decides to call him Eulálio, a name derived from Greek roots meaning to talk well.

“Men know almost nothing of the little creatures that share their homes. Mice, bats, ants, ticks, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, worms, silverfish, termites, weevils, snails, beetles,” says the vocal gecko, who is informative enough to qualify as an expert witness if anyone ever prosecuted Orkin for aggravated homicide. Eulálio sleeps all day, but, perched on a wall or windowpane, is alert all night to odd events that unfold within the house in Luanda that has become his universe. Its proprietor is Félix Ventura, a solitary, bookish albino whose profession is providing clients with new identities. It is he who gives Agualusa’s novel its Portuguese title — O vendedor de passados. Félix is indeed a peddler of pasts, but not in the trite way of forging passports and birth certificates. He is a trader in metaphysical merchandise.

The Book of Chameleons begins with an epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine master of conceptual ficciones: “If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different.” Agualusa’s book teases the reader with the fungibility of multiple identities. What Félix imagines for a client is what the client becomes. Declaring himself an animist, the salesman of selves explains: “The same thing happens to the soul as happens to water — it flows. Today it’s a river. Tomorrow, it will be the sea.”

Eulálio sees a procession of strangers enter the house in search of fresh identities. One, an itinerant photojournalist eager to be thought Angolan, ends up with a new name, José Buchmann, and a complicated family history. His mother, he is told, was an American painter who mysteriously abandoned the family. So “José Buchmann” goes off to New York to find this concocted woman and finds traces of her there and in Cape Town that Félix never imagined. Another client is a government minister who is intent on commissioning a personal genealogy that will endow him with heroic stature. Still another makes this uncommon request: “What I’m after is for you to arrange for me exactly the opposite of what you usually do for people — I want you to give me a modest past. A name with no luster to it whatsoever.”

Though he never reveals his original name, Eulálio, we learn, was once a human being, a librarian whose failure to love was probably the reason for his transformation into a gecko 15 years before. Now, in his saurian state, he is especially attentive to the relationship developing between Félix and a beautiful young visitor named Ângela Lúcia. Like José Buchmann, she, too, is a photographer, though she demurs: “I’m not even sure that I am a photographer. I collect light.” One of the finest sections in The Book of Chameleons consists of Ângela Lúcia’s comparative analysis of the quality of light in different locales, including Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Goa, Berlin, and Cairo.

Throughout the novel, which is composed of brief, terse chapters, a haze hovers over boundaries between identities, as well as states of being. In this Borgesian ether, dreams alternate with what passes for “reality,” and characters collide with their doubles. Agualusa situates his story within the context of the dictatorships and violence that have plagued Angola since Portugal began to pull out in 1975. If his novel has a fault, it comes at the end, when the author does not trust the reader’s imagination enough to refrain from explaining. Until that point, Agualusa is, like his character Félix, a consummate con. “I lie with joy!” the merchant of pasts exclaims. “Literature is the only chance for a true liar to attain any sort of social acceptance.” For the true lies of this novel, José Eduardo Agualusa deserves not just acceptance but acclaim. •


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