The Book of Chameleons
By Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Arcadia Books, 2006
Winner, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2007
“They told him of a man who dealt in memories, a man who sold the past, clandestinely, the way other people deal cocaine”.
I’ve hit #30 in my reading journey…only 200 to go! What a journey it has been so far and despite occasionally considering giving up on blogging due to the demands of an increasingly busy life, I am enjoying this challenge and what I am learning from it too much. It is unlikely that had I not set myself this task of reading my way around the world, that I would have come across gems like The Book of Chameleons, a novel which reminds me a lot of the film Inception in that both explore the unreliable nature of reality, history, memory and the past – whether it is our own, our society’s or our country’s. The book also plays with the notion of literal and metaphorical meaning as is best exemplified by the title which refers to the fact that the book is literally about chameleons – it is narrated by a “gecko” – and also metaphorically about chameleons in the sense of people who change who they are to suit new circumstances.
The chameleon’s name is Eulalio, although we don’t discover that until the end, as for most of the book the chameleon is narrating in the first person. Eulalio lives with a man named Felix Ventura who is an “albino” and therefore technically a black African but whose skin is white (Agualusa is very interested in the deceptive nature of appearances).
Felix has the rather unusual occupation of re-creating people’s pasts when they no longer wish to retain their own. He creates a family tree, complete with photographs of fictitious grandparents and great-grandparents, and provides these false histories to business people, politicians, smugglers and other “people whose future is secure but what they lack is a good past”. However, Felix is not in the business of forgery, as he explains to a client who wishes him to go further and create a new name, and a real alternative past complete with official documents and actual ancestors who did, in fact, once exist. Rather, Felix sees his job as to “sell dreams”: fake yet comforting pasts for those who simply find their own too unbearable.
This is an important detail in the book for there are many chapters interspersed through the narrative which, on face value, the chameleon’s dreams of his own past life as a man who lived for nearly a century. However, as we learn more about Felix and his occupation, we become increasingly unsure whether the chameleon actually ever was a human or whether he too has simply been sold the dreams of a human past by Felix.
When the chameleon is not recounting the dreams of his (fake? real?) past life, he is narrating his observations of Felix’s work with other clients, includng the client who seeks to have not only a different past but an entirey new identity. Although Felix is reluctant to provide this service, he is convinced by a large sum of money and he creates for the client a new identity as “Jose Buchmann”, complete with official passport and other documents and a detailed genealogy filled with colourful relatives and events.
Over the course of the next week the client, now Jose, undertakes a chameleon-like change, literally transforming before Felix and Eulalio’s eyes into the identity Felix has created for him. His European accent is replaced with a Luandan one, his dress becomes Angolan, even his laugh has an African air to it. What is most surprising to Felix and Eulalio though is that Jose manages to track down details and photos that support the history Felix created for him, as well as embarking on an obsessive quest to track down as much information as possible about his new past.
This incarnation of the identity Felix has created for Jose holds a sort of Frankenstein horror yet also fascination for Felix, as the chameleon (Eualio) observes. In one of Eulalio’s dreams, he imagines himself interviewing Felix about his creation of Jose, saying:
“You invented him, this strange Jose Buchmann, and now he’s begun to invent himself. It’s like a metamorphosis…A reincarnation…Or rather: a possession”.
Felix replies to this by drawing an analogy between his own work and that of authors or novelists, stating:
“I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature…I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book, I give them life, launchingthem into reality”.
Felix’s occupation becomes dangerous, however, when he creates a past for another client “The Minister” who, like Jose, also comes to believe its reality and, through a bizarrre sequence of events and perhaps improbable coincidences, the Minister and Jose come to believe their pasts were intertwined and that one incurred an injustice by the other – an injustice for which revenge must be executed. This creates a thrilling, if somewhat, surreal climax and an ending which further throws into uncertainty whether we can reliably trust our chameleon narrator or, whether not only his past but his very existence, was also a mere creation.
Funnily enough, as I was reading this book I also saw the Woody Allen film, Deconstructing Harry about an author who, suffering from writer’s block, revisits his past, interacting with both the real and imagined characters that influenced his work. There are many parallels between that film and this book, both of which I found mesmerising and challenging at the same time, not only in making me think about the exent to which our pasts, dependent on our selective and limited memories, can be considered reality or fiction but also on what that means we all create together when producing what is known as collective history.
On that very esoteric thought, I finish this post and look forward to beginning the countdown from 200.
The Literary Nomad xx
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Capital: Luanda Population: 18,498,000
Area: 1,246,700 km2