An Interview with José Eduardo Agualusa

José Eduardo Agualusa, 46, is a growing name in world literature. Born in Huambo, Angola, Agualusa has already been embraced across the Portuguese-speaking literary world—especially in Brazil and Portugal, where his novel Creole was a best seller and awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature. Now that he has received this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the U.K. for his latest novel, The Book of Chameleons, readers in English, too, may finally begin to appreciate his elaborate and intelligent prose.

Agualusa, who studied agronomy and forestry before turning to literature, began his writing career as a poet. He is the author of the poetry collection At the Heart of the Forests, three books of stories, and the novels The Conspiracy, The Market of the Damned, The Rainy Season, Creole, and The Book of Chameleons, as well as Lisboa Africana, a collaborative project on Lisbon's African community. A consummate traveler, Agualusa has been based for extended periods in both Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro (he is also a partner in a small publishing house in Brazil called Lingua Geral, or General Language). He now divides his time between Luanda and Lisbon, where he spoke to us by phone this past June—still slightly dazed by the announcement of the Independent Fiction Prize.

Paulo Polzonoff, Jr. and Anderson Tepper: How important was winning the Independent Prize to you right now?

José Eduardo Agualusa: It's a prize for translation in a country where, like in the U.S., people don't read much translation. While in most European countries half of the books come from other languages, in England this share is less than two percent. Important writers from around the world are unknown to English readers. It's almost like another planet. This prize calls attention to my work, yes, but also to African literature in Portuguese, especially from Angola. Let's see if this interest will last and if the sales will really increase because of it. I'll be very curious to see.

PP/AT: Do you think this prize can attract attention in the developed countries to the distant realities of Africa?

JA: The African writers who write in English are already very well known in the U.K. Think of Coetzee, Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer or Chinua Achebe. What the English don't know is the Africa which speaks and writes in Portuguese and French. They also know very little of the new South American literature, which is also very rich.

PP/AT: Do you see American culture as very isolated from the rest of the world today?

JA: Which America? Latin America or English-speaking North America? Either way, I don't agree with you. Latin American literature has not lost its vigor at all. There is a group of extraordinary writers that is well known in Europe, and some of them are very young—not to mention the international appeal of the music and capoeira, to just mention a few things.

PP/AT: Do you think people around the world know more about literature written in Portuguese today thanks to José Saramago's Nobel Prize?

JA: Sure. And I believe that there are other writers who deserve the prize, too, like António Lobo Antunes, Ferreira Gullar and Rui Duarte de Carvalho.

PP/AT: The Book of Chameleons recalls in many ways the work of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. How important has Latin American literature been to your work?

JA: I read a lot of Latin American literature when I was younger, especially Borges. His worlds are similar to mine. Gabriel García Márquez once said that when he arrived in Luanda, Angola, in 1977, he saw himself as an African. That part of Africa where he arrived—the old city of Luanda—is a mixed, creole Africa, not so different from the Latin America where he was born and grew up. Evidently, there are a lot of Africas, some of them remote and impenetrable. I found out that I'm a Latin American, too, reading García Márquez and Borges. And I found out that I'm also Brazilian, reading Jorge Amado as a teenager.

PP/AT: The novel unfolds from the point of view of a chameleon. Why did you choose such a narrator? Does it owe something to Borges' work?

JA: Yes, the book was written in honor of Borges. The chameleon is a reincarnation of Borges—all its recollections are related to actual events in Borges' life.

PP/AT: The chameleon is able to eavesdrop on various characters, including Félix Ventura, a "seller of pasts" who helps people reinvent their own personal histories. Do you really think it's possible to reshape our memories—and how easy is it to live with a past you know to be a lie?

JA: Well, we know almost nothing about our pasts. What we remember is often false. For instance, when I try to think about when I was seven years old I can just recall two or three episodes, two or three images. And I only remember them because they are always the same: I remember remembering them. A lot of people would like to have another past; some are able to make it up and believe in their own versions. The writer Bruce Chatwin, for example, according to the biography by Nicholas Shakespeare, invented such a story for himself. It appears he believed in this past, which led us as his readers to believe in it, too.

PP/AT: Do you think a made-up past can come to define somebody's future, too? And does this idea apply to nations as well?

JA: Yes, no doubt about it: by making up a past you're able to alter your future. That's why the idea is so attractive. The final objective is to modify everything. Science fiction writers know that by playing with the past you are also playing with the future. There are a lot of books that explain how some so-called "traditions" were made up in a matter of days. In newer countries like Angola the temptation to create national heroes and traditions is very strong and answers a collective need. It's been done before and it's being done again now.

PP/AT: How do you feel about producing literature in a country like Angola, known for its extreme poverty and still shadowed by its long-running civil war?

JA: The biggest problem is that the majority of our people don't have access to books, because they don't know how to read and don't have money to buy them. African writers are in a curious position: Our readers are not in our own countries but in Europe. We write for foreigners, and it changes the way we write. We, as African authors, are more like translators—always trying to translate our reality for the foreign reader. I see it as a challenge more than an obstacle, however—a challenge that forces us to find literary solutions for our fiction.

PP/AT: Do you think your work is still seen as an exotic product?

JA: If a Native American writer, say, from Appalachia publishes a novel in the U.S., a novel that describes his cultural heritage, it's also going to be an exotic product for the American readers. So it depends, of course, on the reader. For Portuguese readers, who know Angola well, I don't believe what I write has an exotic flavor. It may for English readers, although a novel like O Vendedor de Passados [The Book of Chameleons], which has a more literary than geographic appeal, can be understood by anybody, anywhere in the world.

PP/AT: You said that African authors usually write for foreign readers. Do you consider your work more African or European?

JA: I think about my work as my literature. I could also ask you: Is Coetzee more Australian or African? Is Nabokov more American or European? Fernando Pessoa more English or Portuguese?

PP/AT: Which Angolan writers have influenced your work? What about other Portuguese and Brazilian writers?

JA: Certainly, there are many Angolan writers I've looked to—people like Luandino Vieira, Rui Duarte de Carvalho, David Mestre, Mario António de Oliveira, Ernesto Lara Filho. Among the Portuguese writers there is Eça de Queirós, mainly. And as for Brazilians, there's Jorge Amado, Rubem Fonseca and Manoel de Barros.

PP/AT: Can you tell us more about these writers and their books?

JA: Almost all of Luandino's books are important, especially the novels Nós, os do Makulusu and João V'ncio: os seus amores (Loves of João V'ncio), which has been translated wonderfully into English by my good friend Richard Zenith. Luandino is not only important for his style—his prose is always full of fireworks—but also for the originality of his stories. David Mestre, Mário António and Ernesto Lara were all great poets, though unfortunately they haven't been translated into English yet. Mestre was also a major critic, while Lara was an important columnist as well. As for Eça de Queirós: I first read his Os Maias [The Maias], and I've never stopped re-reading it. Rubem Fonseca has great short stories, spread throughout many books. I have them all. And, of course, among his novels, I especially like Vastas emoçes e pensamentos imperfeitos [Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts]. . .

PP/AT: How do you view the project of streamlining the Portuguese language throughout the Portuguese-speaking countries?

JA: There is a project for the unification of orthography, but not of language. Portuguese language is spoken on all continents in different ways, and this explains its vitality. I think it is important, however, that we reach an orthographic agreement, which will make it easier for books to circulate in all Portuguese-speaking territories. This agreement should come about by sometime later this year.

PP/AT: In Brazil, your work is seen as critical of Angolan society. What's the significance of this sociological approach in your work?

JA: I'm a critic, in one form or another. In a country like Angola, which is very poor, not completely democratic yet, and without structures that allow for a global debate—I mean, with few independent newspapers, few people who can access the Internet—I believe that the writers have the moral and civic duty of criticism, of questioning, of giving a voice to those who don't have a voice.

PP/AT: Are you still writing newspaper columns—chronicles—and poems? Or are you only writing novels these days?

JA: I'm still writing chronicles. A large part of my income comes from the columns I write for Portuguese and Angolan newspapers. I have a column in an Angolan weekly in which I discuss political matters. I also write a column for a Portuguese paper that is more literary, a mix of short stories and reflections that sometimes end up being used in future novels.

PP/AT: In your opinion, why does the contemporary reader prefer the novel over all other genres?

JA: Because the novel, I think, can unite all other genres. A novel, for example, can have large elements of poetry in it—mine certainly do—and even journalism, too. Besides, people want writers who tell them stories—that's at the root of it all.

PP/AT: You once told me that the modern writer has to have a vocation for telling stories, a bit of Scheherezade in them, and not just rely on the style of their prose.

JA: I still think that way. But there are great writers, like Fernando Pessoa, who are able to write fascinating books without a story. The Livro do Desassossego [The Book of Disquiet] is one good example. You can read it backwards, or start in the middle, and it is still interesting. But those are unusual cases.

PP/AT: Do you participate in the process of translating your work from Portuguese?

JA: It depends a lot on the translator and the language it is being translated into. With the English translations by Daniel Hahn, I do participate a lot. But this collaboration between the writer and his translator is rare, I think.

PP/AT: Tell me about working with Hahn on the translation of The Book of Chameleons.

JA: Well, we met twice, and I helped him with a few things. We took a long time to decide on an English title for the book. But the rest was fairly easy. Daniel Hahn is an excellent translator, and also a sensitive creator in his own right—and that seems to me to be the most important quality in this whole process.

PP/AT: A few years ago you told me that you wanted to write a book about the landmines in your country.

JA: I'm still interested in the subject, because mines are one of the biggest scandals of our time—machines produced by rich and democratic countries to kill or mutilate civilians in poor countries. This is a subject that continues to fascinate me.

PP/AT: Is there another book of yours coming out in English soon?

JA: My new novel, As Mulheres do meu Pai (My Father's Women), which has just come out in Portugal and Brazil, should be published in England later this year.

Author photograph © Marcelo Buainain