New Internationalist

The Book of Chameleons

December 2006

In Creole, his only other novel translated into English, José Eduardo Agualusa took the reader on a journey of high adventure and derring-do. The latest book from this Angolan author is a much more sober, considered affair. Nevertheless, The Book of Chameleons packs quite a punch into fewer than 200 pages.

The novel, narrated by a mysterious, all-seeing character, concerns Felix Ventura, an albino living in present-day Luanda. Felix has an unusual profession; he sells histories. If your family line is insufficiently distinguished, Felix will invent a patronage filled with heroes, adventurers and statesmen. As his calling card has it, he will ‘guarantee your children a better past’.

Felix creates histories, complete with passports, photographs and documentary evidence, for all and sundry, including many an ambitious politician wishing to lay claim to a fictitious revolutionary past. Regarding himself as a inventor of dreams, Felix stays aloof from the fantasies he creates for his clients. It is only when a secretive foreign photographer, a government agent and a beautiful woman simultaneously enter his life that he finds his own present – and his own past – intertwined with their stories, real and imagined.

The Book of Chameleons is a poetic, beguiling meditation on truth and storytelling as Agualusa teases the reader into following the narrative into labyrinths and down dark alleys. It is entirely fitting, in a book dealing with the mutability of truth and ambiguity of identity that the plot morphs effortlessly across genre boundaries, from the dreamscapes of magical realism to a gripping political thriller and even, in the unexpected but wholly satisfying climax, a murder mystery.

This column was published in the December 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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