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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Chameleons abound in Angola
By Lucy Fleming
BBC News website

For Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa all politicians are chameleons - able to change their identities to hide their shady past in order to profit from the future.

Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Agualusa is the first African to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
"Guarantee your children a better past" is the calling card of the albino hero in his novel, The Book of Chameleons, which has just scooped the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Set in modern-day Angola - a major oil producer in Africa but one of the world's poorest countries - it tells the story of a genealogist who offers the country's nouveau riche a better past.

"People have made a lot of money in the last few years but some of them need a better past to explain how they became rich," Mr Agualusa says.

"Angola was a Marxist country but those Marxists dismantled it for a capitalist system and exactly the same people have become very, very rich.

"They really want to buy a new past and my character gives them this possibility."


He says the rewriting of history is perhaps easier in a country where there are few libraries and high illiteracy - both legacies of Angola's 27-year civil war.

I have received some proposals... people willing to pay me to rewrite their past
Jose Eduardo Agualusa
"In present day Angola - a writer can't be just an entertainer they have the obligation to promote debate on serious problems we have such as corruption, illiteracy or poverty - things I discuss in my book with some irony."

But it is an irony that was perhaps lost on some of Luanda's elite.

Following the publication of his novel last year, fact and fiction have become somewhat blurred.

"Some thought it a good idea. I have received some proposals to write people's biographies - people willing to pay me to rewrite their past!" he says.

Cover of Book of Chameleons
Characters are given new and often illustrious pasts

Narrated by a lizard who lives on the wall of genealogist Felix Ventura's house, the gecko watches spies, counter-revolutionaries and government ministers walk through the door in search of a makeover.

Presented with new family trees and photo albums, he is amazed to see how they slip with ease into their new skins.

"You invented him, this stranger Jose Buchmann, and now he's begun to invent himself. It's like a metamorphosis. A reincarnation. Or rather: a possession," the gecko says.

As the reinvented war photographer tries to track down his "long-lost relatives", an inconstant mole reveals that the president has a double in this murky world where nothing ever seems what it is.

Another character explains that the principal difference between a dictatorship and a democracy comes down to truth.

"In the former there exists only one truth, the truth imposed by power, while in free countries every man has the right to defend his own version of events."


And as our memories are a shifting landscape, Agualusa says what we chose to remember is often a case of personal survival.

Jose Eduardo Agualusa
I hope that people can think about the creation and fragility of memory and history
Jose Eduardo Agualusa

"Angola had a long terrible war and this war divided families. Perhaps we need to forget it. We need to forget hate."

Agualusa, who was born in Huambo in 1960 and now splits his time between Luanda and Lisbon, says the inspiration for Felix came to him in a dream.

"I dream a lot. I dream with characters sometimes or wake up with a phrase in my mind from which I can imagine a short story or a novel."

With a large percentage of his readers outside Angola, he says it is harder for writers in Africa to make a living.

"We depend on them to survive as a writer, so for us it's important this kind of prize to give us a larger audience."

And how would he like his novel to be remembered for posterity?

"I hope that people can think about memories; the creation of memories and the fragility of memory and history".

Angolan author wins fiction prize
01 May 07 |  Entertainment
Country profile: Angola
02 Mar 07 |  Country profiles


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