Year’s Best Reads: A General Theory of Oblivion by José Agualusa

[Originally published in Sacred Trespasses, December 9, 2016]

One of my favorite reading experiences is coming to a novel in a complete state of innocence, knowing absolutely nothing about the author, the subject matter, the critical reception… nothing. For an obsessive reader—and in this age of hyper-information—this is a rare occurrence, but it happened to me this year with the novel A General Theory of Oblivion by José Agualusa. I was assigned to interview Agualusa for a newspaper I occasionally write for here in Buenos Aires. Before Googling the author, I just dove into the story. It is set in Angola during the thirty-year civil war. I am embarrassed to say I knew nothing about this country. In the novel—I am not giving anything away, this happens at the very beginning—the protagonist retreats into her apartment to wait out the conflict. It will be a long wait.

Agualusa—who I was able to meet—is a prolific fifty-five-year-old author. In English, A General Theory of Oblivion is published by the magnificent Archipelago Books, which publishes Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others. I am not embarrassed to admit that along with novels, I tend to fall in love with their writers. I cannot conceive of the novel as an utterly objective artifice free from the author’s persona. I was sold on Agualusa after reading his book and more so after speaking with him in a café in Buenos Aires. He was a solid person. No bullshit. This is rare nowadays.

A few anecdotes. When he was a child, his father was a teacher on the railroads built by the British. He had his own car at the back of the formation that served as the classroom (he taught the railroad workers work-related subjects). Frequently rebels would attack the trains, but for Agualusa, a boy, it all seemed like a great adventure. Another. Gabriel García Márquez visited Angola and upon arriving said “I am an Angolan” because it reminded him of his homeland.

I strongly recommend this book. It is short, surprising and brilliant. And now, entering a Trump presidency, it inevitably takes on a different weight. Everything seems to have changed. It will help to look at countries that have suffered true tyrannies, like Angola. Both to be on guard but also to not to hysterically exaggerate the dire situation that we are in.

Reading great books clarifies the mind and steadies the spirit. The General Theory of Oblivion is a great novel

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