The Book of Chameleons was written in Portuguese and won a Foreign Fiction Prize awarded by The Independent in 2007. This English edition was translated by Daniel Hahn, who also translated Agualusa's novel Creole — which won the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature — My Father's Wives, and the upcoming Rainy Season by Agualusa. So few books are translated, that it is a treat to have the opportunity to experience such literature.
The Book of Chameleons is touted by the publisher as a "completely original murder mystery." I would hesitate to categorize it as such, because it is so much more. The murder plays a trivial role. The story is really about identity and memories – what is real and true, and what is not. Who are we if we have no memory of a past? If we choose a different identity, we need new memories to accompany the falsified life. That's where Felix Ventura enters the scenes in Angola, a war-weary land where many seek to bury their pasts. For these, Felix builds new lives from the present backwards, complete with grand genealogies demanding remembrances of a different past and constructed in hope for a different future. He falsifies identities for a price.
Unfortunately for Felix's client, who becomes Jose Buchmann, the true past has a bent for breaking out, no matter who we pretend to be later on. This wealthy client claims a true background eerily similar to Felix's new girlfriend's. The lovely Angela Lucia, an itinerant photographer, becomes Felix's first romance. Her past and that of Felix's client collide one fateful night in El Vendador’s spacious home.
That manor house, ensconced in a tropical climate, is reminiscent of ones built on Caribbean islands or, perhaps, Brazil. A gecko (not a chameleon) describes it in luxurious detail and, not incidentally, narrates most of the tale. From his often birds-eye point of view, a complex, lyrical story unfolds, one which haunts the reader after the last page is turned. The gecko is Felix’s confidante, a nearly voiceless reincarnation of Jorge Luis Borges, for whom Agualusa wrote the book as a tribute. This story-within-a-story is meaningful maybe only to the author, who claims Latin American writers’ influences on his style. Writers like Borges, Marquez, and Amado.
In an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Agualusa, I asked:
The Book of Chameleons has been favorably compared to others of ‘magical realism’. Do you think this is true and if so, please discuss magical realism and how it applies to your book or your writing in general.
English-language critics have classified this book as standing close to so-called ‘magic realism’. But in Portugal, Brazil, Spain, and even in France, I’ve never been asked this question so persistently. It’s true that the Latin American writers were very important to my development. Cubans, Colombians, and some Brazilians, such as Jorge Amado, move in a universe that is very close to my own. They are Afro-Latin Creole universes where the real is hard to distinguish from the marvellous. In Luanda you will find that fishermen – and the population as a whole – believe in mermaids, and so communicate with them just as naturally as in the middle ages Europeans communicated with angels, or mermaids too. You just have to read the accounts from that time.
In 1570 Antonio de Torqemada published in Salamanca The Garden of Curious Flowers, a collection of wonders that influenced Cervantes. Among the witches, fairies and geographical oddities there is room too for mermaids. He says: “People often speak of these mermaids, saying that the upper half of the body has the shape of a woman, and the lower half that of a fish; represented with a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other; it is said that they sing so sweetly that they put the sailors to sleep and then they can board the ships and kill everyone sleeping.” And later, “While this is so, and there are fish of this kind in the sea, I hold the sweetness of their singing and everything else said about them to be just a fable.” That is, very sensibly Torquemada doesn’t question the existence of mermaids, only the quality of their singing. So to respond to your question, I try merely to explore in a literary way the possibilities that reality offers me.