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Authors: José Eduardo Agualusa

The Book of Chameleons

BOOK: The Book of Chameleons
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Praise for
The Book of Chameleons
:

 

‘Fierce originality, vindicating the power of creativity to transform the most sinister acts. Not since Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis have we had such a convincing non-human narrator, brought vividly home to us by Daniel Hahn’ – Amanda Hopkinson,
Independent

 

‘Strange, elliptical, charming’ –
Guardian

 

‘Ingenious, consistently taut and witty’ –
TLS

 

‘A curious tale of memory and how it can be shaped, threaded with literary nods, where dreams and reality interweave, and reality itself is interpreted in myriad ways … with truths shifting against a vividly drawn sense of place’ –
Metro

 

‘Humorous and quizzical, with a light touch on weighty themes, the narrative darts about with lizard-like colour and velocity’
– Boyd Tonkin,
Independent

 

‘A poetic, beguiling meditation on truth and storytelling and a political thriller and wholly satisfying murder mystery’

New Internationalist
Books of the Year

 

‘Witty and perceptive. Agualusa has the distinction of being the first Angolan writer to be translated into English’ –
The Herald
 

José Eduardo Agualusa

The Book
of Chameleons

Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

 

‘If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different. I’d quite like to be Norwegian. Or Persian, perhaps. Not Uruguayan, though – that’d feel too much like just moving down the street…’

Jorge Luis Borges

 

 

I was born in this house, and grew up here. I’ve never left. As it gets late I press my body against the window and look at the sky. I like watching the flames, the racing clouds, and above them, angels – hosts of angels – shaking down the sparks from their hair, flapping their broad fiery wings. The sight is always the same. But every evening I come here and I enjoy it, and I’m moved by it, as if seeing it for the very first time. Last week Félix Ventura arrived earlier than usual and surprised me in the act of laughing at a massive cloud – out there in the tempestuous blue – that was dashing about in circles, like a dog trying to put out the fire in his tail.

‘I don’t believe it – are you laughing?’

The creature’s amazement annoyed me. I was afraid – but I didn’t move, not a muscle. The albino took off his dark glasses, put them away in the inside pocket of his jacket, took the jacket off – slowly, sadly – and hung it carefully on the back of a chair. He chose a vinyl record and put it on the deck of the old player.
Acalanto para um Rio
, ‘Lullaby for a River’, by Dora, the Cicada, a Brazilian singer who I imagine must have had some sort of reputation in the seventies. I’m assuming this because of the record sleeve, which shows a beautiful black woman in a bikini, with big butterfly wings fixed to her back. ‘Dora, the Cicada –
Acalanto para um Rio
– today’s smash hit.’ Her voice burns in the air. These past weeks this has been the soundtrack to our evenings. I know the words by heart. 

Nothing passes, nor expires,

The past is now

A river, sleeping –

Memory tells

A thousand lies.

The river waters are asleep

And in my arms

The days are sleeping –

Sleep the wounds,

The agonies.

Nothing passes, nor expires,

The past is now

A sleeping river,

Seeming dead, just barely breathing –

But rouse it and it bursts to life.

Félix waited until the light faded, and the final notes from the piano faded too; then he turned one of the sofas, almost soundlessly, till it was facing the window. At last he sat down. He stretched out his legs, with a sigh…


Pópilas
!’ he exclaimed. ‘So I see Your Lowness is laughing?! That’s quite a novelty…’

As I looked at him, he seemed worn out. He brought his face close to mine, and I could see his bloodshot eyes. His breath swamped my whole body. Acidic, and warm.

‘You’ve really got terrible skin, you know that? We must be related…’

I’d been expecting something like that. If I’d been able to speak I would have answered him back. But my vocal abilities extend only to laughing. All the same I did try to aim a sort of fierce guffaw at his face, a sound that might succeed in alarming him, to get him away from me – but all I managed was a sort of flimsy gurgling. Until last week the albino had always ignored me. But since then, since he heard me laughing, he’s started coming home earlier; he goes to the kitchen and comes back with a glass of papaya juice, he sits on the sofa, and shares the sunset rites with me. We talk. Or rather, he talks, I listen. Sometimes I laugh – this seems enough for him. I get the sense that there’s already a thread of friendship holding us together. On Saturday nights – but not always – the albino arrives with some girl. They’re slender girls, tall and supple, with thin heron legs. Some
of them are scared as they come in, they sit on the edge of their chair, trying not to look directly at him, unable to hide their disgust. They have a soft drink, sip by sip, and then in silence they undress; they wait for him lying on their backs, arms crossed over their breasts. Others – bolder – will wander around the house on their own, assessing the shine on the silver, the antique quality of the furniture, but they quickly come back to the living room, alarmed at the stacks of books in the bedrooms and the corridors, and more alarmed still at the fierce gaze of the men in top hats and monocles, the playful gaze of the
bessanganas,
those bourgeois women of Luanda and Benguela, the astonished stare of the officers from the Portuguese navy in their ceremonial outfits, the wild stare of a
nineteenth-century
Congolese prince, the challenging stare of a famous black North American writer – each of them in golden frames, posing for all eternity. They look around the bookcases for records:

‘Don’t you have any
cuduro
music, old man?’

And since the albino doesn’t have any
cuduro
, he doesn’t have any
quizomba
, he doesn’t have the Banda Maravilha or Paulo Flores – the greatest hits of the day – they end up choosing something with a bright cover, which usually means it’s some Cuban rhythms or other. They dance, slowly embroidering small steps across the wooden floor, as the shirt buttons come undone, one by one. That perfect skin, so very black, moist and radiant, against the albino’s – dry, rough, and pinkish. I watch it all. In this house I’m like a little night-time god. During the day, I sleep. 

 

 

This is a living house. A living, breathing house. I hear it sighing, all night long. The wide brick and wooden walls are always cool, even in the heat of the day when the sun has silenced the birds, lashed at the trees, and begun to melt the tarmac. I slip across them like a tick on its host’s skin. As I hold them I feel a heart beating. Mine, perhaps, or that of the house. It hardly matters. It does me good. It makes me feel safe. Sometimes Old Esperança will bring along one of her smaller grandchildren. She carries them on her back, wrapped tightly in a piece of cloth, as is the ancient custom of the country. She does all her work like this. She sweeps the floor, dusts down the books, cooks, washes clothes, does the ironing. And the baby, its head pressed in to her back, feels her warmth and her heartbeat, believes itself to be back in its mother’s womb, and sleeps. My relationship with the house is just the same. As I’ve said, as it gets late I stay in the living room, pressed up against the windowpanes, watching the dying sun. Once night has fallen I wander from area to area – the living room opens out to the garden, a narrow, badly-tended sort of thing, which is only delightful thanks to the two glorious Imperial palm trees, very tall, very haughty, that stand at either end, keeping watch over the house. The living room leads to the library. A wide doorway takes you from the library into the corridor, which is a deep tunnel, damp and dark, that gets you to the bedroom, the dining room, the kitchen. This part of the house faces out towards the yard. The morning light strokes the walls – green, gentle, filtered through the tall foliage of the avocado tree. At the end of the corridor, on your left as you come in from the living room, a small staircase rises as if with some effort in three broken flights of steps. If you go up the staircase you’ll find yourself in a sort of garret, where the albino goes only rarely. It’s full of
crates of books. I’m not often there myself either. Bats sleep upside-down on the walls, wrapped in their black capes. I don’t know whether geckos are part of a bat’s diet. And I prefer not to know. It’s the same thing – terror, that is – that keeps me from exploring the yard. From the windows of the kitchen, the dining room or Félix’s room I can see the wild grasses growing untamed between the rosebushes. A huge, leafy avocado tree rises up in the exact centre of the yard. There are two tall medlar trees too, laden with fruit, and at least ten papaya trees. Félix believes in the restorative powers of papaya. The garden is closed off by a tall wall, the top of which is studded with shards of glass in different colours, held in place by cement. From my vantage point they look like teeth. This fierce device doesn’t prevent boys from occasionally climbing the wall to steal avocadoes, medlar fruit and papayas. They put a wooden board on the top of the wall, and pull themselves over. If you ask me it’s far too risky an enterprise for such meagre pickings. But perhaps they’re not doing it in order to savour the fruit, but to savour the risk itself… Maybe all risks will taste to them of ripe medlar fruit from now on. You can imagine that one of them will end up becoming a sapper. There will always be more than enough work for sappers in this country. Only yesterday I saw something on television, a report on the mine-sweeping operations. The director of an NGO was bemoaning how uncertain they are about numbers. No one knows with any certainty how many mines were buried in Angolan soil. Somewhere between ten and twenty million. More mines than Angolans, probably. So say one of these boys becomes a sapper. Whenever he drags himself across a minefield he’ll always have that faint taste of medlar fruit in his mouth. And one day he’ll be faced with the inevitable question, thrown at him by a foreign journalist with mingled curiosity and horror:

‘So when you’re there disarming a mine, what goes through your head?’

And the boy he still has within him will reply, with a smile:

‘Medlar fruit, old man.’

Old Esperança thinks it’s the wall that makes the thieves – I’ve heard her say as much to Félix. The albino turned to her, amused:

‘Who’d have thought I had an anarchist in the house?! Any moment now I’m going to discover that you’ve been reading Bakunin…’

He said this, then forgot all about her. She’d never read Bakunin, of course; never read a book at all, come to that, barely knows how to read. But I’m always learning things about life in general, or life in this country – which is life in a state of intoxication – from hearing her talk to herself, sometimes in a gentle murmur, almost like a song, sometimes out loud like someone scolding, as she cleans the house. Old Esperança believes that she’s never going to die. In 1992 she survived a massacre. She’d gone to the house of one of the opposition leaders to pick up a letter from her youngest son who was on service in Huambo, when bursts of gunfire suddenly erupted from all around. She was determined to leave the place, to go back to her old
musseque
house, but they wouldn’t let her.

‘It’s a crazy idea, old lady. Just pretend that it’s raining. It’ll pass soon enough.’

But it didn’t pass. Like a storm the gunfire gathered, getting more ferocious and closing in, getting louder and closer to the house. Félix was the one who told me what happened that night:

‘This brawling band, a mob of rioters, well armed and extremely drunk, forced their way into the house and slapped around all the people there. The commander wanted to know the name of the old woman.
Esperança Job Sapalalo, sir
, she said, and he laughed.
Esperança

Hope
, he joked.
Always the last to die
. The opposition leader and his family were lined up in the yard and shot. When it came to be Old Esperança’s turn, the gunmen had no bullets left.
You know what saved you, don’t you
?
the commander shouted –
it was logistics. We’ve never been very good with logistics
. And he sent her on her way. Since then she’s believed herself to be immune to death. And who knows, maybe she is.’

It doesn’t strike me as impossible. Esperança Job Sapalalo has a fine web of wrinkles on her face and completely white hair, but her flesh is still firm, her gestures solid and precise. If you ask me she’s the pillar keeping this house up.

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