José Eduardo Agualusa
translated by Daniel Hahn
Arcadia Books (£11.99)

by Jeff Bursey

José Eduardo Agualusa’s previous novel, The Book of Chameleons, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007, featured a small cast of Angolans who purchased false histories to give themselves distance from their roles in Angola’s civil war (1975–2002), while the narrator, formerly a man, had come back to life as a gecko. Forgery, resurrection, and history were Agualusa’s concerns; he devised a lyrical voice for the gecko that drew the reader into an engagement with what decades of strife had created. In My Father’s Wives a missing father is used as a base from which to explore Angolan and personal identity. Here, Agualusa has deepened and expanded his concerns. The result is a novel that is profound and enriching.

The narrator, Sidónio, is a novelist accompanying his wife, Karen Boswall, a documentary filmmaker specializing in African women’s issues, as they visit various people and countries. Alongside this activity is the story Sidónio invents of Laurentina, also a documentary maker, in search of her real parents: a woman named Alima, and the acclaimed musician Faustino Manso. In the company of her lover, Mandume, Laurentina leaves Portugal for Angola, where she meets half-siblings; she tours South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique looking up her father’s lovers. What begins in confusion becomes more tangled with each page. Some incidents that occur in the Sidónio-Boswall chapters show up transformed in the Laurentina story. On both levels there is a constant emphasis on the importance of race, Angolan history, and storytelling—in this case, literature and music—for major and minor characters.

The many literary figures referred to in My Father’s Wives, part of the world of letters that Agualusa belongs to, cohere as a verisimilitudinous prop, but the writings of Mia Couto, Ana Paula Tavares, Rui Knopfli, and others are quoted or referred to by characters on both levels, inviting the reader to ask: what is false here, and what is true? In a work where Laurentina’s quest for parents is the prime motivation on the story level, and where Boswall seeks the facts, or poetic truth (although most documentarians make films charged with subjectivity), in a context where identity is fragile, fleeting, and exchangeable, the presence of real African poets, as well as the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuścínski (who wrote about the Angolan civil war in his 1976 book Another Day of Life), unite to make us wary of what we hold in our hands. It’s a contradiction that helps prevent complacency in the reader. Some novels are welcoming; this one urges us to interrogate its genesis and content.

Agualusa is keenly interested in the question of race, especially when twinned with nationality. Mandume, born in Portugal, rejects his Angolan heritage thanks to the example of his father, whose two brothers were killed in Luanda. Laurentina regards herself as “a good Portuguese woman” who feels “a little bit Indian,” and who visits Angola to “find out whether there’s anything in me that’s African.” Her half brother Bartolomeu grew up in Angola and has strong views on how people regard Africans. Talking to one of Faustino’s lovers, Seretha du Toit, he states:

And how were all the big fortunes made in the United States of America? In Brazil? The whites killed the Indians, robbed and skinned them, and now their grandchildren are respectable people. All the whites in Australia descend from thieves and prostitutes. If that happened in those countries, why wouldn’t it happen in ours? . . .

To a lot of Europeans the only good black man is a poor black man. They don’t accept that a black man can be rich. First they attack us [Angola] for having allied ourselves with the socialist bloc. Now they attack us for being good capitalists . . .

Du Toit’s reply devastates him: “Accepting that you can’t criticize someone because that someone is black, that’s called paternalism. Paternalism is the elegant racism of cowards.” A way to sidestep the race question, or replace it with something else, is offered in the form of Miss Kiu-Kiu, “daughter of a Chinese man and black woman, who married an Arab and had five children. One of the daughters married an Indian, the others mulattos, etc., in an example of multiculturalism . . . ” One minor character’s wife, a mestiça, gets “herself classified as white” after apartheid gets going, reverting to mestiça once it’s more advantageous. Evidently, labels based on color are misleading. “Race” is insufficiently nuanced to explain or capture such complex situations, and, according to the novel’s sensibilities, it provides an illusory identity; while it’s nothing to bank on, race must be struggled with every day.

Agualusa’s third crucial theme is Angolan history. The civil war, its legacy, vendettas, and cruelties ensnare everyone. Many characters have led mysterious or grim lives, and once openly warring countries are still pitted against each other, sometimes within the same skin. “On some days [Brand Malan] wakes up Angolan. On others, white South African. On others still he wakes up Angolan and white South African and Boer, all at the same time, and then, right, then it’s best to keep your distance.” When on duty, the Angolan border guards drink and like to play draughts, in contrast to the professionalism of the Namibian guards. Mandume learns he has one remaining uncle whom his father never mentioned because they were on opposite sides in the war. The damage done to children is ever present; it’s not precisely history because the battles are not yet over.

Once again, Agualusa has breathed novelistic life into history. A wry humor keeps My Father’s Wives from being ponderous, its themes are treated with sharpness and intelligence, and the multiple narrators keep the diverse plots moving forward. The characters embody the bewilderment, contradictions, rootlessness, and sense of loss that come from a generation that survived, though didn’t escape, the ravages of civil war.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009