The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola)


Title: The Book of Chameleons

Author: José Eduardo Agualusa

Original title: O Vendedor de Passados

Original language: Portuguese

Translation from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Rating: 4 out of 5

The same thing happens to the soul as happens to water – it flows. Today it’s a river. Tomorrow, it will be the sea. Water takes the shape of whatever receives it. Inside a bottle it’s like a bottle. But it isn’t a bottle.

“Sometimes, she said, she could recognize a place just by the quality of the light. In Lisbon, the light at the end of spring leans madly over the houses, white and humid, and just a little bit salty. In Rio de Janeiro, in the season that the locals instinctively call ‘autumn’, and that the Europeans insist disdainfully is just a figment of their imagination, the light becomes gentler, like a shimmer of silk, sometimes accompanied by a humid grayness, which hangs over the streets, and then sinks down gently into the squares and gardens. In the drenched land of the Pantanal in Mato Grosso, really early in the morning, the blue parrots cross the sky and they shake a clear, slow light from their wings, a light that little by little settles on the waters, grows and spreads and seems to sing. In the forests of Taman Negara in Malaysia, the light is like a liquid, which sticks to your skin, and has a taste and a smell. It’s noisy in Goa, and harsh. In Berlin the sun is always laughing, at least during those moments when it manages to break through the clouds, like in those ecological stickers against nuclear power. Even in the most unlikely skies, Ângela Lúcia is able to discern shines that mustn’t be forgotten.”


José Eduardo Agualusa is an Angolan journalist and writer born in Huambo, back when the city was still named Nova Lisboa. Before embracing literature, he studied agronomy and silviculture in Lisbon, Portugal. He began his career by writing poetry and then later, he switched to stories and novels. He currently divides his time between Portugal, Angola and Brazil. Agualusa writes for a Portuguese magazine and an Angolan newspaper and hosts a radio program about African music and poetry on the channel RDP Africa. He is also a partner in a small publishing house in Brazil, Língua Geral, dedicated exclusively to Portuguese language authors.

Agualusa has been awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature for his novel “Creole” and was the first African writer to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize award with his novel “The Book of Chameleons”.

“The Book of Chameleons” tells the story of Felix Ventura, an Angolan albino, who sells antique books and “invents dreams for people” – this is how he describes his job as a fabricator and seller of people’s pasts. The events are narrated by a gecko, Eulalio, who lives in Ventura’s house and once had a human form. Between the two protagonists, the albino and the gecko, there’s a strange connection, they interact with each other in dreams.

The story is not very complex; much of the lives of its characters is not revealed until the very end. For some people that might be a bit disappointing, but not for me. What’s really fascinating, and I would say the substance of this book, is its language. The writing style is simply beautiful, very poetic. The book is like a wonderful literary excursion.

Rather than a book with a story, a subject, this is more like a collection of thoughts and ideas about reincarnation, identity and change, memory, dreams and reality, as well as truth and lies.

The idea of reincarnation goes along very nicely with the quote from Jorge Luis Borges that opens the novel: “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”. The author himself admitted that the book was written in his honor and the chameleon is a reincarnation of Borges, all its recollections being related to actual events in Borges’ life.

I have read both the Romanian and the English translation of “The Book of Chameleons” and I had the feeling that the Romanian translation was somewhat closer to the original version. Besides that, it also keeps the original title of the book, “The Seller of Pasts” (in Romanian: “Vânzătorul de trecuturi”). I am not really against changing the name of a book when it would make more sense in the targeted language, and I like the metaphor that comes with the English title (people who change their pasts are chameleons), but in this case I would have preferred the original title.