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The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo…

The Book of Chameleons (2004)

by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4.5 stars

( )
  Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
This unusual book is narrated by a gecko who lives on the walls and ceilings of the home of Felix, an albino. Felix is in the business of providing new identities and backgrounds for people who have something to hide, or who otherwise wish to escape their past. The plot revolves around Jose, one of his customers, and Estella, a beautiful young woman with whom Felix begins a relationship, but who has had a troubled past. In the afterword, the author states that many of the gecko's memories are based on the life of Jorge Luis Borges. He describes the book as being about memory and its traps, and about the construction of our identities. I loved this thought, expressed by the gecko:

"Memory is a landscape watched from the window of a moving train...things happen before our very eyes, we know them to be real, but they're so far away we can't touch them. Some are so far, so very far away, and the train moving so fast, that we can't be sure any longer that they really did happen. Maybe we merely dreamed them?" ( )
1 vote arubabookwoman | Feb 24, 2016 |
This is the story of Félix Ventura who sells memories and backgrounds to people who need a solid lineage to become fully realized in life, narrated by the gecko who makes its home in the shady cracks in the walls of Félix's house. Set in Luanda, Angola, right at the end of the civil war, the story is an interesting mix of politics and Borgesque fantasy, along with seriously original characters. It is a fairly thin book, consisting of a series of short vignettes, but its sum total is an engaging discourse on the nature of truth and lies and how a modified identity and memory could change the course of one's life. The narrator, Eulálio the gecko, is a sardonic observer of Félix's life, but his dreams are wistful views into his alternate, pre-gecko existence, which makes for one of the most interesting narrators I've read in a long while. Don't come looking for a chameleon to play a huge part - it's metaphorical - and the original title, O Vendedor de Passados, means "The Seller of Pasts" rather than having to do with anything lacertilian. Also, if you know your Jorge Luis Borges, you'll notice that the gecko and he has quite a lot in common... ( )
1 vote -Eva- | Jan 1, 2015 |
i very much enjoyed this book. the translation was also excellent - i'm a sucker for beautifu and evocativel language and this delivered in spades. I adored the structure and characters, too. Just an all around excellent book. ( )
  tarshaan | Dec 10, 2014 |
Despite or maybe because of the poorly translated title, The Book of Chameleons took me by surprise in the absolute best of ways. Entitled O Vendedor de Passados in Portuguese, a more accurate translation might be something like "Merchant of the Past." In fact there are no literal chameleons in the book, although there are some characters whose identities shift and mutate. That includes the narrator who is a gecko except for when appearing from time to time as a man in the simultaneous dreams he has with his friend, the albino vendor of the original work's title. The other major characters include a pair of photographers, one who captures war and the other who captures light. These characters come together in ways unexpected, even unto themselves.

The edition I read contains an interview with the author that I read after finishing the story. I find it very revealing:

First, when asked about what influenced Agualusa as he wrote this book, he replies that "The book is a tribute to Borges. It's a game that I hope Borges would have appreciated. At the same time, it's also a settling up of accounts. I love Borges as a writer, but think that as a man there was always something about him that was closed and obtuse, reactionary even, and he not infrequently expressed opinions that were misogynistic or racist. His relations with women were very complicated; it is believed that he died a virgin. Now in my book Borges is reincarnated in Luanda [Angola] in the body of a gecko. The gecko's memories correspond to fragments of Borges's real life story. Somehow I wanted to give Borges a second chance; in my book he makes the most of his opportunities."

I have not been successful in reading Borges, although I'm willing to give him a try again one day. I don't believe that my failure to know much about Borges hindered my experience of the book, but I think fans of Borges will probably find it does enhance their enjoyment.

Agualusa is also asked the setting of the tale. He explains: "The action takes place at a particularly interesting moment in Angola's history. The country is at peace, at the end of 25 years of civil war, and breathing relatively freely, though it's still too early to talk about democracy; the last elections were held in 1992. In spite of corruption, nepotism, and poor management, the generosity of the soil means the economy is growing. Every other month they announce the discovery of new oil reserves. Before long Angola will overtake Nigeria as the main supplier of black gold south of the Sahara. The same people who built up the Marxist system following independence are now with great enthusiasm defending the market economy. Huge fortunes are quickly made. It is possible to become rich honestly, too. Angolans originally from rural areas - politicians and military men, people with new money - are fighting to be accepted by the arrogant, Portuguese-speaking urban aristocracy. They often have real need of a new past as they seek their place in the future, and in the context of Angola there are plenty of people who can pay - and are prepared to pay - to get one."

That accounting validates the feeling I had as I read that this is a decidedly African work. I made the mistake of initially trying to describe the book to a friend as "magic realism" but that was before I had begun to really grasp what I was reading and that, in fact, it transcends several genres. The Book of Chameleons has lots to say about the nature of memory and identity, and Agualusa's writing is light, effortless, and dreamy. It's ethereal and philosophical, and I loved it. I've never read anything quite like it. The only thing that comes to mind, and I'm not even sure why because it is such a different work is Rikki Durcornet's Entering Fire, which I read a long, long time ago, but I seem to recall it left me with similar feeling that I had entered literary waters that I had never before swum. I am quite impressed. ( )
  mpho3 | Sep 27, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jose Eduardo Agualusaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lombard, CécileTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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
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I was born in this house, and grew up here.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Literary fiction of the highest order, philosophical, but author manages to celebrate the corporeal side of human life at the same time.
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This unusual novel about the landscape of memory and its inconsistencies follows Felix Ventura as he trades in a curious commodity--selling people different pasts.

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