My rating: 2 stars
A woman shutting herself in her apartment on the eve of the independence of Angola in 1975 is an interesting premise for a book. Unfortunately, José Eduardo Agualusa didn’t manage to turn it into a compelling story in Teoria Geral do Esquecimento (A General Theory of Oblivion in the English translation). Despite having a strong beginning, the novel feels underdeveloped in terms of plot and too many characters are hardly more than names on a piece of paper.
Ludovica moved from Portugal to Angola with her sister Odete when she married an engineer called Orlando. Ludo had never wanted to be alone, thus her sister had never gone travelling. Knowing that Odete would never abandon her sister, who since a young age struggled to go outside, Orlando made clear that she could go with them. When the revolution happened in Portugal and Angola became one step closer to independence, Orlando didn’t want to leave Luanda. He soon changed his mind. However, he and his wife disappeared after attending a friend’s farewell party. Ludo only received a call asking for diamonds in exchange for her sister.
When a random boy tried to enter the house, Ludo picked up a gun and shot him almost without really wanting to. The moment they shared before he died made hate and fear almost go away. Afterwards, Ludo decided to build a wall to separate her apartment from the rest of the building. She was afraid of the outside world.
The main problem I had with the book is that it tries to convey too much giving hardly any details, which ends up being frustrating and confusing. Besides Ludo and her family, the narrator touches on the lives of other characters, who are connected by irrelevant little details. Jeremias Carrasco, Madalena and Pequeno Soba are only some of those mentioned throughout the book. We never really get to truly know them, and they serve no true purpose for the overall story.
There are also various references to social and political issues that could have been further explained and better linked to the plot. The consequences of centuries of oppression, people from Angola killing each other, the existence of foreign interests in the civil war and the socialist regime turning capitalist are all briefly mentioned, maybe to show that the world was moving on outside of the apartment. But none of them directly influences the turn of events.
Mid-way through, it seems that the story is going to gain a fresh impetus thanks to an unexpected revelation about Ludo’s past. Nonetheless, that strand continues to be interspersed with mentions to other underdeveloped characters, which waned my interest immensely. The book would have benefited from either focusing only on Ludo’s part or developing far more all of the other storylines, connecting them all at the end.
The book consists of various short chapters told in the third person, which are interspersed with sort of poems written by Ludo on the walls. Not only are the chapters short, but also are almost all of the sentences. This writing style increases the sense of lack of details and soon becomes exasperating. Adults can read long sentences once in a while. I only found the short sentences effective when the conflicts outside of the apartment are being described.
“Fizera-se noite. Balas tracejantes riscavam o céu. Explosões sacudiam as vidraças.”
“Night fell. Bullet-lines streaked across the sky. Explosions shook the windowpanes.”
Overall, A General Theory of Oblivion feels like a draft with potential. It could have been a truly good book if it had only focused on Ludo’s tribulations, the characters had been more fleshed out and their feelings further explored.