the book of Chameleons

“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

We have always been obsessed with the idea of changing, or rather shaping, our future. We live in a limitless world, free to do (almost) whatever we want and see how our actions today will alter our future tomorrow. But how often do we actually think about changing our past? Well, almost never, because so far this has been rendered impossible. I remember that when I was little I wanted to be a ballerina. However, at the age of four-five, when you are supposed to start being a ballerina, I was deemed too fat. Yes, unfortunately for me, I was among these chubby little children who didn’t go on swings, because they were too fat for swings and instead took pleasure in seeing other kids on the swings and imagining the fun they might be having. If I could change my past now, would I be a ballerina? Most probably not. Now, as I come to think about it, it seems a rather silly dream. And yet is it, if I still remember it 20 years later? Of course, there is the cliché saying that one should not feel sorry for the past, because it is exactly the past that shaped us the way we are now. However, for the sake of it, imagine the possibility of letting your creativity go and creating for yourself the past you always wanted?

That is exactly what Felix Ventura does for a living. The Angolan albino is an antique book seller and a fabricator. He deals with people’s pasts – augmenting them, filling them with richer details, or changing them completely. He has a variety of clients – rich people, who want to have an aristocratic heritage, politicians, who want to influence events in Angola, random nameless people, who have their own specific agenda in altering their history. Felix Ventura’s unusual story is told through the eyes of the gecko Eulalio, who lives in Ventura’s house. The protagonist treats him like a real person – confides in him, laughs with him, even dreams about him. At the same time Eulalio, who once upon a time used to be a human being, also dreams about his master, and in these dreams do the two interact.

One day a nameless man enters Ventura’s home, searching for a new past. As the forger creates one, the man slowly begins believing in the forgery, travelling the world to find proofs for his fake identity. A beautiful mysterious photographer, with whom Ventura falls in love, and a weird homeless man, who believes the president has a double, contribute to the richness of the novel’s characters and shape the surprising twist at the end.

The Book of Chameleons is actually a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges (as seen from the book’s epigraph above). At times it reminds of the magical realism of Borges and Marquez, at times it relates to Kafka’s Metamorphosis (given the narrator is an animal), and yet the novel is just itself – strange, original, painful. Agualusa deals with the themes of memory and past. As time goes by, certain events become blurred in our minds, making us doubt whether they actually happened, or whether they happened but differently, and then our memory altered them to fit some secret agenda of our mind. Remember when you wake up for a vivid dream and it takes you a couple of minutes to realize you were dreaming. It happens to me way too often. Sometimes the realization comes with a relief (if the dream was a nightmare) and sometimes with sorrow (if the dream was a projection of the reality I wanted to live in). The contrast between the life we want to live and the life we are actually living, the juxtaposition between the past we lived and the memory of the past we lived, and the strong desire for not only a perfect future, but of a perfect past, form the basis of Agualusa’s novel.

PS 1: The Book of Chameleons won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. I have a slight problem with the translation of the title from Portuguese to English. I don’t speak Portuguese, but according to Google it should be something like The Seller of Pasts. Usually I am quite alright with changing titles as sometimes the specificities of the language require it. In this particular case, though, I don’t see how chameleons relate to the story. Yes, one might argue that the people who change their pasts are chameleons, but still the logic eludes me. Even the narrator is not a chameleon, but a gecko.

PS 2: Another side benefit from reading a book from Angola was that I learned that they were a Portuguese colony and they actually speak Portuguese…:)

Favourite quotes: 

The worst of sins is not to fall in love.

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In olden days stories for children always used to end with the words, and they lived happily ever after, this being after the Prince has married the Princess and they’ve had lots of children. In life there’s never a plot that works out like that, of course. Princesses marry bodyguards, they marry trapeze-artists and life goes on, and they live unhappily until they separate. And years later, just like the rest of us, they die. We’re only happy – truly happy – when it’s for ever-after, but only children live in a world where things can last forever.

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‘Reality is painful and imperfect,’ she’d say. ‘That’s just the way it is, that’s how we distinguish it from dreams. When something seems absolutely lovely we think it can only be a dream, and we pinch ourselves just to be sure we’re really not dreaming – if it hurts it’s because we’re not dreaming. Reality can hurt us, even those moments when it may seem to us to be a dream. You can find everything that exists in the world in books – sometimes in truer colours, and without the real pain of everything that really does exist. Given a choice between life and books, my son, you must choose books!’

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Happiness is almost always irresponsible.