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José Eduardo Agualusa: 'I will not be silenced'

Writing cost him his marriage, he is being shadowed by the secret service and risks being arrested in Angola. But José Eduardo Agualusa, whose new novel A general theory of forgetting has a chance to win the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, does not hesitate to put down the pen. 'I will not be silenced.'

José Eduardo Agualusa ©Marc Brester/AQM
José Eduardo Agualusa ©Marc Brester/AQM

Recently, José Eduardo Agualusa (1960) on the street in his hometown of Lisbon, when he found the Angolan secret service agent at the door, his 'own agent', who had been following him for so long that he knew the man by name. 'What are you doing here?" he asked the agent. The latter pointed to the building next to the one Agualusa lives in. 'That building over there... We bought it.' 'But why?' the writer asked in surprise. The agent looked at him and said: 'Ah, come on, you know very well...'

José Eduardo Agualusa bursts out laughing, shaking his head in amazement and disbelief. The Angolan secret service buying a house in Portugal to keep an eye on him. 'Maybe it's not true and he only said it to scare me. But it might as well be true; they have the money for it. In any case, they think I am much more important than I am.'

Writer José Eduardo Agualusa, born in Huambo in Angola but living in Portugal and Brazil, is humble. The author of such extraordinary novels as A stone under water (2003), The trader in pasts (2007), My father's wives (2009) and The labyrinth of Luanda (2010) is indeed considered one of the most important Portuguese-language writers. His most recent novel A general theory of forgetting was awarded the Premio Fernando Namora, as well as being shortlisted for this year's prestigious Man Booker International Prize, it was announced today.

Agualusa's magical-realist novels revolve around themes of fiction and reality, lies versus truth, and are explicitly rooted in the history and present of his native Angola. Independence, civil war and dictatorship play an important role in each novel, and Agualusa is critical of related phenomena, such as racism, poverty, brutality and violence. So too in the beautiful A general theory of forgetting, a cruel yet tender story about the woman Ludo who wallows in her home on the eve of Angolan independence and then watches 30 years of history slip by.

José Eduardo Agualusa ©Marc Brester/AQM
José Eduardo Agualusa ©Marc Brester/AQM

Silence

Agualusa has not been to Angola for almost a year because of the risk of being arrested. 'It is dangerous to have an opinion. My books are not banned. It is not the books that are seen as a problem, but mainly the fact that, as a writer, it also gives you the opportunity to publish articles and give interviews.'

The long arms of the man bearing the same first names as him, President José Eduardo dos Santos, reach all the way to Portugal, and not just to Agualusa's own front door, he says. The Angolan government has bought up a number of important companies and newspapers in Portugal, and even tried to take control of the national public television channel, but failed. 'They do not spread propaganda, it is rather that certain events are simply not reported. They silence things to death. A friend of mine, rapper Luaty Beirão, was arrested last year, along with 14 others, for allegedly plotting an assassination of the president and a coup. In reality, they only held peaceful demonstrations and read a book by political scientist Gene Sharp. One of Portugal's leading independent newspapers posted pieces about it and even published an interview with Luaty, while many other newspapers remained silent about it.'

Samples

In a country like the Netherlands, Agualusa says, there are plenty of independent media, but because that is not the case in a country like Angola, literature has great social importance. 'A book is a place of debate and freedom of thought, where no concessions are made to human rights. I believe in literature contributing to debate and independence. I hope my books are an example of that. That gives writers a great responsibility. Of course you don't think about that while writing, otherwise I wouldn't be able to write - I work from passion. But I do ask questions that I think are important to ask in Angola.

I write a lot about evil because it is so hard to understand. In a country like Angola, you are surrounded by people who in normal circumstances would be normal people. But a dictatorship turns normal people into monsters. And some into heroes. Luaty, for example, is an incredible man. If I made him a character, you would think I was exaggerating. Luaty's father was the president's best friend, and the director of the Eduardo dos Santos Foundation. According to friends who were in prison at the time, he was a brutal torturer. So Luaty grew up in the high echelons of the system, but always resisted it. After studying in Europe, Luaty decided to return to Angola, and did so on foot - people declared him crazy and everyone said he would never succeed. But he succeeded.

Luaty has been speaking out against the regime for years. During a big show he performed in, he shouted to the president's son, who was also present there, that after 33 years, his father's rule was over. The entire audience scanned along with him. The government and the president were in all states.

He has been arrested countless times, they have done all kinds of things to him, and yet each time he took to the streets, until he was arrested again last year along with that group of 14 others. When he was still detained without trial after six months, he went on a hunger strike. After 36 days - he almost broke down - the trial finally came. Now they await the verdict under house arrest.'

José Eduardo Agualusa ©Marc Brester/AQM
José Eduardo Agualusa ©Marc Brester/AQM

Only

Luaty is a real hero, Agualusa wants to say, yet his own situation is somewhat similar to his friend's. His former wife came from a wealthy family in Luanda, with ties to power. 'Constantly my wife and relatives asked why I wrote about such subjects anyway, if I couldn't stop doing that. That is not necessary anyway, they told me, stop it. They disapproved. The government even offered me money, to study in America for ten years. I told my wife: we have two children. How should I explain to them later that I kept silent at a time when people were being killed or disappeared in prison? I cannot remain silent. I will not be silenced. And áf you open your mouth in a situation like this, you just can't stop. I can't stop talking - I'm so furious. It's like a fever.'

It eventually cost him his marriage. Courage and appreciation do not necessarily go hand in hand. 'It's not like in films. In the end, you are on your own. Your family and all sorts of other people around you don't agree with what you do. But I am doing what I want to do, and that is writing. And for that, you have to be free.'

Not only literature, especially the internet, is a means of freeing people from the clutches of dictators, Agualusa knows. 'When Luaty and his group were arrested, a minister flew to Portugal to debate with me about that book by Gene Sharp. "Is it a subversive book?" he asked me. "Yes," I said, "but only in a dictatorship. In a democracy, such books are not subversive." The next day, the public television channel in Angola aired a snippet of this debate: the bit where I say it is a subversive book. The rest was cut out. But the very next day, the whole interview was on Facebook: look, Agualusa said something completely different! That's why dictators are so afraid of the internet. They can't control that.'

A general theory of forgetting was translated by Harrie Lemmens and published by Koppernik publishers.

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 14 April.

From A general theory of forgetting

The city lay behind them. A high dividing wall ran across an open field. At the very back a few boababs and behind them a spotless blue horizon. They stepped out. Monte untied the two mercenaries and straightened his back: 'Captain Jeremias, aka the Executioner. You are accused of an endless series of atrocities. You tortured and murdered dozens of Angolan nationalists. Some of our comrades would like to see you on trial. I don't think we should waste time on trials. The people have already condemned you.'

(...)

Monte walked back to the car. The soldiers pushed the Portuguese to the wall and moved away a few metres. One of them pulled a pistol from his belt, pointed it with an absent-minded, almost bored gesture and fired three shots. Jeremias the Executioner fell on his back. High in the sky, he saw birds flying. On the wall full of bloodstains and bullet holes he read, written with red paint, not a luta but o luto continua, not the struggle continues, but the mourning.

José Eduardo Agualusa cover

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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