Date finished: May 29, 2012
How I found this book: I came across a review of this book by Tasseled Blog. She included a quote from the book:
The priest talked of angels, and I saw chickens. To this day, in fact, of all the things I’ve seen, chicken are still the ones that most closely resembles angels. He talked of heavenly joy, and I saw chickens scrabbling away in the sun, digging up little nests in the sand, turning their little glass eyes in pure mystical bliss. I can’t imagine Paradise without chickens. I can’t even imagine the Great God, reclining lazily on a fluffy bed of clouds, without his being surrounded by a gentle host of chickens. You know something — I’ve never known a bad chicken — have you? Chickens, like white ants, like butterflies, are altogether immune against evil.
I was intrigued and when I learned that the book was from Angola, I knew I should read it for my book-from-every-country project.
The Book of Chameleons is about a man who makes a living by selling new pasts to people. In the early 2000s, the country of Angola was just emerging from over 25 years of civil war and selling new pasts was a good business. Those who participated in the war want to cover their past. The newly powerful want a family history to match the narrative they want to tell about themselves. The people who left the country during the war want to hide that fact. The seller of pasts would create a new story for his customers, giving them a new ancestry complete with old portraits. The book is largely about this idea of changing identity and trying to leave the past behind. But it’s not so easy to leave the past behind, even if you are the talking gecko that inhabits the walls of the house.* For all of the characters, their past catches up to them. Some of them even find themselves seeking it out.
It’s hard to imagine 27 years of civil war. It lasted from 1975 to 2002. And before that the war for independence from Portugal lasted from 1961 to 1974. So by 2002, most of the country wouldn’t remember living in a country at peace. As an American, I feel a bit responsible for that. A major reason that the civil war drug on for so long was that it was a proxy war in the Cold War with the Soviet Union supporting the faction in control of the government and the United States supporting the opposing faction. (I’m not sure why, but China was on the same side as the U.S.) For the most part, The Book of Chameleons doesn’t directly discuss the war. Instead, it is in the background, shaping everyone’s history.
The Book of Chameleons has a compact, poetic writing style that reminded me a bit of Italo Calvino. I’m generally a pretty fast reader, but something about the writing style in this book forced me to slow down. If I read at my usual pace, within a couple of sentences I would find myself confused and wondering “What’s the antecedent to this pronoun? And wait, who is this person they are talking about?” For the first chapter or so, I repeatedly found myself needed to back up and force myself to read more slowly. Eventually, I adjusted to the pacing, but it made me wonder what caused me to need to slow down. It’s not that the writing was somehow arcane or difficult. I think that when I read at my usual pace, I make a lot of assumptions about sentence structure and logical flow. If the writing doesn’t fit my assumptions, I get tripped up. In this case, I felt like the writing was worth slowing down for.
I’m not very well versed in Portuguese and Spanish literature and I did feel my knowledge lacking as I read this book. There are lots of direct references to Portuguese and Spanish literature that I was unfamiliar with, but I suspect there are many more subtle references that I did not notice. In fact, I finished the book wondering who that talking gecko was supposed to be and why his identity was never explained. Luckily, there was a “reading group guide” at the end of my copy of the book. I generally am annoyed by the inclusion of these reading guides and find them pretty inane. In this case, though, it included an interview with the author which explained who the gecko was. It seems that the reader was supposed to be able to recognize who the lizard was by the description of his former life as a human. I definitely failed.
*Strangely, this isn’t the only book I’m reading with a talking gecko. I’m midway through Maya by Jostein Gaarder which also features a talking gecko. Is this a whole genre? Are there other books out there with talking lizards? Perhaps I missed this phenomenon previously because I wasn’t reading enough literature set in tropical countries!