José Eduardo Agualusa (1960-present) is an Angolan writer, acclaimed for his novels and journalism. His work is noteworthy for the way it reimagines colonial and contemporary histories in Angola, Brazil, Mozambique, Portugal and Goa. As one of his books phrases it, his is a world of ‘lost borders’, where unfamiliar figures give their passing testimony and are intersected by echoes of past and future times, distant places and distant writers.
Born in Huambo during colonial rule, Agualusa moved to Lisbon in 1975 to study Silviculture and Agronomy. There began his literary career, during which he published poetry and short stories. In 1989, he published his first novel, A Conjura, which follows the lives of African nobility, exiled republicans, slavers and workers of colonial Luanda from 1880 to 1911, the year of a failed attempt to declare Angolan independence. Two of his following books, Feira dos Assombrados (short stories) and Creole return to the same period. Creole, his first prized novel, tells the love story of Carlos Fradique Mendes and Ana Olimpia Vaz de Caminha and their transatlantic travels through the social turmoil of the end of slave trade in the lusophone world. His later book, Queen N’Jinga (2014) re-imagines her challenge of Portuguese transatlantic colonies in the mid-1600s. Across these stories, Agualusa draws on passages in past newspapers and books, suggesting how one might use such testimonies to re-imagine history through fiction. Written in the spirit of magical realism, his fiction seeks to re-create the everydayness of Angolan colonial society, while inserting fantastical events with allegorical purposes.
With Rainy Season (1996), Agualusa wrote his first novel about twentieth-century Angola. Told as a fictional biography of the poet, activist and historian Lídia do Carmo Ferreira, Rainy Season follows the rise and fall of Angola’s liberation struggle from the 1940s to the 1990s. In the first half, the novel follows Lídia and other figures of the anticolonial movement in lusophone Africa, from Mário Pinto de Andrade, to Viriato da Cruz and Amílcar Cabral. In the second part, the story shifts to the outbreak of civil war after independence. Following the 1977 People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) purges, the novel narrates the progressive disillusionment of Lídia and her companions. Rainy Season is a tribute to Angola’s early freedom fighters and a painful account of the fall into civil war. For Agualusa, this book also begins two persistent themes in his writing: the traumas of Angola’s civil wars, and the fictional use of past writers’ voices. Novels such as The Book of Chameleons (2004), Milágrio Pessoal (2010), A General Theory of Oblivion (2012), and The Society of Reluctant Dreamers (2017) for instance return to the traumas of civil war and its unexpected afterlives. Novels such as Creole (1997), Catálogo de Sombras (2006), O Lugar dos Morto (2011), O Paraíso e Outros Infernos (2018) engage in plays of transtextuality with writers such as Eça de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa, Machado de Assis, Jorge Luis Borges and Jorge Amado.
A last important theme in Agualusa’s work has been that of exile and travel. This has been present in books such as Fronteiras Perdidas (1999), Um Estranho em Goa (2000), O Ano em Que o Zumbi tomou o Rio (2002) Catálogo de Sombras (2006), Passageiros em Trânsito (2006), My Father’s Wives (2007). Across these works, Agualusa weaves together lusophone characters and builds on their unexpected encounters away from their first homes. Thus, in Um Estranho em Goa, a journalist drifts through Goa, with its rave scenes and colonial ruins, ultimately to interview Plácido Domingo, a legendary freedom fighter who mysteriously fled Angola after independence. In O Ano em Que o Zumbi tomou o Rio, two exiled Angolans, the colonel Francisco Palmares and the journalist Euclides da Camâra cross paths in Rio de Janeiro. The colonel, now an arms dealer, believes himself to be fostering an anticolonial revolt by selling weapons to the favelas. In a historical play, Agualusa embeds allusions to the anticolonial insurgencies of Zumbi dos Palmares in 1690s, and the War of Canudos of the 1890s.
For these reasons, it isn’t strange to understand why some see Agualusa as trying to create ‘other’ landscapes of the lusophone world. Though often returning to Angola and its troubled history, Agualusa’s characters are embedded in constellations connecting distant peoples into improbable journeys. For some, these historical and transcultural stories court a form of postcolonial lusotropicalism (see McNee, 2012). For others still, they betray a postmodern playfulness inferior to sharper forms of realism (see Melo 2006). For all such possible controversies, Agualusa remains a useful voice in the polyphonies of the Global South. With all its defects, his novels bring into imagination a world of colonial struggle erased from history and speak candidly to the pains of postcolonial disillusionment. Though we must all come to tell our own imperfect stories, in these works we find company with which we may linger, if only for a while.
Agualusa, José E, and Daniel Hahn (trans.). Rainy Season. London: Arcadia, 2009.
Agualusa, José E., and Daniel Hahn (trans.). Creole. London: Arcadia, 2007.
Afolabi, Niyi. “Mamiwata, Migrations, and Miscegenation: Transculturation in José Eduardo Agualusa, Mia Couto, and Germano Almeida.” Journal of Lusophone Studies 2.1 (2017).
Beebee, Thomas O. “The Triangulated Transtextuality of José Eduardo Agualusa’s Nação Crioula: A Correspondência Secreta de Fradique Mendes.” Luso-Brazilian Review 47.1 (2010): 190-213.
Brookshaw, David. Voices from Lusophone Borderlands: The Angolan Identities of António Agostinho Neto, Jorge Arrimar and José Eduardo Agualusa. Maynooth: National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 2002
McNee, Malcolm K. “José Eduardo Agualusa, and Other Possible Lusofonias.” Luso-Brazilian Review 49.1 (2012): 1-26.
Melo, Francisco José Sampaio. “Personagens diasporizadas de José Eduardo Agualusa em O ano que Zumbi tomou o Rio.” Letras de hoje 41.3 (2006): 159-168.
Millar, Lanie. Forms of Disappointment: Cuban and Angolan Narrative after the Cold War. SUNY Press, 2019.
—. “Circling the South Atlantic: Revolution in JE Agualusa’s The Year that Zumbi Took Rio.” The Global South 7.2 (2013): 87-109.
Ribeiro, Raquel. “Angola, a Nation in Pieces in José Eduardo Agualusa’s Estação das chuvas.” Journal of Lusophone Studies 1.1 (2016).
1) Critically assess Agualusa’s re-imaginations of colonialism in Angola.
2) What are the theoretical implications of Agualusa’s transtextuality?
3) How are Agualusa’s reflections on exile and travel connected to his accounts of colonial and contemporary history?
Submitted by António Ferraz de Oliveira