Go back to the title. Yeah, read it again. Sit with it. Let it sink.
This is maybe the most beautiful title of a book I have come across in a long time, maybe ever. So of course I had to read it. That’s how the saying goes: don’t judge a book by its cover, judge it by its title. I mean, the cover is pretty stunning too, but the title did set some really high expectations. And then it delivered.
A General Theory of Oblivion is inspired by the real story of an agoraphobic Portuguese woman that was living in Angola during the fight for the Angolan independence from the Portuguese colonisers. Once the fights start and she realises that the rest of her family isn’t coming back, Ludovica (Ludo) barricades herself in her apartment with a dog, Phantom. The book is a work of fiction, but the author had access to Ludo’s diary from that period. So we have chapters that are narrated, and diary entries (which might or might be not entries from the real journal).
In parallel, several other stories that happen in close vicinity to Ludo’s apartment unravel and they come together beautifully and very satisfyingly at the end of the book. So this is clearly a novel (or maybe a novella? it’s really short) for those that appreciate a story that is beautifully crafted and where everything falls into place. There’s no detail that feels superfluous or redundant, everything is where it’s supposed to be.
One thing that I still have mixed feelings about is the treatment of pigeons in this book. Once she runs out of food supplies, Ludo starts capturing pigeons using her jewellery and eats them and this is actually from Ludo’s real diary – this is probably a deserted island-like scenario I’ve never encountered before (and as a vegan I get a lot of those). A homeless character does the same – this is probably to illustrate the harsh conditions in that period. So I guess there is this intention of using the pigeon as a symbol of peace as usual with the twist that killing and eating them is clearly a bad sign. The thing is I’m a bit over using non-human animals to symbolise the human condition and, in this case, to move the plot forward. And we should all be over it.
A quite subtle parallel that I really enjoyed in this book is that of colonial violence vs sexual violence. As we slowly find out about Ludo’s traumatic past and her constant fear of people in general, and of the figure of her rapist in particular, we also get to understand more the contribution of colonial powers and of capitalism on the country, on the population – this is also violence. The two complement each other and we can see Ludo’s degradation and her falling into oblivion as a mirror of what happens to colonised countries and her bettering once she is saved by a kid as a hopeful prayer but also a burden on the future generation.
It’s a book worth reading and a book worth quoting (hopefully one day I’ll get to reread it in Portuguese) so I’m going to end this with my favourite quote:
‘My family is this boy, that mulemba tree out there, and a phantom dog. My eyesight gets worse every day. An ophthalmologist friend of my neighbour was here in the apartment to look at me. He said I would never lose my eyesight completely. Is till have my peripheral vision. I’ll always be able to make out the light, and the light in this country is a riot. In any case, I don’t aspire to any more: the light, Sabalu reading to me, the joy of a pomegranate every day.’