‘A General Theory of Oblivion’, by José Eduardo Agualusa

In 1975, the day before Angola declares its independence from Portugal, Ludovica Fernandes Mano, a Portuguese expatriate, bricks herself into a penthouse apartment in the Angolan capital, Luanda. Ludo (for short) goes on to spend almost 30 years in self-imposed isolation. She survives by growing vegetables on her building’s terrace, and by luring pigeons on to her balcony. For company she has only an albino Alsatian, Phantom, a radio that brings news from the outside world, and a library full of books. Even these, however, begin to disappear as, having used most of the furniture to cook with, Ludo resorts to burning the precious volumes.

Ludo pours her thoughts into notebooks and, when they too run out, she uses charcoal to write on the apartment walls. “I’m afraid of what’s outside the window, of the air that arrives in bursts, and the noise it brings with it,” she writes. “I am foreign to everything . . . I don’t understand the languages I hear outside, the languages the radio brings into the house . . . Even the light seems strange to me.”

It is only after an encounter with a young burglar, Sabalu, who climbs in through temporary scaffolding, that Ludo finally emerges, almost blind, into a transformed country, where an unexpected reconciliation awaits.

In this tale, based on real-life events, one of Angola’s most inventive novelists has found the perfect vehicle to examine his country’s troubled recent past. José Eduardo Agualusa is the author of 13 novels and various short-story collections. A General Theory of Oblivion, his latest book to appear in English, is translated from the Portuguese with skill and flair by Daniel Hahn, who also translated an earlier Agualusa novel, The Book of Chameleons, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

An explanatory note tells readers that A General Theory of Oblivion grew out of Agualusa’s efforts to write the screenplay for a feature film based on Ludovica’s story. It is difficult to imagine this fragmented and impressionistic text, with its meditations on uprootedness and memory, transposed to the screen. But the subject matter seems perfectly suited to Agualusa, an author with a taste for the outlandish.

“If I still had the space, the charcoal, and available walls,” Ludo says, “I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion.” Only later in the novel do we learn why she is so intent on forgetfulness. “Don’t torture yourself any more,” she advises a repentant thug. “Our mistakes correct us. Perhaps we need to forget. We should practise forgetting.”

There is a colourful cast of characters whose lives intersect surprisingly with Ludo’s — Little Chief, a political prisoner turned businessman and landlord; Daniel Benchimol, a journalist who specialises in investigating mysterious disappearances; Magno Moreira Monte, a former intelligence agent who becomes a private detective; even a monkey that Ludo calls Che Guevara, in honour of the Cuban revolutionary — as in The Book of Chameleons, animals play a key role.

Luanda itself emerges as an important player, gradually changing from a cradle of revolution and civil war into a city of unbridled capitalism. Even from Ludo’s detached vantage point, Agualusa excels at conveying the city’s wild, dark enchantment. “Our capital is full of mysteries,” says an old guerrilla fighter. “I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.”

English-language readers are relatively well served by fictional accounts of Africa penned by anglophone writers, from Chinua Achebe or Nadine Gordimer to contemporary novelists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But a growing number of translations from other African languages offer refreshingly new perspectives on a continent that is as vast as it is multifaceted. Alongside Mozambique’s Mia Couto (shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International), Agualusa has already become one of lusophone Africa’s most distinctive voices.

In a line that was surely included to bait book reviewers, one of the novel’s characters declares: “A man with a good story is practically a king.” If this is true, then Agualusa can count himself among the continent’s new royals.

A General Theory of Oblivion, by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn, Harvill Secker, RRP£14.99, 256 pages

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