Dustin Illingworth at The Quarterly Conversation:
Early on in Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, the narrator offers this bit of difficult wisdom: “Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. . . . Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin.” It’s an implied celebration of literature, one that weaves itself into the fabric of Oblivion. Locked as we are within a given body, temperament, and time, literature can transport us, can transmute textual experience into an expansion of inwardness, an amplification of consciousness. The best books—which Agualusa’s charmingly melancholic novel approaches—haunt us and, indeed, cover us like “a different skin.” Here, however, writing is even more than that: for Ludo, the agoraphobic and mysteriously damaged protagonist, writing is a matter of life and death, a story she scrawls on the walls of her home with charcoal. Fragmented and densely layered, Oblivion unfolds within the possibility—and the tension—inherent between writing and identity, text and meaning, story and life.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the Angolan revolution that overthrew Portugal’s dictatorship, Oblivion traces Ludo’s quietly evocative life as “a foreign body” in a new city, her fear of the outside world such that she must wear a box to water her balcony garden. After moving from Portugal to Angola with her sister and brother-in-law, Ludo’s existence is dismantled when neither return from a farewell party of fleeing Portuguese on the eve of Angolan independence. Trapped by her agoraphobia, her only lifelines to the outside world severed, Ludo literally walls herself into her modest apartment, beginning a magical, tragic, decades-long story abounding with a positively Dickensian cast of military men, street urchins, reporters, entertainers, assassins, and animals (wild and domestic).