I knew nothing about Angola before I read this book, at least nothing beyond Angola as a place where reporters with pained expressions and tense voices tell tales of violence and murder. The country always came across as a state hovering eternally on one side or other of the border with anarchy, a place whose inhabitants were to be pitied and patronised in equal measure.
The Angola of Orla Guerin, Kate Adie and their ilk couldn't be further removed from the Angola of "The Book of Chameleons". Agualusa's Angola is, it's true, a place with more than it's share of corruption and fantasy and old wounds, of grievances and violence and mistrust, but it's also a place where people muddle through - just as they do anywhere else. More than that, this is a country whose borders reach as far as Portugal and Brazil, whose people can flit between three continents, confident of finding some kind of place in each.
Just as this Angola is not what it seems - or has been made to seem - to the outside world, the same goes for the characters in this well-named book. Our narrator, an habitual observer, perhaps even voyeur, is a gecko, but a gecko with a past life. Our hero, Felix Ventura, is a black man, but also an albino. He creates glorious pasts for the inglorious leaders of the present, linking them to the very foundations of the nation. When one of his fictional genealogies starts to become true, he finds himself drawn into a story from the all-too-real history of his own country.
Written vividly and with the lightest and most skilful of touches, The Book of Chameleons is at one and the same time a satire, a study of the illusory nature of the past and present, a meditation upon man's capability for self-delusion and a lively political thriller.