A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa wins the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award
21st June, 2017: Angolan author José Eduardo Agualusa has won the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. The Award is organised and sponsored by Dublin City Council and at €100,000 is the world’s largest prize for a single novel published in English.
Uniquely, the Award receives its nominations from public libraries in cities around the globe and recognises both writers and translators. The winner was announced at a ceremony in Dublin’s Mansion House today.
José Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola, in 1960, and is one of the leading literary voices in Angola and the Portuguese-speaking world. His novel Creole was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature, and The Book of Chameleons won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. Agualusa lives between Portugal, Angola and Brazil.
The winning novel was chosen from a total of 147 titles, nominated by libraries in 110 cities in 40 countries. It was first published in the UK by Harvill Secker and in the USA by Archipelago Books. The shortlist of ten novels, as chosen by an international panel of judges, included novels from four continents. José Eduardo Agualusa is the second African author to win the prize in its 22 year history. Agualusa received a cheque for €75,000. Daniel Hahn, translator of A General Theory of Oblivion, received a cheque for €25,000.
‘We in Dublin City Council are committed to playing a very active role in making Dublin’s rich literary heritage a living and lively part of our City’s life,’ said Lord Mayor and Patron, Brendan Carr. ‘Through initiatives such as this Award we bring literature to all corners of the City, and make Dublin known throughout the world as a City of Literature.’
A General Theory of Oblivion tells the story of Ludo, who on the eve of Angolan independence, bricks herself into her apartment, where she will remain for the next thirty years. She lives off vegetables and pigeons, burns her furniture and books to stay alive and keeps herself busy by writing her story on the walls of her home.
The outside world slowly seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of a man fleeing his pursuers and a note attached to a bird’s foot. Until one day she meets Sabalu, a young boy from the street who climbs up to her terrace.
Commenting on his win, José Eduardo Agualusa said: ‘I’m very happy to have won the International Dublin Literary Award. A General Theory of Oblivion is a book about xenophobia and the fear of the Other. This theme couldn’t be more current. If my winning the prize contributes in some way to a debate and helps fight xenophobia, I would be even happier.’
Daniel Hahn, who translated the novel from the original Portuguese, said ‘one of the reasons we translators translate is because we want to bring books we love to new readers – we’re natural proselytisers, I think; so winning any prestigious prize is wonderful because is it helps to do just that, to draw more people’s attention to something we’re already so eager to share. That this particular prize comes out of the wonderful world of public libraries makes is all the more special.’
‘A General Theory of Oblivion is a memorable and engaging story of isolation and prejudice,’ said Margaret Hayes, Dublin City Librarian. ‘The 22nd winning title introduces Ludo, a strong female character, who struggles with fear and mistrust but survives with resilience and tenacity and the power of friendship. This is the 9th winning title in translation and the first originally written in Portugese.’
The prize money was presented to the winner and translator by Owen Keegan, Chief Executive of the Award’s founders and sponsors, Dublin City Council.
The Award ceremony at The Mansion House in Dublin was livestreamed on the International DUBLIN Literary Award Facebook page and on the Dublin City Libraries Facebook page, to allow people from across the world to tune in to the event.
The 2017 judging panel, which includes Chris Morash, Vice Provost of Trinity College, commented:
“Even while A General Theory of Oblivion details starvation, torture and killings and revolves around our need to forget, its tone and message are concerned with love. It is love that redeems Ludo and others, and it is love for the novel’s Luanda setting that steeps the narrative in idiosyncratic detail. The writer gives his readers both understanding and hope, taking Angolan stories and making them universally applicable. No one is truly alone in José Eduardo Agualusa’s Luanda beehive, and his characters make us, too, feel deeply connected to the world.” (Full Judges’ Citation below)
A General Theory of Oblivion was nominated by Biblioteca Demonstrativa Maria da Conceição Moreira Salles, Brasilia, Brazil; Gradska Knjiznica Rijeka, Croatia; Biblioteca Municipal de Oeiras and Biblioteca Pública Municipal do Porto, Portugal, who commented:
‘The novel delights us by its quality and by the emotional story of the main character. Key elements of recent Angolan history intertwined with the lives of ordinary people, build a kaleidoscope that ends up becoming a very, very good novel.’
‘Agualusa creates the unusual character, based on a real person, of a woman who confines herself to her apartment, shocked by the events that led to Angolan independence and almost three decades of civil war. Agualusa masterfully portrays Angola and Luanda with all their violence, mysticism and lunacy but also with their warmth.’
The 2017 shortlist included six novels in translation and authors from America (Hanya Yanagihara, Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnamese/American) and Chinelo Okparanta (Nigerian/American); Angola (José Eduardo Agualusa); Austria (Robert Seethaler); Denmark (Kim Leine (Danish/Norwegian); Ireland (Anne Enright); Mexico (Valeria Luiselli); Mozambique (Mic Couto) and Turkey (Orhan Pamuk).
Copies of the winner as well as copies of the 10 shortlisted books and the 147 novels nominated for the 2017 Award, are available to borrow from Dublin Public libraries.
JUDGES’ CITATION – 2017 Winner
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn
“Some biologists argue that a single bee, a single ant, is nothing more than the mobile cells of one individual. The true organisms are the beehive and the ant nest.” In A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa presents us with the beehive of Luanda and its recent history. Beginning with the extraordinary premise of a Portuguese woman who bricks herself into her apartment on the eve of Angolan independence, the novel gradually introduces character after character, their stories tessellating in unexpected ways.
With no connection to the city, Ludo views the events with puzzlement from her eleventh-floor eyrie, showing us scraps of Angola’s complex development varying from brutal arrests to a domesticated pygmy hippo. All around her, however, others are involved directly and we come to hear their stories too. Agualusa’s patchwork structure perfectly reflects the city’s organized chaos over twenty-eight years, each chapter standing alone but skilfully fitting into the whole.
Embedded within a convincing fiction of its own, the novel basks in the joy of slow storytelling. Poets are swallowed up by the earth, lovers separated and reunited, men killed and resurrected, the rich become poor and the poor become millionaires. The author enjoys teasing us with revelations we could never have seen coming, and as he does so his characters flesh out and take on unforeseen dimensions. There are no simple judgements here – just as Ludo moves from outright racism to love of Luanda and her neighbours, so a mercenary finds a family and a torturer finds morals. Each shift arranges the novel’s reality anew.
Agualusa’s language is pared down but equally inventive, using diaries and poetry written in charcoal on Ludo’s walls, humorous asides and words in local languages. Daniel Hahn has written a subtly sparkling English version, his translation never overpowering the original but helping Anglophone readers with inconspicuous interventions. The translator plays with English sounds, giving us poets with “more interest in pursuing the booze than the muse,” “gangly greyhounds and heavy asthmatic mastiffs” and “young people with lustrous, rust-coloured skin.” Hahn’s rendering of a fourteen-word poem retains beauty, brevity and wordplay – a great accomplishment.
Even while A General Theory of Oblivion details starvation, torture and killings and revolves around our need to forget, its tone and message are concerned with love. One of the novel’s pivotal animal characters is even named Love. It is love that redeems Ludo and others, and it is love for the novel’s Luanda setting that steeps the narrative in idiosyncratic detail. The writer gives his readers both understanding and hope, taking Angolan stories and making them universally applicable. No one is truly alone in José Eduardo Agualusa’s Luanda beehive, and his characters make us, too, feel deeply connected to the world.