‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa – Life Goes On in Angola during their Civil War


‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa   (2013)  –  247 pages       Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

The southern African country of Angola had just achieved independence from Portugal when it descended into a protracted civil war that lasted from 1976 to 2002. Angola was a pawn in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.  However the Angolan Civil War was a real war that raged on and off for 27 years leaving 500,000 people killed.

“This wasn’t what we made our independence for.  Not for Angolans to kill each other like rabid dogs.”

‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ consists of 37 short chapters or vignettes that tell quirky stories related to Angola at that time.  Since there is a lot of white space between the many chapters, this is a quick read.

Many of the chapters center around a lady called Ludovica Fernandez Mano or ‘Ludo’ for short.   She was born in Portugal but is staying with her sister and brother-in-law in Luanda, Angola when this story opens.   One day the married couple does not return home, and Ludo is left in the apartment by herself.  Early on an intruder tries to break in, and Ludo shoots and kills him.  After that, Ludo bricks herself in.  She stays there for 27 years.

Stuck in that house, Ludo is alone and isolated.  However the reader does not really feel her claustrophobia, because the author scatters the story and includes pieces which are unrelated to Ludo but are about some other aspect of Angola during this time.   ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ probably would have been more effective as a novel if it were strictly about Ludo and her confined plight, but that may not have been the author’s purpose in writing this work.

Instead Agualusa opens things up. He writes discursive sketches of some of the strange things that are going on in Angola.  Some of the chapters are about the native tribes of Angola such as the Kuvale who are prosperous in their number of oxen but still suffer food poverty.

“They are unable to trade their oxen for corn.  This apparent paradox – so many oxen yet so much hunger –is yet another way in which they are unusual.  But isn’t that true of Angola too? So much oil…?”

The above lines from Ray Duarte de Carvallo are quoted in the novel.

It seemed to me that Agualusa had a wider purpose in telling different facets of the story of Angola during this time rather than just focusing on this one woman Ludo.  That wider purpose may have been a detriment to the fiction but probably served the truths of Angola more effectively.


Grade :   B


3 responses to this post.

  1. This book has been widely praised (was it nominated for the Man Booker International, or the BTBA??) but I find these stories of post colonial African wars profoundly depressing.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ actually won the 2017 International Dublin IMPAC Award. The novel just didn’t move me sufficiently for me to give it a more positive review. It struck me as solid journalism partially and incompletely converted to fiction.
      I didn’t hate it like I did for my next reviewed novel, but my reaction was just so-so.



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