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Fiction about fiction: 'The Living and the Rest', by José Eduardo Agualusa

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Fiction about fiction: 'The Living and the Rest', by José Eduardo Agualusa

Since the Second World War, authors have regularly conceived of plots set around a cataclysmic event that cuts off people or places from the rest of the world. Some examples include Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel The Wall, José Saramago’s 1995 Blindness, and The Road, 2006, by Cormac McCarthy.

For many of us, the pandemic was the first time we seriously considered global disaster – the possible collapse of existing society – as a real possibility. It is hardly surprising that authors too continued to imagine where such sudden catastrophes might lead to. First published in Portuguese in 2020, but finished on 30 November 2019, Agualusa’s novel The Living and the Rest not only opens with a disquieting calamity, but uncannily anticipates the almost apocalyptic developments that have occurred since then.

A catastrophic weather event has hit not the mainland of Mozambique, possibly as a reaction to a cataclysmic bomb attack on Jerusalem by anti-Zionist Jews:

The prospect of a nuclear war, however, had given people a wake-up call. Huge spontaneous demonstrations happened in all the big cities of the world, from New York to Moscow, via Delhi and Beijing, demanding the complete dismantling of the different nuclear arsenals.

However, this news is not immediately revealed. Readers follow the lives and concerns of the protagonists on Ilha de Moçambique, who are mainly African writers, gathered there for a literary festival. Bar an ominous power outage and loss of the internet, the island does not seem too badly affected. There are, however, signs in nature, that the locals perceive: the depletion of fish in the Indian Ocean and the absence of stars in the night sky. All is not well, and this realization slowly trickles through to the assembled authors.

What makes this book an interesting read, in addition to the disaster that happens, is that we have precious few novels from Africa. Its author, José Eduardo Agualusa, is an Angolan journalist and writer of Portuguese and Brazilian descent, who resides on the Ilha de Moçambique. Agualusa, a prolific writer, was also the 2017 winner of the prestigious Dublin Literary Award for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion. Agualusa sets his novels in Angola and other places in Africa, writing from an informed perspective on Africa and African literature.

In one of the many discussions around literature at the literary event central to The Living and the Rest, we read:

While its typical colonial literature, with a view of the continent thats full of prejudices, the truth is that the author does make an effort to give the Africans a voice.

For non-African readers, the exposure Agualusa gives to African voices is an enrichment. His cast hails mainly from Angola, Nigeria, Mozambique, with several of them from multinational backgrounds. They discuss literature, imagination, and the relationship between fiction and reality. Mixed into all of this are the local legends of Ilha de Moçambique.

The novel’s construction is intriguing. Fiction and reality, protagonists and authors begin to merge, and trying to work it all out is a challenge with which Agualusa playfully presents the reader. In this regard, some readers may well find that the characters in the novel are less fully developed and convincing, less “real” than expected.

Increasingly, it becomes clear that this novel is not to be taken at face value. Events occur that seem incredible. Thus, for example, the baby born to Moira and David is born in the hospital that despite earlier assertions, is suddenly no longer derelict – it is quickly and inexplicably transformed. The present and past become fused through dead people coming alive. Other uncanny figures appear in the action, who turn out to be characters from the gathered authors’ books. Close to the end, David burns the notebook in which he has been composing a new novel: it ends exactly as the novel we are reading. And yet, there is also the unsettling anticipation, in a work of fiction, of both natural and political catastrophes that are about to happen. This once more underlines the ability of art to imagine a reality that is not yet an actual fact, but is a strong possibility in the outside world.

Agualusa has thus written fiction about the writing of fiction, creating an imagined reality, while subtly taking away the “fourth wall”. At the end of the day, he is asking readers to consider the power of the imagination, to question their expectations of novels, their perhaps over-readiness to suspend disbelief.

His technique is loosely based on Brecht’s “distancing”, the attempt to encourage the audience to think about what is being presented, by making them aware that they are being presented with something, rather than fully and without distance, identifying with the characters. But it is unlike Brecht in that the people and events readers are presented with have no strong political grounding in terms of the plot.

The Living and the Rest differs from some of Agualusa’s other work. The cataclysmic events in the outside world only touch on the novel’s figures and events in a mild, peripheral way. But of course, it is perfectly legitimate to explore different themes. Here, the author is mainly concerned with the nature of fiction and he makes clear that the book, its protagonists and its incidents, are fiction, and all the that this implies. However, what may have seemed excessive in 2019, and only touches on the novel from the outside, has certainly come closer to reality than may have seemed ‘reasonable’ at the time of composition.

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