Novel: The Book of Chameleons

Author: Jose Eduardo Agualusa, 2006
Genre: Mystery, Magical Realism
Format: Paperback, 192 pages

The priest talked of angels, and I saw chickens. To this day, in fact, of all the things I’ve seen, chicken are still the ones that most closely resembles angels. He talked of heavenly joy, and I saw chickens scrabbling away in the sun, digging up little nests in the sand, turning their little glass eyes in pure mystical bliss. I can’t imagine Paradise without chickens. I can’t even imagine the Great God, reclining lazily on a fluffy bed of clouds, without his being surrounded by a gentle host of chickens. You know something — I’ve never known a bad chicken — have you? Chickens, like white ants, like butterflies, are altogether immune against evil.

If this paragraph didn’t make you drop whatever you were doing and pick up The Book of Chameleons, I don’t know what will. It took me a long while to get my hands on this book. I’ve heard about it for the first time several years ago, not long after it was released in English. I thought the blurb on the jacket and some reviews I’ve read online sounded promising, but I did not want to pay $16 for a book I wasn’t sure about. On one hand, the story told from the point of view of a chameleon living in the house of a man who sells memories of past can be described in one word – ingenious. On the other hand, magical realism can be quite tricky to pull off without confusing the reader. I wanted to make sure I could enjoy the book before I committed to a purchase (my usual mantra when it comes to book-buying). The search in the local library resulted in nothing, and even the ebook was costing on par with the physical copy (what’s up with that?!). So my journey in Agualusa’s fantastic world had to wait a bit. Finally, this year I renewed my library card and decided to try out previously unknown to me inter-library loan. Turned out a city three hours away had a few copies – which I find unfair by the way, – so I ordered one to be brought over. The thing with library loans is that you can’t extend the lending period, and every extra day costs like a $1 in penalties. I had to make sure I actually read the book once it was checked out.

Yes, I confess, I was confused at time as who the narrator was and whose dreams I was reading about. There was the chameleon’s dreams, and dreams of his past life as Jorge Luis Borges – the writer; sometimes the past trader Felix would appear in them and I’d be like, whoa why is he hanging out with Borges? At one point I thought the mysterious client of Felix who introduces himself as a war photographer might had been in one of them. So yes, I was lost. Then the actual storyline began trickling through, as it turned out the war photographer and Felix’s girlfriend had a strange past connection, which turned into a murder mystery and a violent confrontation in the end. I was taken by surprise. One moment Agualusa was talking about chickens and heaven, and the next he was screaming of secret agents and killing people off. The murder mystery unfolded before the reader extremely fast, being explained in only a few pages. But once you read them, you start to understand all the small connections and allusions the author makes to it throughout the book. The ending is so unexpected, that if you’d stop reading halfway trough, you’d never guess there is any connection between the characters or any mystery behind them, and you’d be left wondering about the book’s purpose.

I’m not sure there is any more to say about the novel. You have to experience it on your own to see what it is all about. I loved Agualusa’s language and bright imagery he used to explain things. I liked the tranquil pauses and quiet moments dedicated solely to description. I am amazed how I could almost taste the colors and smell the sounds in the story – and that, my friends, is the true magical realism. Check it out if you like strange books that leave room to your personal interpretation.

One comment

  1. […] I found this book: I came across a review of this book by Tasseled Blog. She included a quote from the […]

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