Angolan author José Eduardo Agualusa has won the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion.
Agualusa is the second African author to win the prize in its twenty-two-year history, the other being Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, who won the award for his novel Cette aveuglante absence de lumière (This Blinding Absence of Light) in 2004.
Agualusa receives a cheque for €75,000, while Daniel Hahn, the translator, receives €25,000.
The International Dublin Literary Award is organised and sponsored by the Dublin City Council and with €100,000 prize money is the world’s largest prize for a single novel published in English. This year’s winning novel was chosen from a total of 147 titles, nominated by public libraries in 110 cities in 40 countries.
In his acceptance speech, Agualusa said he owed his writing career to libraries, and says he has long wished to contribute to the building of libraries in his native Angola.
‘I became a writer in public libraries,” he said. “Not only because if I hadn’t had access to books in some of these libraries, as a child, I never would have started writing, but because to a great extent my first book was actually written in a public library.
‘If literature develops our empathy muscles, makes us better people, then you might think of public libraries as weapons of massive construction: powerful tools for personal development and the development of societies.
‘The fight for democratisation, for pacification and for the development of countries like Angola, undoubtedly entails the creation of good networks of public libraries, capable of bringing books to their readers. My very best dream–and I dream a lot, I have epic, grandiose dreams–is to contribute to my country’s developing a network like that. I dream of the day when all Angolan children, all Angolan young people, can read–just as I read when I was their age–the great writers of universal literature.’
Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola, in 1960, and lives between Portugal, Angola and Brazil. He one of the Portuguese-speaking world’s leading literary voices, and has been awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
A General Theory of Oblivion tells the story of an Angolan woman who bricks herself into her apartment on the eve of her country’s independence. She remains there for thirty years, until she meets a young boy who gives her a glimpse of the changes that have occurred in the country.
‘The novel’s subject is the fear of the other,’ Agualusa said. ‘It seems–I’m sorry to say–that the subject is even more current today than when I wrote it. In the troubled times we’re going through, in this world in search of new political thinking and new ideals, the fear of the other is a kind of conflagration, started by pyromaniacs, that threatens to consume us all.
‘In my novel, Ludo is saved by a boy who allows her to see what is obvious: there is no Other. The Other is always ourselves. Each man is all humanity.’
Agualusa added that A General Theory of Oblivion was also ‘about the fear felt by those who live under totalitarian regimes’, saying that under a dictatorship, people are afraid of existing too much: ‘So they exist on a small scale, disguised, invisible. Fear steals our individuality. Fear steals our lives.’
He added: ‘The greatest writers are able to put their readers into another person’s skin. I think that’s the greatest virtue of reading. By entering the skin of different narrators, by feeling a part of other lives, a reader increasingly finds himself part of the rest of humanity. In my view – and I’ll venture to share this belief with you, naïve though some will find it – great readers have less propensity to violence and hate. First, because violence is always a surrendering of intelligence, a retreat of thinking. But mostly because reading, as an exercise in otherness, brings people closer.
‘I come from a country – Angola – which has suffered a long and cruel civil war. I experienced this war as a citizen and as a journalist. I’ve learned a bit about wars. I learned, for example, that in order to generate a favourable climate of hysteria, creators of civil wars start out by de-nationalizing the enemy. Then they go on to question their humanity. The enemy is first a foreigner, then a monster. And a monster – and a foreign one at that – can be killed. Should be killed.
‘Great literature, meanwhile, almost always works in the opposite direction. It allows us to see the humanity in others, even those foreign to us. Even those who seem like monsters to us.’
Agualusa was shortlisted alongside two other African writers: Chinelo Okparanta, for Under the Udala Trees, and Mia Couto, for Confession of the Lioness.
‘I send my greetings to my Mozambican brother Mia Couto; I send my greetings to my Nigerian sister Chinelo Okparanta,’ he said. ‘I send my greetings to all African writers, those who came before me and shaped me and made me a writer, and those who journey with me today, in this common project of rethinking our continent and making it known to the rest of the world – with all the pains and tragedies that afflict us, yes, but also with all our great joy, creativity, hope and love.’