tue 05/07/2022

José Eduardo Agualusa: The Society of Reluctant Dreamers review - vivid visions towards a free Angola | reviews, news & interviews

José Eduardo Agualusa: The Society of Reluctant Dreamers review - vivid visions towards a free Angola

José Eduardo Agualusa: The Society of Reluctant Dreamers review - vivid visions towards a free Angola

When dreams become politically meaningful, where does reality lie?

José Eduardo Agualusa© Rosa Cunha

Reality follows dreams in José Eduardo Agualusa’s latest experiment in quixotic political fable. The book opens with journalist Daniel Benchimol waking at the Rainbow Hotel in Angola’s capital, Luanda: “I saw long black birds fly past. I’d dreamed about them.

It was as though they had leaped from my dream up into the sky, a damp piece of dark-blue tissue paper, with bitter mould growing in the corners.” The birds seem to have escaped the innards of his dreamworld; they stain the sky with an uneasy, oneiric presence. That, or perhaps these birds – seen but already dreamed – occupy a zone of disturbed tenses, where time has broken with chronology.

Conventional wisdom holds that we dream either of what has already happened or what is purely imaginary. To dream can mean to envision a future, but we cannot dream the future itself. Agualusa’s characteristically playful book is interested in undoing this assumption. Daniel is one in a cast of exceptional dreamers whose visions put pressure on notions of time and sensemaking and indicate structures beyond our apprehension: "It might be that we experience, just occasionally, brief memories of people we haven’t met yet, but who are going to mark our lives profoundly. Hélio believes that certain people, like you, have developed a special aptitude for remembering the future."

Such slippery ideas revisit the concerns of Agualusa’s earlier novels. As an inventive Angolan writer whose fiction has won the International Dublin Literary Award and been shortlisted for the International Man Booker, Agualusa consistently treats Angolan history and identity with the lyrical experimentalism and unabashed weirdness of the surrealist. In his fourteenth novel, he restores the vivifying potential of dreams as enablers of courage, conviction and transformation: ‘“Train yourself to dream. Believe in your dreams.”’ The book’s project might be reduced to this easy message.

Indeed, the “dreamers” of Agualusa’s title are not only those who experience visions during sleep, but also the idealists and visionaries who dream of Angola becoming “a free, just, democratic country”, instead of one in which a repressive government reigns and inequalities are stark.

The Society of Reluctant DreamersAgualusa splits these two kinds of dreamer into defined camps. Benchimol is critical of the authoritarian government, but complacent: he has “fragile fists and a heart of sponge”. When he finds a camera floating in the water by the Rainbow Hotel, its memory card miraculously contains images of the woman he has been dreaming about but never thought real – the “Cotton-Candy-Hair-Woman”. This leads to friendships with hotelier Hossi Apolónio Kaley, an ex-guerilla fighter who never dreams himself but appears in the dreams of those nearby; Moira Fernandez, a Mozambican artist and “alpha dreamer” whose dreams are broadcast and experienced by other sleepers; and Brazilian neuroscientist Hélio de Castro, whose invention enables dreams to be viewed, even filmed. Together, these characters debate the meaning and function of dreams, and wonder at the echoes they contain.

In the other camp, the dreams of Karinguiri, Benchimol’s student daughter, might be paraphrased as ambitions. Together with six other young protestors, she interrupts a presidential press conference, leaping onto a table and throwing blood-stained Monopoly money at the President. Agualusa here takes inspiration from the case of the “Angola 15+2” activists who, after being arrested in 2015 for “rebelling against the state” (reading a politically incendiary book), began a hunger strike. That Karinguiri and her own incarcerated group also start a hunger strike proves that the most decisive “dream” of Agualusa’s book is rooted not in fantasy, but fact.

The book’s final moments are triumphant, drawing together all the book’s characters each with their own “role” to play in an apparently predetermined scheme of coherence. The entire city of Luanda dreams the same vision: a powerful collective consciousness that sees with the same eyes and cries the same words: ‘“Freedom! Freedom!”’

Close to neat fable, yet also heavy-handed, its ending is one of the book’s frustrations. Dreams are thought to inhabit a zone of slippage and inconsistency, but they are consolidated so comfortably here as to undo their capacity to unsettle or disturb. Despite wonderfully surreal images such as “glass jars filled with anxious little hearts, still alive and palpitating”, they communicate too transparently with waking events; they are almost guilty of literalism:

“‘Time covers the world in rust. Everything that shines, everything that is light, will soon be ash and nothingness.’
‘Almost everything is ash already,’ I answered. ‘They’ve incinerated my past.’
At the moment when I awoke, the conversation made no sense. By the end of the day, when I had come back from the courthouse, it did.”

Too often the characters trade clumsy aphorisms dangerously close to cliché (“Laziness is the mother of all art”) and metaphors can be overly-convenient: “The war isn’t over, my friend. It’s only sleeping.” This reliance on brusque simplicity undoes much of Agualusa’s sensitively ambitious creation, which otherwise persuasively inserts itself between the imaginary and the real.

One question remains: why did Agualusa choose to fictionalize recent events in Angola – and in such a self-consciously fantastical style? It seems dangerously close to wish fulfilment. The final image is of the crowd, surging forwards, “in an inexorable movement of rejoicing, to meet the vast helplessness of the soldiers.” The President is overcome, Angola will change. Maybe, in the presence of belief, reality can follow dreams.


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