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Excerpt: 'The Book of Chameleons'

The Foreigner

Félix Ventura studies the newspapers as he has his dinner, leafing through them carefully, and if an article catches his eye he marks it with his pen, in lilac-colored ink. Once he's done eating he cuts it out and stores it carefully away in a file. On one of the shelves in the library he has dozens of these files.Another is where his hundreds of videocassettes lie. Félix likes to record news bulletins, important political happenings, anything that might one day be useful to him.The tapes are lined up in alphabetical order, by the name of the person or the event they're about. His dinner consists of a bowl of vegetable broth, a specialty of Old Esperança's, a cup of mint tea, and a thick slice of papaya, dressed with lemon and a dash of port wine. In his room, before going to bed, he puts on his pajamas with such an air of formality that I'm always halfexpecting him to tie a somber-looking tie around his neck. But on this particular night, the shrill ring of the doorbell interrupted him as he ate his soup.This irritated him. He folded up his paper, got up with some effort and went to open the door. I saw a tall man come in, distinguished looking, a hooked nose, prominent cheekbones, and a generous moustache, curved and gleaming, the kind people haven't had these past hundred years. His eyes were small and bright, and seemed to take possession of everything they saw. He was wearing a blue suit, in an old-fashioned cut but which suited him, and in his left hand he was holding a document case. The room darkened. It was as though night - or something even more grief-stricken than night - had come in with him. He took out a calling card, and read aloud:

"Félix Ventura. Guarantee your children a better past." And he laughed. A sad laugh, but not unpleasant. "That would be you, I presume? A friend of mine gave me your card."

I couldn't place his accent. He spoke softly, with a mix of different pronunciations, a faint Slavic roughness, tempered by the honeyed softness of the Portuguese from Brazil. Félix Ventura took a step back:

"And who are you?"

The foreigner closed the door. He walked around the room, his hands clasped behind his back, pausing for a long moment in front of the beautiful oil portrait of Frederick Douglass. Then he sat down, at last, in one of the armchairs, and with an elegant gesture invited the albino to do the same. It was as though he were the owner of the house. Certain common friends, he said - his voice becoming even gentler - had given him this address.They'd told him of a man who dealt in memories, a man who sold the past, clandestinely, the way other people deal in cocaine. Félix looked at him with mistrust. Everything about this strange man annoyed him - his manners that were both gentle and authoritative, his ironic way of speaking, the antiquated moustache. He sat himself down in a grand wickerwork chair, at the opposite end of the room, as though afraid the other man's delicacy might be contagious.

"And might I know who you are?"

Again his question received no reply.The foreigner asked permission to smoke. He took a silver cigarette case from the pocket of his jacket, opened it, and rolled a cigarette. His eyes skipped one way and another, his attention distracted, like a chicken pecking around in the dust. And then he smiled with unexpected brilliance:

"But do tell me, my dear man - who are your clients?"

Félix Ventura gave in. There was a whole class, he explained, a whole new bourgeoisie, who sought him out.They were businessmen, ministers, landowners, diamond smugglers, generals - people, in other words, whose futures are secure. But what these people lack is a good past, a distinguished ancestry, diplomas. In sum, a name that resonates with nobility and culture. He sells them a brand new past. He draws up their family tree. He provides them with photographs of their grandparents and great-grandparents, gentlemen of elegant bearing and old-fashioned ladies.The businessmen, the ministers,would like to have women like that as their aunts, he went on, pointing to the portraits on the walls - old ladies swathed in fabrics, authentic bourgeois bessanganas - they'd like to have a grandfather with the distinguished bearing of a Machado de Assis, of a Cruz e Souza, of an Alexandre Dumas. And he sells them this simple dream.

"Perfect, perfect."The foreigner smoothed his moustache."That's what they told me. I require your services. But I'm afraid it may be rather a lot of work..."

"Work makes you free...," Félix muttered. It may be that he was just saying this to try and get a rise out of him, to test out the intruder's identity, but if that was his intention it failed - the foreigner merely nodded. The albino got up and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. A moment later he returned with a bottle of good Portuguese wine that he held with both hands. He showed it to the foreigner, and offered him a glass. And he asked:

"And might I know your name?"

The foreigner examined the wine by the light of the lamp.He lowered his eyelids and drank slowly, attentively, happily, like someone following the flight of a Bach fugue. He put the glass down on a small table right in front of him, a piece of mahogany furniture with a glass cover; then finally straightened himself up and replied:

"I've had many names, but I mean to forget them all. I'd rather you were the one to baptize me."

Félix insisted. He had to know - at the very least - what his clients' professions were.The foreigner raised his right hand - a broad hand, with long, bony fingers - in a vague gesture of refusal. But then he lowered it again, and sighed:

"You're right. I'm a photojournalist. I collect images of wars, of hunger and its ghosts, of natural disasters and terrible misfortunes. You can think of me as a witness."

He explained that he was planning to settle in the country. He wanted more than just a decent past, a large family, uncles, aunts and cousins, nephews and nieces, grandfathers and grandmothers, including two or three bessanganas, now dead, of course (or perhaps living in exile somewhere?); he wanted more than just portraits and anecdotes. He needed a new name, authentic official documents that bore out this identity.The albino listened, horrified:

"No!" he managed to blurt out. "I don't do things like that. I invent dreams for people, I'm not a forger...And besides, if you'll pardon my bluntness, wouldn't it be a bit difficult to invent a completely African genealogy for you?"

"Indeed! And why is that?!..."

"Well - sir're white."

"And what of it? You're whiter than I am..."

"White? Me?!" The albino choked. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. "No, no! I'm black. Pure black. I'm a native. Can't you tell that I'm black?..."

From my usual post at the window I couldn't help giving a little chuckle at this point. The foreigner looked upward as though he were sniffing the air. Tense - alert:

"Did you hear that? Who laughed just then?"

"Nobody," the albino replied, and pointed at me."It was the gecko."

The man stood up. He came up closer and I could feel his eyes on me. It was as though he were looking directly into my soul - my old soul. He shook his head slowly, in a baffled silence.

"Do you know what this is?"


"It's a gecko, yes, but a very rare species. See these stripes? It's a tiger gecko - a shy creature, we still know very little about them.They were first discovered half a dozen years ago in Namibia.We think they can live for twenty years - even longer, perhaps.They have this amazing laugh - doesn't it sound like a human laugh?"

Félix agreed.Yes, to begin with he'd also been disturbed by it. But then having consulted a few books about reptiles - he had them right there in the house, he had books about everything, thousands of them, inherited from his adopted father, a secondhand book dealer who'd exchanged Luanda for Lisbon a few months after independence - he'd discovered that there were certain species of gecko that produce sounds that are strikingly like laughter. They spent some time discussing me, which I found annoying - talking as if I weren't there! - and yet at the same time it felt as though they were talking not about me but about some alien being, some vague and distant biological anomaly. Men know almost nothing of the little creatures that share their homes. Mice, bats, ants, ticks, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, worms, silverfish, termites, weevils, snails, beetles. I decided that I might as well simply get on with my life. At that sort of time the albino's bedroom used to fill up with mosquitoes, and I was beginning to feel hungry.The foreigner stood up again, went over to the chair where he'd put the briefcase, opened it, and took out a thick envelope. He handed it to Félix, said his good-byes, and went to the door. He opened it himself. He nodded, and was gone.

Copyright © 2004 by José Eduardo Agualusa and Publicações Dom Quixote. Translation copyright © 2006 by Daniel Hahn

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José Eduardo Agualusa