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Looking for “God” in Non-Identity: Reading the Transcendental in Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons

Irene Marques


In his novel, The Book of Chameleons, Angolan author, José Eduardo Agualusa, goes well beyond the stage of apology (or defense) of Afrocentric societies, the need to rescue pre-colonial cultural paradigms, or have well-defined national identities, which tend to be common preoccupations in many African post-colonial societies. Such concerns are often reactionary, emerging out of the need to form, create, and display nationhood in the face of the burden of European colonialism and its cultural impositions, which suppress African socio-cultural and political systems, downgrading them to a status of an inferior “other.” Yet, the very idea of nationhood tends to annihilate difference and otherness to construct monolithic identities based on unified (and Western) notions of statehood, thus forcing multiplicity into sameness so that African nationalistic projects often end up committing the same sins Europe committed in relation to Africa—notwithstanding the fact, of course, that pre-colonial Africa, as any society, had its own “nations,” too, that could also suppress difference through conquest. The central argument in this article is that Agualusa sees ethnic, racial, and national identity—whatever it may be, whether Eurocentric, or Afro-centric, or a mix of both, etc.—and the physical, cultural and ideological marks and frameworks that it carries or transmits as problematic. As I illustrate, Agualusa considers identities based on these essentialist parameters as something that causes deep suffering, violence, and division, and is pushing the reader to conceive identities and their respective ideological affiliation/s as fluid, ephemeral conditions, and to accept “non-identity” as the best path for human beings to follow. This different framework of seeing the Self (or the nation) generates a symbolic opening that allows for various ethnicities and races to live (or envisage living) in peace in a single space, as it emphasizes a relational collective consciousness and pushes humans to a superior state of being that transcends the finite materiality of life and the socio-political discourses that frame that materiality. I demonstrate how The Book of Chameleons is replete with metaphors of what I call the “non-self,” or “supra-self,” or even “God,” which are commonly found in Zen Buddhist thought, classical African epistemological and ontological paradigms, and more specifically, the idea of African Personality as put forward by Léopold S. Senghor or even in some of Emmanuel Lévinas’s philosophical principles related to the dialectic between self and other or otherness (the non-human) and the divine. This use of multiple cross-cultural frameworks serves to reveal how different paradigms (from West to East, North to South) display parallel ontological visions, thus pointing to the idea that humans (wherever they are) yearn to exit their “small self” and expand their selfhood.


José Eduardo Agualusa, Angola, Literature, national identity, transcendental, supra-identity, African epistemological & ontological paradigms, expanded selfhood, dialectic between self, other and otherness, Léopold Senghor, Emmanuel Lévinas, Zen Buddhism

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