José Eduardo Agualusa's A Practical Guide to Levitation
Reviewed by Kevin Canfield
Though its title suggests otherwise, José Eduardo Agualusa’s A Practical Guide to Levitation is not densely populated by otherworldly characters immune to the laws of physics. It’s true that two of the stories in this strong collection feature protagonists who can hover a foot off the ground, while another takes place at a celestial training facility for angels learning to fly. But ethereal tales like these only hint at the thematic richness of his work. Much of Agualusa’s fiction is rooted in the material concerns and palpable experiences of his fellow Angolans. His characters—writers, laborers, drifters, despots and bibliophiles—are confronted by problems that are by turns relatable, comic and bizarre.
Agualusa doesn’t confine himself to a single genre or narrative voice. A couple of his stories, with their ruminations on potential and actual violence, could be classified as crime fiction. Others are moral tales, talky and droll, in which characters discuss the merits of indolence and the characteristics of monotheistic faith. Still others read as secret histories of doomed organizations, among them a circus starring a contortionist whose bones turn to dust.
These aside, the best, and most memorable, of the thirty stories compiled in Agualusa’s Practical Guide can be sorted into three categories, the borders of which are permeable. One subset of stories deals with novelists and book lovers engaged in obsessive pursuits or plunged into baffling circumstances; another focuses on the stupidity and brutality of colonial regimes and rigid hierarchies. Finally, there are several entertaining stories about strange trees, impertinent amphibians and other curiosities found in nature.
It's no surprise that his stories about writers and literary-minded fellow travelers—people who employ language and ideas in the valiant, eternal war against ignorance, banality and gross political malpractice—are some of the book’s sharpest. Most of the characters therein are plainly invented, but Agualusa—the author of, among many others, A General Theory of Oblivion, a prizewinning 2012 novel about a woman who takes extraordinary measures to avoid the landmark political changes occurring outside her home—isn’t afraid to place a real-life eminence in a fictional predicament.
An homage to the inventive Argentine writer, “Borges in Hell” finds Jorge Luis Borges in a version of heaven that seems designed to insult his sensibilities. Everywhere he looks, he sees banana trees. “This put him in a bad mood,” Agualusa writes in prose lucidly translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. “Banana trees?! He had always imagined paradise as a kind of library: an unending succession of corridors … piled up to the ceiling with books.” The banana-laden landscape, like the person he encounters within it, soon reveals itself as a clue to Borges’ plight: “Horrified, he understood the mistake. God had confused him with another Latin American writer. This paradise had been constructed, could only have been constructed, with Gabriel García Márquez in mind.”
If “Borges in Hell” is a sly commentary on English-language readers’ lack of engagement with writers who aren’t from the United States or Western Europe, “Catalog of Shadows” is a beguiling picaresque about a dogged reader. Pursuing rare volumes and old documents, a man makes his away across Brazil, his trip culminating on “sandy tracks hacked through barbed wire vegetation.” Peopled by bibliomaniacal eccentrics, it’s an erudite shaggy-dog story that will remind some readers of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.
Other stories work similar territory with varying degrees of success. “If Nothing Else Works, Read Clarice” is the tale of a man who survives for weeks on an uninhabited island; his spirits are buoyed when he hallucinates that the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector is reading to him from her 1964 novel The Apple in the Dark. In another story— “How Sweet It Is to Die in the Sea” —an unsuccessful novelist fakes his own death, after which he has a coincidental encounter with a critic who panned his work. Though entertaining and eventful, the story includes some awkward prose—a point Agualusa’s narrator readily concedes. After using a cloying phrase—he describes romance as “the games of love” —Agualusa’s narrator goes meta, addressing “critics who’ll want to mock this expression; fine by me, whatever, choose another. Honestly, I don’t give a crap about you critics.” Breaking the fourth wall can be productive, but there needs to be a compelling reason for doing so. Agualusa, in this story, doesn’t offer one.
For their part, Agualusa’s stories about governmental transgressions—wars, invasions, campaigns of terror carried out by occupying troops—are vivid and absorbing. “The Man with the Light” stands out as a harrowing portrait of colonialism; it also contains the book’s most arresting image. Trying to avoid Portuguese soldiers—in one scene, we see them delivering “kicks and blows” to people “whose only crime, it seemed, was speaking Umbundu,” a language spoken in Angola—a local man treks from one small town to another, projecting movies onto a white bed sheet. Viewers come from the remotest areas— “from places with secret names, even some with no names at all” —to see the show. “They would watch the movie from behind the screen, facing into the projector’s light.” Like The Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice’s beautiful 1973 film about makeshift outdoor cinemas in Spain during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, “The Man with the Light” is a paean to the communal thrill of gathering in the dark to watch moving pictures.
In “The Good Despot,” meanwhile, Agualusa charts a villain’s rise. As a young man, the protagonist is always present at political functions, and because he doesn’t say much, fellow party members assume he shares their hopes and bigotries. He rides this wave of inscrutability to power and wealth, complaining all the while. Pleasing his “many children” is “a delicate game,” he explains. “If I give one of them a private bank, I then must quickly give another a TV station.” Another story about a different leader— “The President’s Madness” —is less successful, a jokey, flaccid glimpse of an unnamed American president who falls into a coma and wakes speaking only Portuguese. The story appears to skewer ex-President Donald Trump’s poor English, and though this was perhaps a solid idea when Agualusa wrote it several years ago, in 2023 it’s far from fresh.
Agualusa’s stories about the strangeness of the natural world are often funny; they, too, contain some crisp imagery. One, “The Interpreter of Birds,” is about a fortune-telling owl that might be the reincarnation of a no-nonsense rebel soldier. When the narrator asks the owl if he’ll ever find someone to love, it “gave a series of quick, gloomy hoots, shut his eyes and fell silent.” Elsewhere, well-armed idiots take drastic measures when they believe toads are insulting them (“On the Perils of Laughter”) and a tree grows around a locked safe that has been abandoned near its expanding trunk (“The Tree that Swallowed Time”).
Mocking religious piety and human exceptionalism, “The Outrageous Baobab” is a hilarious yarn about a tree that appears to be growing a vulva. The roadside baobab becomes a favorite of Angolan drivers, who stop to snap photos, but when a visiting Brazilian pastor hears of the scandalous goings-on, he stages an exorcism meant to rid the tree of its human characteristics. When that fails, he pays a tailor to make a gigantic dress for the tree. The idea spreads—when somebody spots a tree that looks like it has a penis, the tailor is hired to make it an enormous pair of pants. The pastor is banished, lest he try to clothe “every forest in the country.” Agualusa is a writer with an abiding interest in human folly, and this might be the story that best captures the irreverence and imagination that fuel his work.
Kevin Canfield's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cineaste, Film Comment and other publications. He lives in New York City.