Of chameleons, taxi wars and novel titles for sale

EVENT: Free the Word PEN Dialogue: Agualusa and Coovadia (Friday, 23 September; Fugard Studio)


José Eduardo Agualusa and Imraan Coovadia discuss their work. Chaired by Margie Orford.

How similar are a chameleon and a gecko? Yes, they are both lizards, but if you are a gecko, as the narrator in José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel The Book of Chameleons is, you probably wouldn’t appreciate being called a chameleon, a master shapeshifter who can’t pick a side.

José feels the title is misleading, but it’s the only one that all who were involved in the translation from Portuguese to English agreed on. Originally entitled, O Venedor de Passados, José didn’t like the direct translation to “The seller of pasts”, but he’s not entirely satisfied its current title either.

But, he says, the most complicated aspect of translating a book is creating the title, and says he and the translator managed to cover all the issues of translating the book in a day, but spent three days trying to come up with a good title.

This parley came up during a three-way discussion between South Africa’s “queen of crime” Margie Orford, as chair, José Eduardo Agualusa, and Imraan Coovadia of Green-Eyed Thieves fame – all three award-winning writers. This clutch of talent was gathered to discuss José and Imraan’s work, which Margie drew parallels between, encouraging the two to speak directly to each other without her having to be a mere go-between.

They  discussed the challenges of the writing process, as well as the broader topic of current South African writing. Margie discussed a range of their novels – covering José’s The Book of Chameleons and My Father’s Wives, and Imraan’s Green-Eyed Thieves and High Low In-between.

Margie quizzed José’s about his writing process, specifically his writing about love and women, and he explained that he writes books to find out what happens; when he sets out to write a novel he doesn’t know how the story will end. He gives the characters space to develop as he writes. For him that is the most interesting part: “If I know the ending from the outset, I don’t write the book.”

On the other hand, Imraan explains that the intention of his writing is to go against current South African trends, the first of which is that South African authors so often deal with the theme of race, which Imraan feels is now past its sell-by-date, and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do anything new and exciting with it. The second is that many South African books have been written from the perspective of a one-dimensional character, progressing through the novel with one particular issue, ultimately weighed down by this singular torment. This is not the way people are, says Imraan, they have more complex feelings than that and they are fluid and turbulent in their change, therefore he creates his characters accordingly.

The event drew to a close with Imraan and Margie chatting about his new book, Taxi Poet, to be released in March next year. Margie put it to him that perhaps he is a closet poet, but no, said Imraan, he had just found a natural fit between the words “poet” and ‘taxi”. In an interview with Ivan Vladislavic earlier this year, Imraan explained Taxi Poet in a nutshell: “It’s about what we [South Africans] call taxis. The central vehicles of South African transport are these little vans that pick people up. The owners get together, divide up territory, and wage war with rival companies. They constantly have shootouts. It’s incredibly violent and fascinating.” The eponymous poets use this form of transport to travel around Cape Town, giving Imraan his own vehicle through which to explore the taxi industry.

Something else to bear in mind is that José joked that he wants to write new books just because he has so many good titles  – and he is willing to sell them to anyone who’s battling to think up their own.