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Ondjaki’s Transparent City is almost like a heartfelt, devastating, chaotic love poem to Luanda, the capital city of Angola. Revolving around the Maianga Building, a crumbling apartment block in the middle of the city, the book follows the lives of the building’s inhabitants, ordinary Angolans who are doing their best in a country governed by a tyrannical government in the aftermath of the Angolan Civil War.
On the third floor of the Maianga Building lives Little Daddy, a boy who spends his days searching for his lost mother. On the fourth floor lives Nga Nelucha and her husband Edú, a man with such a large hernia on his left testicle that he practically has to fight off international researchers who want to study it. And on the sixth floor lives Odonato, a grief-stricken father who lives with his wife, Xilisbaba; their daughter, Amarelinha; and Granma Kunjikise.
For the most part, Transparent City follows Odonato as he wanders the streets of Luanda searching for Ciente-the-Grand, his mortally wounded son. As Odonato’s search proves fruitless and he begins to lose hope, his body starts to turn transparent. Meanwhile, life in the aftermath of the Angolan Civil War means living in a Luanda that is unrecognisable from the city he once knew. Odonato stands back and watched as the city’s corrupt politicians and businessmen ignore warnings not to drill into the ground for oil, only to cause a fire than devastates the entire city.
Transparent City is a highly experimental novel, which shifts between perspectives and regularly drifts down tangential narratives. Ondjaki does a brilliant job of characterising Luanda and I was impressed by how deeply he portrays such a large cast of characters. Though Transparent City is unbearably sad—it’s essentially a story about economic collapse and a father’s helpless desperation—it includes moments of great humour.
Ondjaki tends not to use full stops or start his sentences with capital letters, which makes Transparent City read a bit like free verse. Take, for example, this early description of Odonato observing a fire spreading across Luanda:
he saw it grow in the trees and the houses, he remembered childhood games, the fire was made with beautiful lines of gunpowder stolen from his stepfather’s shop, thin, labyrinthine designs, on the ground, then a match setting off the dangerous game until, one day, out of curiosity and determination, he decided to try putting a tiny powder trail in the palm of his left hand, without hesitating, he lit his flesh and the pain—this was the scar than he was running his finger over now while a much bigger fire consumed the city in a gigantic dance of yellows that echoed to the sky
Transcendent City is a clever book that demands the reader’s concentration. I’m sure lots of its subtleties were lost on me but nonetheless, I admire the project of this book and I love that Ondjaki decided to combine realism with a surrealist plotline following Ondjaki as he becomes transparent. The result is an unpredictable, messy, and ultimately very satisfying book.
Transparent City by Ondjaki, translated by Stephen Henighan (Europa Editions, 2021 / Editorial Caminho, 2012)
More books by Angolan authors:
Creole by José Eduardo Agualusa, tr. Daniel Hanh
That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, tr. Eric M.B. Becker
The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso, tr. Angel Gurria-Quintana
Good Morning Comrades by Ondjaki, tr. Stephen Henighan
The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela
Our Musseque by José Luandino Vieira, tr. Robin Patterson
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!
Very interesting and experimental work. Thanks for the review. Also +1 for José Eduardo Agualusa.
i just discovered your substack and i love it already... you’re a very eloquent writer, and i think i’m going to pick up this book now :””)