Book review - Transparent City

Following independence in 1975, Angola endured years of civil war, ending in 2002. In the move to market capitalism, José Eduardo dos Santos, who was head of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and leader of the country for 38 years until 2017, amassed a personal fortune by exploiting the nation’s oil wealth. While the country’s elite were enriched by this process, most Angolans now live on less than $2 a day. 

Born in Luanda, the capital city, Ondjaki is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, children’s fiction and film scripts. Reminiscent of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2002), Ondjaki’s state-of-the-nation novel Transparent City (originally published in Portuguese in 2009) focuses on the inhabitants of a dilapidated apartment block, the Maianga Building. 

In a fragment from the author’s note we learn: 
it was a building, maybe a world . . .  

the species advances, kills, progresses, disappoints, remains: humanity is ugly — it wears the marks of its long suffering and has a fetid smell, but it endures 

 because deep down humanity is good 

In one part of the block an anonymous family grill fish in the hallway and host “merry lunch parties doused with chilled red wine”. Another floor enjoys a constant supply of water from the burst mains in a city suffering from a shortage. Neighbours refer to each other as comrade, elder or kid. Some are defined by their profession, others by their actions. They include a car washer and a journalist, civil servants, street entrepreneurs and their families. The residents are visited by tax inspectors, former militia members, a seller of seashells and a long-suffering mailman, who writes endless letters to the authorities requesting they provide him with simple transportation. 

 At the novel’s heart is Odonato, a former civil servant, desperate to find his son, Ciente-the-Grand, a petty thief who has been shot and is reportedly in police custody. Odonato recognises that those in power have brought Luanda to its knees. He feels the pain of his fellow citizens and, in a magical-realist twist, finds himself becoming transparent, his body fading away, increasingly weightless. “we’re transparent because we’re poor,” he tells his wife. “i figure the city is speaking through my body . . . ” he tells a journalist. 

As well as following the lives of ordinary folk, struggling to get by, Ondjaki portrays the laughable and tragic mismanagement of the ruling class. The city’s officials are in a constant state of inebriation as they dream of the money to be made from hitting “black gold” or privatising Luanda’s precious water. 

Ondjaki deftly evokes the collusion of corrupt politicians and businessmen . . . Everyone, it seems, is on the make Ondjaki deftly evokes the collusion of corrupt politicians and businessmen: “whatever one of them understood about opening doors, the other knew about financial strategy, and if one of them immersed himself in national political intrigues, the other became a distinguished analyst of the nation’s economy.” Everyone, it seems, is on the make. When the police can’t extract a bribe, they demand home-cooked meals. 

Ondjaki imagines an apocalyptic future caused by rampant corruption, and Transparent City opens and closes with Luanda engulfed in flames. Stephen Henighan’s translation from the Portuguese is no mean feat. Overlapping prose and loose punctuation give a vivid sense of humanity in constant motion, while elements of the surreal are interwoven through the narrative. It’s an audacious, highly original novel; a challenging, but rewarding read.

Originally published by the FT