Ondjaki portrait photo


Ondjaki isn’t actually called Ondjaki. Like most of us, he has a first and last name – it’s Ndalu de Almeida. But he is also, actually, called Ondjaki (which means ‘warrior’ in Umbundu):

“I do feel that it’s my name, because it’s the name my mother had chosen for me before I was born . . . when I published my first book I signed it Ondjaki. And it stuck. So for me, it’s a return to that name, to that person I was supposed to be.”

The Angolan writer was born in 1977 – two years after the country gained its independence from Portugal – and grew up in a country at war. He drew on this experience to write the short stories in Os da minha rua (The people on my street) which won him a prize from the Portuguese Writers’ Association in 2008. Aged sixteen he moved to Lisbon and stayed on to do his undergraduate degree in sociology before moving back to his native Luanda. Now living in Rio de Janeiro, he has over a dozen books published, including collections of poetry,children’s stories and novels.

Speaking at a recent event for lusophone writers he made the distinction between being Portuguese and writing in Portuguese:

“We come to an event like this one and we’re introduced as ‘Africans of Portuguese expression’. No. We might be from Portuguese-language countries in Africa, but we don’t have to be of ‘Portuguese expression’. I’m Angolan, of Angolan expression.”

 Featured Reading group Title:

Os Transparentes (The Transparent Ones)

Os transparentes cover

Os Transparentes (2012) is Ondjaki’s most recent novel. It’s big – over four hundred pages – and brimming with characters, stories and energy. All the characters are linked by a special building in Luanda; an idiosyncratic block of flats with a life of its own.

The book’s title comes from a peculiar condition afflicting one of its many protagonists: Odonato is gradually becoming transparent. Light passes straight through him, and people around him are startled to see his every vein and muscle under his skin. His hunger and his poverty are making him see-through; his sadness and regret for the current state of his country are making him weightless. Around him, teeming Luanda carries on, oblivious and unstoppable. Ondjaki is intent on showing you as much of it as he can in this fast-paced, caustic, generous, funny and heartfelt novel.

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  1. Very much a read of conflicting feelings: for one, the narrative voice is lively, at times energetic, which is attractive, and the observations can surprise – all to the good; for the rest, the “potted history” of the many characters that pop up as we read along bring the flow of the story to a halt, and I’d rather do the work myself, “watch” their behaviour and hear their words.

    The ShellSeller, for instance: I’d rather stay “in the story” and observe him dealing with one, perhaps two, people in real time, rather than being given a long list that I soon began to scan, then skip; and it seemed out of character with the rest of the excerpt.

    Finally there are phrases that read awkwardly (to me), lack the fresh quality of much of the text, and distract me, break the spell a well-wrought story offers; are even cliched. To give an idea, there are the radio batteries that “refused to release energy”; “the diameter of his finger no longer held the wedding ring in place”; “oxygen molecules flooded his heart”; “the occult is like a poem – it arrives at any moment”.

    I’d like to follow the writer’s progress, see how the interesting aspects of his work develop (I now see he’s still young), but I’m doubtful this “long book” will keep my interest.

    P.S. A(nother?) pedantic point: I felt the pronoun letter “I” ought to have been lower case, for consistency.


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