Stephen Henighan

READ THE WORLD – Angola: Transparent City by Ondjaki

Translated by Stephen Henighan and narrated by Sam Peters.

In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless.

While the blurb focuses on Odonato, really Transparent City is an ensemble book as it follows the many people who live in the apartment block who have connections to it, whether that’s the postman or local politicians and tax inspectors. The male characters are the focus though, with the female characters being cooks, wives, mothers, secretaries and objects of the men’s sexual desire. It’s the men who have pseudo-narrative arcs

Transparent City is such a weird story. There’s the magical realism aspect with Odonato. He slowly becomes more transparent and weightless as he misses his son and he lose hope of seeing him again, or of seeing his city how it used to be. That part, while odd is understandable. It’s a lot of the other things going on with the characters that is confusing and farcical. Confrontations and conversations appear to go around in circles, as they do their best to befuddle whoever they’re talking to with rhetorical questions and agreeing to disagree. It feels like there’s little point to their actions and it’s difficult to gage whether the outcome is in their favour or not.

What is clear in Transparent City is that money talks in Angola and those who have it can pretty much do whatever they want. There’s also corruption and violence. The police will only help people if they are bribed, and the politicians are far removed from the everyday issues an average person may have. There are sparks of goodness and community though. The people who live in the apartment block help each other out, for the most part, and will give what they can to those who need.

I listened Transparent City on audio and to be honest, I found it a struggle to get through. I think that was mostly down to the narrator. There’s a lot of characters in this book, both male and female, and he doesn’t do anything with his voice to differentiate between the characters when they’re talking, or when he’s narrating the narrative. It makes it difficult to follow the story and to distinguish who is who. Also, I think how the book is formatted influences that too as there’s no chapters, instead there’s what I presume to be line breaks when the story goes from one characters point of view to another, but that’s hard to pick up on when listening to the audiobook.

It’s a shame that I didn’t get along with the audiobook, and maybe if I’d physically read the book I might have been able to understand it better, but I do think Transparent City didn’t work for me for reasons beyond the narrator. There often seemed little point to characters actions, and the story itself didn’t seem to have a beginning, middle or end. It was hard to become attached to any of the characters, and there may be somethings in term of the culture and politics of Angola that I didn’t understand or get deeper meanings of, but I should’ve been able to follow the story a lot better than I did.