Saturday, 28 March 2020

The Society of Reluctant Dreamers by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

The Society of Reluctant Dreamers by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
First published in Portuguese in 2017. English language translation by Daniel Hahn first published by Harvill Secker on the 29th August 2019, republished by Archipelago Press on the 20th March 2020.

One of my Books With a Vegetarian Character challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While swimming in the clear blue waters of the Rainbow Hotel, Daniel Benchimol finds a waterproof camera, floating seemingly lost in the sea. He goes on to discover that the camera belongs to Moira, a Mozambican artist famous for a series of photos depicting her own dreams. On seeing the images, Daniel realises that Moira is also the mysterious woman whom he has been dreaming about repeatedly. The two meet, and Daniel becomes involved in a unusual dream experiment with a Brazilian neuroscientist, who's working with Moira on a machine to film and photograph people’s dreams.

Meanwhile, Daniel’s daughter Karinguiri, one of Angola’s young dreamers, is arrested along with six friends for staging a protest during a presidential press conference in Luanda. The group go on hunger strike, attracting worldwide press attention, showing the power of young people when they raise their voices against the regime.

The Society of Reluctant Dreamers is a surreal, vivid novel about the slipperiness of truth and reality, art versus dictatorship, courage versus fear, change and the old order, amidst the politics of Angola's tumultuous past, present and future.

The Society of Reluctant Dreamers in a beautifully bewildering novel in which I found it frequently difficult to be entirely sure what was real, what was imagined, and what was dreamed. Agualusa explores the psychological damage caused by war, colonialism and oppression on characters who, at first glance, seem very different, but who find themselves linked by the surrealist device of finding themselves involuntarily featuring in each other's dreams. I felt that The Society of Reluctant Dreamers had more in common with the magical realism genre of novels and I loved Agualusa's richly detailed prose style. Dreams might be shown in the sense of dreaming whilst asleep, or daydreaming while awake, or having aspirational dreams for the future.

I was interested in discussions of identity throughout this story. At one point characters talk about whether embracing a new country's culture does actually change one's national identity which is a question I frequently encounter in my WorldReads project. Language is another factor of identity and it was interesting to see how, despite Angola's eventual independence from Portuguese domination, the effects of European colonialism still linger through the official use of the Portuguese language, links with other formerly Portuguese colonies such as Brazil and Mozambique being stronger for Angolans than links to, say, English or French-speaking nations. Agualusa also explores how much one's past influences one's present and future life. Can people truly atone for their past actions, and to what extent can children escape the effects of decisions made by their parents' generations.

The Society of Reluctant Dreamers is an impressive onion of a book! I enjoyed reading it initially at one level and, now, the more I think back over the story the more concepts I find myself wrangling with. Agualusa has a real depth to his writing, yet I didn't feel myself getting bogged down in Deep Truths as I read. I think The Society of Reluctant Dreamers can be appreciated as an insightful novel of human behaviours and connections with Angola's violent past providing a particularly unique base from which to contemplate and understand this tale.

Etsy Find!
by Infinite Mantra in
Alberta, Canada

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Books by Jose Eduardo Agualusa / Contemporary fiction / Books from Angola


  1. I could use a few four star reads in my life! Reading isn't coming easy at the moment!

    1. I've been pretty lucky recently. The lowest has been a three star which is still pretty good

  2. This sounds like it would be such an interesting read... I would be so fascinated to experience the unknown of what is real or imagined, and I think it sounds like that contributes well to the heavy themes this one tackles. Indentity is one of my favourite themes to read about it books as well.

    1. Agualusa explores ideas of identity so well. I hadn't real any Angolan work before so appreciated how this country's history gave the writing its own particular flavour