Jose Eduardo Agualusa's novel opens with a sensory rush - the sea throwing travellers back to land, heat, humidity and an odour "not unlike the smell of death and decay". The story, following Vasco da Gama's historical precedent, is structured around a succession of voyages - from Lisbon to Luanda to Paris, Paris to Lisbon, Luanda to Bahia and back again. Agualusa depicts 19th-century Europe's quest for wealth on the cusp of the abolition of slavery.
Carlos Fradique Mendes, a gentleman-adventurer, is both confused and fascinated by Angola when he arrives in 1868. His host is Arcenio de Carpo, from Luanda's "society" of Continental exiles and criminals, who believes passionately in republicanism and liberty and defends slavery. He refuses to succumb to efforts by the British to halt the trade; they want to be spoilers of Brazil's economy. Yet the heir to Arcenio's fortune is a mestico, his son by a black woman from the interior.
Fradique is soon moving in Luanda's highest circles. In letters to his godmother and his old friend Eca de Queiroz (the real-life novelist), he describes his amusement at the lifestyle. There are amateur productions of Shakespeare (spoken with an Italian accent), endless intrigue and unique attractions - for example, the monstrously ugly and foul-smelling Gabriela Santamarinha, once a slave, now a wealthy slave trader.
He becomes involved with Ana OlImpia, daughter of an enslaved Congolese king, but who is now a free woman, married at 14 to the slaver Victorino vaz de Caminha. Victorino has bought her an education in the latest ideas: Bakunin, Proudhon, French poetry. When he dies, she frees her field workers - and becomes richer as a consequence - but will not release her domestic slaves, "because it would be like letting my own family go".
Picaresque adventures ensue: Victorino's estranged brother re-enslaves Ana, he has Arcenio murdered on a hunting trip, a messy duel follows and Fradique, Ana and Arcenio Junior flee to Brazil on board the slave ship Nacao Crioula ("creole nation"). In Bahia, Fradique and Ana purchase an estate and free all their workers, alienating the local landowners. Inevitably, a prominent Bahian hires an assassin to kill Fradique.
Creole is unlike any other epistolary narrative of slavery you will have read; there are no obvious parallels with The Colour Purple, or even with the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano or the letters of Ignatius Sancho. The literary leitmotifs are French. The hybrid tumble of ideas echoes Jorge Amado and the lyricism Camoes, but some sections of the prose are curiously plain. Agualusa's playful dissection of social mores recalls de Queiroz, but he is less mordant, and ultimately more interested in the big story - the path taken by slaves from Portuguese Africa (triangular or square?), the overlaps and ironies of miscegenation. The frame on which he hangs these obsessions is slight, if historically authentic; one wonders what Agualusa would have produced if he had extended his homage by borrowing 19th-century literary structure.
Creole is Agualusa's first novel to be translated into English, a bold choice for Portugal's 1997 Grande Premio Literario RTP. It is a brave, fragmentary fantasy of racial harmony - with rotten notes.