“A Practical Guide to Levitation”

José Eduardo Agualusa (trans. Daniel Hahn)

July 26, 2023 
The following is from José Eduardo Agualusa's A Practical Guide to Levitation. His novel Creole was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature. He and his translator, Daniel Hahn, won the 2017 Dublin Literary Award for A General Theory of Oblivion and in 2019, he won Angola's most prestigious literary prize, the National Prize for Culture and Arts.

I don’t like parties. The idle chat, the smoke, the fatuous talk of drunks. I find them all tiresome. Plastic plates annoy me even more. And plastic cutlery. And plastic cups. I’m served roasted rabbit on a plastic plate, forced to eat it with plastic cutlery, on my lap because there’s no more room at the table. Inevitably the knife breaks. The meat is thrown onto my trousers. I spill my wine. Besides which, I can’t stand rabbit. I make a great effort not to be noticed, but there’s always some woman who at a given moment pulls at my arms –“let’s dance!” – and off I go, crawling along behind her, stunned by the shrill dissonance of the perfume and the volume of the music. At the end of the number – somewhat humiliated because, I confess, I’ve got two left feet – I pour myself a whisky, with a lot of ice, someone shakes me – what’s up, pal, something annoy you? and I, forcing a smile, forcing myself to burst out laughing, like the rest of the crowd – what, me? annoyed? What could have annoyed me? the need to be jolly calls to me, and I shout back, “I’m coming, I’m coming,” and return to the dance floor, and pretend to be dancing, pretend to be happy, leaping to the right, leaping to the left, until they’ve forgotten I’m there.

That night I was almost at that point of being forgotten when I noticed a tall figure, dressed all in white, like a lily, white hair flowing loose over his shoulders, with a serious expression, circling the cod pasties. The man seemed to be there by mistake. At once I thought this man must be as abandoned as I was. He could have been me, but for the clothes, as I never wear white. White doesn’t really suit my line of work. Bright colors still less. I follow tradition, and dress in black. I approached the man, with the solidarity of a fellow castaway, and held out my hand.

“I’m Whoever,” I said to him,“I sell coffins.”

The man’s hand was limp and pale in mine. There was a vague, dark shine to his eyes, like a moonlit lake. Most people are unable to hide their shock, or their laughter, depending on the circumstances, when they hear the word “coffins.” Some of them hesitate. You sell coffee? No, I correct them, coffins. This man, however, was unperturbed.

“There’s no such thing as a real name,” he replied, with a thick Pernambuco accent. “But you can call me Emmanuel Subtle.”

This was in Rio de Janeiro, in Jardim Botânico. His accent was as dislocated as mine, maybe even more so. Almost ridiculous.

“And what do you do?” “I teach . . . ”

“Ah, really? What do you teach?”

Emmanuel Subtle shook back his hair distractedly. “Levitation.”


“You know – levitation – a psychic, animist, spiritualist phenomenon where someone or something is raised from the ground for no apparent cause but merely through the power of the mind. The mind mobilizes ectoplasmic fluids that are capable of overpowering gravity. I teach levitation techniques. Without wires or any other base tricks.”

“Interesting! Interesting!” I replied, buying myself time to think. “And do you have many students?”

The man gave me a serious smile; no, he didn’t. Not a lot of people are interested in levitating nowadays. These are sad times. The triumph of materialism has corrupted everything. There really isn’t much vocation for spiritual work anymore. Not much vocation, nor much mind-power, I suggested timidly. Right, Emmanuel Subtle agreed, shaking back his white hair again, nor much mind-power. People prefer to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. And did he himself levitate? I wanted to know. That is, did he practice this forgotten art often? Emmanuel Subtle smiled, engrossed:

“Not a day goes by that I don’t. Levitation, my dear sir, is the most complete of exercises. Five minutes suspended, first thing in the morning, at the crack of dawn, will stimulate all your vital organs and revive your soul.”

Sometimes he even found himself levitating by accident. He told me how Saint José of Cobertino – who lived from 1603 to 1663 – used to suffer sudden attacks of weightlessness whenever something moved him. Terrified, he would call these episodes “my dizzy spells.” One Sunday during Mass he was abruptly elevated into the void and for several long minutes hovered anxiously over the altar, amid the sharp candle flames and the howls of the devout, and was severely burned. The church made him stay away from all public rites for thirty-five years as a result of these extravagant tendencies, but even this didn’t prevent his fame from spreading. One evening, as the holy man wandered the monastery gardens in the company of a Benedictine monk, a gust of wind dragged him suddenly up to the topmost branches of an olive tree. Unfortunately, he – like cats and balloons – turned out to have a great propensity for getting up there, and none at all for getting back down, and he had to be rescued by the monks with the help of a stepladder. I murmured something about the mystical calling of olive trees and the tendencies they’ve demonstrated over centuries for attracting demiurges and saints. Emmanuel Subtle ignored my observation. The Saint José of Cobertino case, he explained, served to illustrate the dangers involved in a lay person – even one supremely talented – practicing the art of levitation without the presence of a master.

“Would you put a Ferrari in the hands of a child? Of course not!”

I agreed at once. And, God, naturally I wouldn’t trust myself with one either!

“Levitation is not for just anyone,” Emmanuel Subtle continued, over-enunciating each word.“Levitation requires faith, perseverance, and something else besides: responsibility. Would you like to try?”

And then he set out his terms. Four hundred reais a month. Four times a week, an hour and a half per session. Naturally, he added, there was no chance of seeing any results before the third or fourth month.

“And if there are no results at all?”

Emmanuel Subtle reassured me. In three months, properly guided, even an elephant could levitate. And even if I proved myself as bad a levitator as I was a dancer (only then did I realize he had spent the entire evening observing me), he would give me a push himself. He cited the story of the famous English medium, Daniel Douglas Home, who in the thirties challenged the traditional British sangfroid by making pianos and other heavy objects float. One evening – so the story goes – he brought an ox into the ballroom of a rich industrialist, and lifted it up clean into the air. There the ox was, right up there with the chandeliers – high up and brightly lit – when for some reason, through some distraction or a temporary fading of his faith, he (the medium) lost his strength, the channels of ectoplasmic fluid broke, and the animal hurtled down with a brutal din, down onto two of his attendants.

“Did they die?”

“What do you think?” He sighed. “Aeronautical history is full of tragedies, some small, some great. But that doesn’t stop us taking airplanes.”

I turned down his invitation. The party was coming to an end. An old black man, who had once been very famous as a footballer, was dancing alone, tears in his eyes, set apart from the music – we’ll call it music, a mixture of car alarms – hoarse and weary – and wrenching metal. Two very blonde, very languid girls were on a sofa sleeping in each other’s arms. I knew no one. No one knew me.

“But I wonder whether perhaps you know anyone who offers invisibility classes? Now that’s something I would be interested in.” Emmanuel Subtle looked at me with disdain. He didn’t reply.

And from the entrance hall, as I chose a suitably discreet umbrella – to go with my line of work – from a wet mass of them, I could see the Brazilian making his way through the thick smoke and collapsing onto the sofa, beside the two blonde girls. I saw him close his eyes. He crossed his arms over his thin chest. He seemed to be smiling. I’ve met some rather odd people at these parties. You can find anything here. The strangest occupations. I know, of course, that this just depends on your point of view. I, for example, sell coffins. My father sold coffins. My grandfather sold coffins. I grew up with it. To me it seems even prosaic. I know I would prefer to give levitation classes. But too bad. I can console myself with the knowledge that death is the best trade to be in. As my grandfather used to say, there’s only one thing that worries me: immortality.


From A Practical Guide to Levitation by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated Daniel Hahn. Used with permission of the publisher, Archipelago Books. Copyright © 2023 by José Eduardo Agualusa, English copyright © 2023 by Daniel Hahn. 

More Story
When Predator Becomes Prey: Why Sharks Need Protection From Humans The summer of 1983 was hot. By Labor Day, the northern plains were begging for federal aid during the worst drought since...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.