Mia Couto is a white Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, perhaps the most prominent of his generation of writers – he is 50 this year – in Lusophone Africa. His recurring theme is post-revolutionary Mozambique’s struggle to achieve credible nationhood; specifically, to channel its resources in such a way as to benefit its people rather than its apparatchiks. Couto’s revolutionary credentials are intriguingly chequered. His medical studies in Maputo were interrupted when he was called by Frelimo to act as a journalist in the run up to independence in 1974-75; he went back to university at the age of 30. While the country was being mauled by civil war, Couto was studying biology. He went on to publish his first collection of short stories, Vozes Anoitecidas (Voices Made Night), in 1986 and his first novel, Terra Sonâmbula (‘Sleepwalking Land’), in 1992, the year a peace agreement with Renamo ended the fighting. Couto had, in the interim, served as the director of the Mozambique Information Agency. He continues to work as an environmental biologist – less tangential to his career as a writer than it might appear.
Couto has been criticised by the Marxist Mozambican poet Rui Nogar for ‘not serving the Revolution’ and for having the temerity, as an ‘urbanite’, to write about a ‘povo’ to which he doesn’t belong. But his great strength as a chronicler of emerging nationhood is his avoidance of ideological earnestness. In any case, it seems appropriate that he should use fantasy to explore a reality that is already a grotesque and often implausible complex of war, famine, brutality, poverty and bureaucratic perks. O Último Voo do Flamingo (The Last Flight of the Flamingo), the second of Couto’s novels to be translated into English, is set in the tiny imaginary town of Tizangara, where ‘the only facts are supernatural ones.’ The first paragraph, with its mixture of the bizarre and the everyday, establishes the tone:
To put it crudely and rudely, here’s what happened: a severed penis was found right there on the trunk road just outside Tizangara. A large organ on the loose. The locals stood thunderstruck at their discovery. Folk turned up from all around. A ring of people thickened around the object. I was there too, at the rear end of the crowd, standing more in than out. Here’s my advice: behind is where you get the best view.
The civil war has recently ended, but as the narrator – a nameless everyman, known as ‘the translator of Tizangara’ – points out, the benefits to the man in the street have been few, since ‘we hadn’t understood the war, and now we didn’t understand the peace.’ As if to underscore this confusion, a number of competing voices jostle for attention: the translator gives his account of events, while the conjectures and observations of the Tizangaran community come in the shape of recorded statements, fragments of taped interviews, assorted letters, and the odd proverb, ranging from the mock sententious – ‘It’s the darkness that dresses the hippopotamus’ – to the disturbingly evocative: ‘Does a dog lick its wounds? Or is it death, by means of an open sore, that kisses the puppy on the mouth?’
The different voices create a patchwork narrative in which time is malleable, and the facts of the case become slippery. For this, as the opening suggests, is a whodunnit. Six members of the UN peace-keeping force have apparently exploded into thin air, leaving only their penises behind. Speculation is rife as to the cause: is it political intrigue, witchcraft, murder, or punishment by the nation’s ancestors? In spite of the comedy, the book is suffused by a sense of foreboding, a fear that corruption and abuse will bring retribution. In the rural areas around Tizangara, it is rumoured that ‘the land is going to burn because of the government leaders who don’t respect traditions and don’t observe ceremonies in honour of their ancestors.’ The mood of alienation is summed up by the translator when he says that ‘our ancestors look at us as if we were strangers. And when they see us, they no longer recognise us.’ Although the country is gradually being cleared of landmines, it is still mined from within, having failed to rebuild its power structures in the aftermath of colonialism, Marxism and state paternalism. This stems partly from a failure to relocate a sense of self that can cope with the globalised world while remaining in tune with traditional attitudes: ‘What those whites did was to occupy us. It wasn’t just the land: they occupied our very selves, they set up camp right inside our heads.’
The chief representative of a class of newly rich indigenous leaders who ‘take a lot and give a little’ is the local administrator, Estêvão Jonas. Jonas is making up for the lean years. He has ‘diverted’ an ambulance sent by a relief project so that his stepson might make ‘a bit of money’ in what the administrator calls ‘the transport business’ (i.e. drug smuggling). The army is busy slaughtering goats for a visiting minister to take back to the capital: ‘Apparently, goats are no longer allowed on board planes. But when it comes to people in government, exceptions can always be made, isn’t that so?’ The poor are a burden, not least because they have fallen through the lexical cracks: ‘It’s hard working with the proletariat. I don’t even know what to call them anymore: the proletariat, the people, the population, the local communities. One big headache, these poor folk, if it weren’t for them, our task would be easier.’ In his lucid moments, Jonas is humiliatingly aware that in adopting a new fiscal and political philosophy, he and his fellow bureaucrats have undergone a change only in accident, not in essence: ‘We were socialist tricksters,’ he observes, ‘and now we’re tricked capitalists.’
Couto adroitly captures the chaos and comedy of an abrupt and externally imposed shift in ideologies. No one gets off lightly. As the UN troops roll in, ‘the people’, ‘somewhat confused with regard to the current times’, display banners saying: ‘Welcome to our Soviet comrades! Long live the internationalism of the proletariat!’ A prostitute is sententiously quizzed by the foreign delegation, in a hilarious parody of liberal do-goodism, about ‘her participation in sustainable development projects’ and ‘her work within the community’. The UN investigation is led by a practical but po-faced Italian, Massimo Risi, whose name, roughly translated, is bastardised Portuguese for ‘utterly ridiculous’. Much of the comedy of the book comes from the clash between two radically different ways of conceiving the world, and their corresponding linguistic anomalies. Arriving at the town’s only guesthouse one afternoon, Risi asks: ‘Could you tell me how many stars this establishment has?’ The proprietor replies: ‘My good sir: at this hour, we haven’t any stars here.’ What’s more, there is no water in the taps:
‘Don’t worry, my dear sir: first thing in the morning, we’ll bring you a can of water.’
‘And where does this water come from?’
‘The water doesn’t come from anywhere: it’s a boy who brings it.’
The narrative shifts nimbly through a range of registers, from supple wordplay to lyricism. The dolled-up administrator’s wife ‘exhibited more rings than Saturn’. Death is described with brilliant economy as ‘the narrowest of balconies’; the rural poor of Mozambique are ‘the country with its ribcage on show’. Neologisms suggest the bombastic language of bureaucracy: doubts are ‘voxpopulated’, orders ‘spontaneified’, someone arrives ‘envehicled’. David Brookshaw’s dexterity achieves a seemingly effortless fit with Couto’s idiosyncrasies. A virginal heiress, Temporina, ‘hadn’t been legged over, but at least she was worth a legacy’; the ex-Marxist Jonas calls his black market deals ‘my privatised preoccupations’; a broken love affair is summed up as ‘one of those neverlasting loves’. This is the sort of elegant idiomatic transposition that can make or break a translation.
It would be all too easy to identify the novel as a latecomer to the stable of magic realism, but it’s more complex than that. Couto has used multiple narrators before: in Terra Sonâmbula, a young boy reads from the diaries of a dead man found in a burnt-out bus; Varanda do Frangipani (published in English translation as Under the Frangipani in 2001) is narrated by a living police inspector and the spirit visitor who occupies his body as a secret guest; the as yet untranslated Um Rio Chamado Tempo, Uma Casa Chamada Terra (‘A River Called Time, A House Called Land’) is narrated by a boy whose grandfather, hovering between life and death, asserts himself in an act of ventriloquism – or automatic writing – whenever his grandson puts pencil to paper. Couto may owe a debt to Latin America, but a greater influence is an African view of the world in which the boundaries between the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural, are not so much blurred as irrelevant. Anyone who has grown up in Africa will be familiar with the injunction never to kill a praying mantis. ‘A praying mantis wasn’t just any old insect,’ the narrator of The Last Flight of the Flamingo explains. ‘It was an ancestor visiting the living . . . Killing it could be a bad omen.’ The order of the supernatural includes Temporina, who is punished for her refusal to marry by being given the body of a desirable young woman and the face of an old crone; and the casual habit of the narrator’s father, Sulplício, of taking all the bones out of his body before sleeping, and hanging them on the branches of a nearby tree: ‘Afterwards, devoid of his inner frame, he grew flaccid, dissolving onto the ground. There he remained, spread out and lifeless, like some sighing mass, or a shapeless sponge. His jaws were the only bones he kept. For talking, as he explained later. In case he had to shout, to summon help urgently.’ Here, as so often in Couto’s writing, it is the deadpan conflation of casually plausible and completely absurd details – ‘his jaws were the only bones he kept. For talking’ – that convinces. It is a way of seeing the world for which there is no precise equivalent, and no corresponding language, in the Western literary or philosophical tradition. ‘Underneath the material basis of the world, there must be artisan forces we can’t even account for,’ the hapless administrator says. ‘How could one reconcile the explanation for such a thing in the context of current ideas? Or even according to the old Marxist-Leninist conjuncture?’
Couto’s work as an environmentalist is relevant here. The flamingo’s flight of the novel’s title alludes to a fable told to the narrator by his mother, to explain the rising and setting of the sun: ‘For her, it was the flamingos that pushed the sun so that day could begin on the other side of the world.’ Remembering the origins of the novel, Couto said on accepting the Mario Antonio Prize for the book:
In the summer of 1998, walking along a beach in the south of Mozambique, I came across the feather of a flamingo floating across the sand. The local fishermen had told me that, in days gone by, flocks of flamingos nested in that area. For some time, however, they had not come. Meanwhile, the fishermen still awaited a visit from those scrawny angels of the wind. In the tradition of that place, the flamingos are the eternal harbingers of hope.
Couto uses the flamingos’ desertion of their traditional nesting places as a correlative for the nation’s misery and despair (pena, the Portuguese word for ‘feather’, also means ‘pain’). The concluding chapter of The Last Flight of the Flamingo picks up the metaphor and incorporates it in a spectacular set piece that represents, as Couto explains, ‘a lack of a completely whole land, an extreme theft of hope committed by the ruthlessness of the powerful’. Risi and the narrator wake up one morning to find that Mozambique has been swallowed up by a huge abyss. ‘There is no land left, no people, and even the very ground has evaporated into an immense chasm.’ Sulplício explains that this is the work of the gods, who have punished the country for its failures in governance by turning it into a nation of ‘non-beings’:
The same thing had happened in other lands in Africa. The fate of nations had been entrusted to the ambitious, who governed like hyenas, only thinking about getting fat fast . . . Seeing that there was no solution, the gods decided to transport those countries to the skies that can be found in the depths of the earth . . . In that place, where nothing had ever made any shade, each country would remain suspended, awaiting a favourable time when they would be able to return to their own ground. At that point, those territories could be nations, with a yearned-for flag stuck in them. Until then, they would be nothing but empty nothingness, a hiccup in time.
Sitting on the edge of the ravine, Risi and the narrator make a paper flamingo from the page on which the Italian’s final report to the secretary-general of the UN is written – this happens on the last page of the book – and launch it into the void. As the paper bird descends, slowly, ‘as if fearing the profundity of its destination’, the narrator settles down to wait until he hears his mother’s song again, and for the diurnal rhythm to begin once more. Uninsistently, the story, too, disappears into the chasm.
Couto is fond of this sort of authorial self-divestment: the spirit narrator of Varanda do Frangipani turns into a tree and loses the power of speech as he is absorbed into the material world, and in Terra Sonâmbula the text merges with the savanna: ‘Spread out by a wind which was born not of the air, but of the very ground, the pages spread out over the road. Then all the letters, one by one, became transformed into grains of sand and, piece by piece, all my writings were being transformed into pages of sand.’
As for those explosions, it turns out that there is a perfectly satisfactory solution to the mystery. Gratifyingly, it also operates – like so much else in the narrative – on two levels, the supernatural as well as the material. It wouldn’t do to reveal the literal solution to a whodunnit, but the supernatural solution can be summed up in one of the ‘sayings from Tizangara’ that pepper the book: ‘That which is not allowed to flower at the right moment ends up exploding later.’