A Severed Penis

Elizabeth Lowry

  • The Last Flight of the Flamingo by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw
    Serpent’s Tail, 179 pp, £9.99, March 2004, ISBN 1 85242 813 9

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?’

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