I was preparing a post about Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani when Miguel popped a comment on The List that took the wind out of my sails. He told me that I should read Paulina Chiziane’s Niketche for Mozambique ‘because it’s a cliché to only read Mia Couto and she needs more attention’.
Horrified at the thought that I might be turning into a literary cliché, I swallowed my reluctance to add yet another book to this year’s tally and googled Chiziane.It took quite a bit of digging before I came across a company called Aflame Books that seemed to have published an English language translation of Niketche. Keen to get hold of a copy, I sent them an email.
A few days later a message came back from translator and company founder Richard Bartlett. He was sorry to say that Aflame Books had gone bust before it managed to publish Niketche and only a third of the book had ever been translated. He was a big fan of Mozambican literature, but the only writer he could think of whose work was available in English was… Mia Couto. He did, however, have an unpublished translation of a novel called Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa if I’d be interested to take a look?
A cursory internet search told me that this Khosa fellow was really rather a big cheese in Mozambican literary circles. Not only had Ualalapi won the 1990 Grand Prize of Mozambican Fiction, it was also included on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century drawn up in 2002. This I had to see.
Told in six installments, partly through the eyes of Nguni warrior Ualalapi, the novel portrays the rise and fall of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, who presided over the region now known as Mozambique until the Portuguese conquered it in the nineteenth century. Graphic and startling, it lays bare the bloody realities of tribal warfare and colonialism, revealing the personal and societal costs of the human desire for power over others.
Myth-making is a big theme. Delighting in unpacking Ngungunhane’s national significance as a symbol of resistance against imperialism, Khosa plays conflicting accounts of the leader off against one another. Charismatic and ruthless, Ngungunhane remains something of an enigma, driven by the impossible longing to be ‘the first protagonist and the only one that History will record while men will be on the earth’.
This running preoccupation makes his final speech before he boards his captors’ ship, in which he envisages the horrors of the colonial and post-colonial eras and imagines the Portuguese forcing children ‘to speak of my death and call me criminal and cannibal’, all the more striking. He exits the narrative to take up his place alongside Oedipus, King Lear and Okonkwo as one of the world’s towering tragic heroes.
Some fantastical events add to the novel’s mythic quality: from the woman whose menstrual blood floods a village, to the strange prophesies that come to pass. These are expressed with lively and at times wonderfully earthy imagery. So we hear of the gossiping servants leaving a house ‘with bags full of words that they were throwing to the wind’ and the shrugging acceptance that no-one is perfect: ‘who is the man who has not snot in his nose?’
Being one of the few people ever to read this powerful classic in English was a huge privilege. It felt like getting a glimpse through a keyhole into a locked garden full of astonishing plants flourishing out of my reach. It made me sad to think of all we must miss in our little English-language bubble and angry that Mozambican literature in so commonly spoken a language as Portuguese is not more widely translated and read.
I am very grateful to Richard Bartlett for sharing the manuscript and to Miguel for forcing me to raise my game. What other Mozambican literature should be translated into English? Leave a comment and let me know.
Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (translated from the Portuguese by Isaura de Oliveira and Richard Bartlett). First published by Associacao dos Escritores Mocambicanos (1987)