Mozambique: uncharted territory

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 He did, however, have an unpublished translation of a novel called Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa if I’d be interested to take a look?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)

Cape Verde: where there’s a will…

There can be few more fertile topics for a story than the reading of a will. For writers such as George Eliot and Henry James — to name but two — revealing how a deceased character has distributed his or her belongings is fraught with possibilities for drama, intrigue and dastardliness.

Often such scenes form the foundation for satire on the hypocrisy of families and the hollowness of human relationships, as professions of love and loyalties are stripped away to reveal naked greed. But it’s rare that these lampoons once rigged up are then dismantled to reveal the depth and subtlety that Cape Verdian writer and lawyer Germano Almeida achieves in this slender book.

Teetering on the grotesque at points, the narrative begins with the shock revelation that Senhor Napumoceno da Silva Araújo, a staid and respectable businessman in São Vicente, has left his warehouse empire to his previously unheard of lovechild rather than the nephew whose hard work and innovation helped him build it up. The discovery comes at the end of the reading of the 387-page will the tycoon has left to explain himself, and upon which the rest of the book is largely based.

What follows is a riotous, witty and at times anarchic account of da Silva Araújo’s life, which straddles the archipelago’s break from Portuguese rule in 1975. Told in a lively voice that roams in and out of characters’ thoughts, dipping between registers as it goes, the novel reads like a good gossip with the town’s best storyteller — one who has an eye for the ridiculous and makes no bones about dishing the dirt on his contemporaries’ ‘hanky-panky’ and hollow airs and graces.

Occasionally the fluid structure can make the narrative tricky to follow. Zooming between the near and distant past, with dialogue represented in the midst of the description as a kind of half-digested reported speech, and paragraphs that often stretch over several pages, the text has a breathless, chaotic feel.

Almeida knows what he’s doing though: pulling together the threads like a craftsman erecting a ship in a bottle, he reveals da Silva Araújo’s character in all its wistful complexity. The ending is extraordinarily poignant. Vulnerable, pathetic and yet somehow noble, Senhor da Silva Araújo quietly assumes the stature of the tragic hero — drawing on a legacy that stretches back to Miller, Shakespeare, Sophocles and Aeschylus, and yet is all his own.

The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida (translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser). Publisher (this edition): New Directions