Monday, 13 February 2012

José Luandino Vieira: Luuanda

I begin my participation in the African Reading Challenge with a reading of Luuanda.

Luuanda is a short-story collection and was published in 1963, in Lisbon. It received several awards, including the Portuguese Society of Writers’ award for best novella, in 1965. For this reason the PSW was closed down, its facilities destroyed by the police and the jury arrested. The award given to this book had a political tinge, not that that removes any artistic merit from the book. But ‘political choice’ always has negative connotations. It’s always seen as a decision that honours circumstances exterior to the artist. And more often than not they’re safe decisions. Last year many predicted the Syrian poet Adonis would win the Nobel Prize because of the Arab Spring: I’m sure he deserves it, I like his poems, but it would have been a politically correct choice. Salman Rushdie will never win the Nobel Prize because it’s not politically correct: the Swedes don’t want a terrorist blowing himself up in the streets of Stockholm.

Giving a prize to the author of Luuanda wasn’t just politically incorrect, it was in fact a very brave decision because the jury was aware of the dangers inherent to it. By 1965, Portugal was a dictatorship fighting a war with its colony Angola, which intended to become an independent state. The author, José Luandino Vieira, was a political enemy who had already been arrested in 1959 and again in 1961, and was serving a sentence in Tarrafal, a prison camp on an island off Cape Verde which was used to detain political prisoners. Furthermore, the book was very bold and honest in the way it depicted the suffering and injustice the Angolans endured at the hands of the white colonists. It’s worth bearing in mind that at the time the word colonial couldn’t even be printed in newspapers. Luuanda was a thorn in the government’s side because it openly showed what was really going on in Angola.

But before we look at the book, a few biographical words are in order. José Luandino Vieira is the pseudonym of José Mateus Vieira da Graça, born in Portugal in 1935. At the age of three his parents took him to Luanda, in Angola, where he grew up and studied. A luandino is, of course, a citizen of Luanda, an unambiguous choice of literary name that shows his complete identification with his adoptive country.

In 1972, two years before Portugal became a democracy again, Luandino Vieira left prison. Angola became independent in 1975. He became an Angolan citizen. He also fought in the ranks of the MPLA, the guerrilla movement that fought the Portuguese army (another writer, Pepetela, was also a member of the MPLA) and later became the main political party. He was deeply involved in post-war activities, mostly associated with culture; perhaps the most significant being the creation of Angola’s Writers Union, of which he was a co-founder. Luandino Vieira intended this institution to offer writers some autonomy. Although independent, Angola wasn’t a democracy. The MPLA, a party with Marxist-Leninist tendencies and backed up by Russia and Cuba (a reality often portrayed in Pepetela’s novels; and anyone who’s ever read Ondjaki’s Good Morning Comrades will remember the young protagonist’s Cuban teacher), seized power and became the only legal party, causing disputes with other parties, namely UNITA, which led to a decades-long civil war.

The civil war lasted until 1991, when a truce was declared. In 1992 there were elections but the results were questioned by UNITA and the hostilities resumed (the civil war finally ended in 2002). In the same year Luandino Vieira returned to Portugal and exiled himself in a farm, where he continues to write. The last time he published a book was in 2009.

Like I wrote before, when he composed Luuanda, Angola was at war with Portugal and the book was an act of political engagement. But I’d like to make it clear Luandino Vieira wasn’t writing propaganda and didactic works (not that I oppose them if they have aesthetic merit). The author found a more interesting, provocative and literary means of fighting. The problem for him was that Angola didn’t have an identity since it lived in the shadow of Portuguese culture. Thus, the author, who was familiar with the works of the Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa (often compared to James Joyce), decided to create a unique literary language for Angola, which possessed the rhythms of oral storytelling, and mixed Portuguese with Kimbundu, the original language of Angola. It was revolutionary. No one before him had done something similar. A great contemporary of his, the Mozambican Luis Bernardo Honwana, author of We Killed Mangy-Dog (1964), offers a contrast. Honwana wrote in a classic and polished register, European in style, indistinguishable from Portuguese literature. (I don’t intend this as a criticism of Honwana, who was an important writer too). But when one reads Luandino Vieira, there’s an initial moment of disconcertion, a need to adapt. At first his prose seems sloppy, grammatically incorrect, and ungraceful. But then one starts falling in love with the unpredictable tone of the narrative. Luandino Vieira didn’t want his book to be understood by the Portuguese, in order to make a statement on autonomy. (In 2006 he received the Camões Prize, the highest honour a Portuguese-speaking writer can receive). But today his style resounds in the works of Pepetela and Ondjaki (Angola), Mia Couto and Paulina Chiziane (Mozambique), and Germano Almeida (Cape Verde), making him one of the most influential African writers of the 20th century.

But what’s Luuanda exactly?

Like I wrote before, it’s a collection of three stories that take place in the musseque (slum) of Sambizanga, Luanda. They’re stories about poor people dealing with hunger, poverty, racism and injustice resulting from colonialism, while dealing with universal problems like loyalty, love, family and duty:

"Grandma Xíxi and Her Grandson Zeca Santos” is about an elder who can predict the rain and her grandson, an unemployed young man who’s proud and ashamed of his poverty and envies white men’s money.

"The Tale of the Thief and the Parrot" opens with three men meeting in prison – the cripple Garrido, the duck-stealing Dosreis, and an older prisoner, the voice of reason in jail (one of the book’s main themes is how age equals wisdom) – and then fragments into smaller narratives to explain how they got to be in jail.

“The Tale of the Chicken and the Egg” closes the book with an absurd dispute over a chicken who moves from backyard to backyard laying its eggs; who owns the egg? The chicken’s owner or the owner of the backyard where it lays the eggs?

These stories are connected by recurring themes: there’s for instance poverty. Grandma Xixi and Zeca Santos are poor and they resort to eating grass, flowers and roots to stave off hunger; Dosreis steals ducks to feed his family; and the neighbours bicker over the chicken and its egg because an egg represents a meal and the difference between life and death. The war and the political instability are also frequently hinted at: able men are absent from the story; they’re in prison, for “terrorism,” a vague word in the novel’s context that seems to cover any crimes the law decides to accuse them of. Then there’s also the disproportionate power between the colonist and the natives: the money and jobs are in the hands of the white; corporal punishment is enforced arbitrarily. In this society there’s no justice: Zeca Santos, for instance, in order to get a job must pay a fee to a fellow Angolan, showing it’s a dog-eat-dog world where not even race ethnicity has meaning; and the authorities are at liberty to seize any goods, like the chicken and the egg.

The egg is of course a metaphor for the greed of the colonists, who want the chicken and the egg, or Angola’s resources (a country rich in diamonds and oil), while the people live in abject misery. The dispute becomes a community problem and not even Bebeca, the elder, can find a solution to it. So she seeks advice from the white men (a symbol of lack of autonomy and identity, and also a sign of submission to the ‘wiser’ colonists), only to find their lack of concern for the natives: a landlord claims that the egg belongs to him since the backyard where the chicken laid the egg is his land; when the dispute escalates and the authorities are called to intervene, they try to confiscate the chicken on the grounds of illegal gathering – the law stated that only two people could gather at a time; more was a crime. There’s also a funny critique of an assimilado (or assimilated: an Angolan who received a special status if he proved he could speak and write correct Portuguese, had a job and adopted the colonists’ culture and laws), who worked for a notary and tries to settle the dispute using the complicated legal system, only to fail because it has no application in Angolan culture.

In spite of the misery, the book’s tone is ironic and light-hearted. Luandino Vieira is not a preachy writer. To the political ill-ease he adds a sense of dissatisfaction derived from the human condition – sexual problems, frustrated ambitions, dreams, and absurd situations, like Garrido feeling envious of the parrot of the woman he loves and being arrested for trying to kidnap it; or the story of the egg, which in spite of its political subtext, is written with lots of humour. And although there’s pessimism, the author also shows some hope for a better future, as symbolised by the children who help solve the egg’s dilemma.

Luuanda is very well told, with an oral style that remembers a storyteller telling a story around a campfire: it’s digressive, it shifts perspectives, and it doesn’t presume to be completely true. “This is the truth, even if these cases never happened,” the narrator warns us once. What matters is that their emotional resonance be true. Fans of Gabriel García Márquez will certainly enjoy the work of Luandino Vieira.

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