Today I bring not one but three new books. I decided to read in one go the three Mia Couto books I had lingering around at home so I could finally put them on the shelf next to the other Mias. I figured I might as well write a couple of words on him while I’m at it.
António Emílio Leite Couto was born in 1955, the son of Portuguese parents who settled in Mozambique. His nickname Mia comes from his childhood and I’ve read two different origins of it. According to one source, his younger brother didn’t know how to say Emílio and kept calling him Mia. But I’ve never read him confirm this. According to himself, Mia comes from his childhood love for cats (miar = to meow) and it just stuck. Whenever he travels abroad, he once said in an interview, people tend to expect him to be a black woman. Indeed when he was part of a Mozambican delegation sent to Cuba, Fidel Castro’s aides offered him earrings, beads and skirts. A diplomatic cock-up the author still jokes about to this day.
Mia’s father was a journalist and poet, and he followed his footsteps. He published his first poems in a local newspaper at the age of fourteen. In 1972 he started medical school, planning to become a psychiatrist. But due to disenchantment with the profession and at the request of FRELIMO, he dropped out in order to infiltrate the Portuguese media as a sort of disinformation agent. The FRELIMO was the guerrilla group that fought Portugal in the war of independence. Mia was a member from its inception; however he never saw actual combat because the FRELIMO didn’t trust whites enough to hand them guns. Instead he fought for Mozambique’s freedom through politics and information. Becoming a journalist in 1974, he oversaw a network of Mozambican journalists devoted to promote FRELIMO’s war efforts against Portugal. Mia Couto joins the ranks of other important Portuguese-speaking African writers who played a role in the colonies’ independence. In Angola, Luandino Vieira and Pepetela were also members of guerrillas. What’s remarkable is that they all descended from Portuguese people, and yet they never hesitated to risk their lives for their new countries.
After the independence war ended in 1975 he became the director of the Mozambican News Agency (AIM) and worked for the newly-formed government. Then in the 1980s he resumed his studies and took up Biology. In 1983 he published his first book, a poetry collection called Raiz de Orvalho (Dew Root). Since then he’s only published another book of poetry, Tradutor de Chuvas (Translator of Rains, 2011). Today Mia is a professor of ecology at the Eduardo Mondlane University. He also does work for the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. He didn’t completely sever his ties with his journalism and continues to write his crónicas for weekly newspapers, short meditative texts, sometimes autobiographical, or simply concerned with current topics of interest to him. Many of them have been collected in book form.
Mia was also one of the six poets president Samora Machel assigned to write the nation’s new hymn in 1981. Realizing that Mozambique’s first hymn was too focused on FRELIMO and that a large segment of the population no longer identified with it, he decided to update the text. So he locked six poets and six musicians in a house to write a new one. Mia says they didn’t feel like they were imprisoned, in fact they liked it there, because they had food at a time when most people didn’t have food, and they saved it for their families when they visited, and they even had a swimming pool. When they heard the sirens blaring, they’d hurry to their desks to pretend to be working. Eventually six hymns were crafted, but by some reason or another they weren’t used. Then in 2002 the government decided to finally adopt one of them, although it wasn’t Mia’s.
Mia Couto’s success rests mostly on his short-stories, of which he’s one of the undisputed masters in the Portuguese language, and several novels. His 1992 novel Sleepwalking Land, a lyrical portrait of the country devastated by civil war, was in fact considered one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century. Mixing dreams and fantasy with brutal descriptions of the 1976-1992 war, it was his first novel and the best introduction to his magical realist style. But for some reason it didn’t speak to me.
I’ve read eight of his books to date, and although I admire his prose, ideas and humor, and like them in small doses, until now he hasn’t written anything that has left a strong impression on me. Still he’s the most translated Mozambican writer for a good reason and don’t let me dissuade you from trying one of his books. Even in English he’s reasonably well-represented: Voices Made Night, Every Man is a Race, Sleepwalking Land, Under the Frangipani, The Last Flight of the Flamingo have all been translated by David Brookshaw.
So the three books I read recently were Voices Made Night and O Fio das Missangas (Bead String), short-stories, and the novel Jesusalém (you know, it actually took me more than 200 pages to notice it was not Jerusalem; that tells you a lot about my attention skills and why you shouldn’t take anything I write seriously). What do I make of them? Well, I like them, there’s always something of value in Mia Couto. The short-stories are an excellent example of his style. Like other Portuguese-speaking African writers, Mia was influenced by Brazilian literature, a bit of Jorge Amado but especially Guimarães Rosa, who previously had influenced Luandino Vieira, a crucial figure. In colonial times, censorship was looser in the colonies than in Portugal so that they had more access to Brazilian literature and magazines. This highly shaped the path these emerging literatures would follow. Luandino Vieira had already subverted the colonizer’s language by giving Portuguese an African makeover, by making it messier, by mixing it up with native vocabulary and mucking up the syntax, by making it more oral. It was an amazing revolution in Portuguese letters.
Mia goes further by coining new words all the time and playing constant puns on idiomatic expressions, which must make translation a very inglorious task (poor Brookshaw) faded to failure. Just to give an idea, Jesusalém is a portmanteau of Jesus and além, which means beyond but also afterlife, but at the same time it’s a pun on Jerusalem. The premise of the novel is about a father who takes his sons to a recondite place, to live and raise them in total isolation from Mankind and civilization, like Rousseau’s savages, so it’s in a way a paradise. But at the same time the father is a misanthropic man, so far gone into grief over his dead wife that he’s beyond hope or salvation. He just lives to be miserable, he’s beyond the reach of love, of Jesus if you will. It’s a in a way a self-made hell, an afterlife where he expiates his crimes. The title’s so polysemic a translation into English that captures each nuance is virtually impossible.
Another book, Voices Made Night, is a subversion of the verb anoitecer. This is an impersonal verb like rain. It’s used when day is turning into night, but it doesn’t have a subject, it’s simply used to announce that night is coming. However he turns the voices into the subject of the verb. Brookshaw’s solution is alright but it doesn’t quite capture the sense of estrangement and grammatical transgression of the original.
You can see the poet’s voice in his sentences, which are lyrical to the point of being too precious and cute. He piles beautiful metaphor upon beautiful metaphor, but it never turns into a full narrative to my linking. His short-stories tend to be short, three to four pages. He’s also very much into magical realism, dealing with Mozambique’s history, customs, religion, animist beliefs, conflicts between husbands and wives and fathers and children, and the problem of illiteracy. He also frequently writes from female perspectives, and from children’s. Animals also show up a lot, usually magical or of great emotional importance to their owners. One of my favourite stories is about a man who walks a pet fish along the lake’s margin, held by a leash. Another one is about a bull that mysteriously explodes from inside out. Magical powers and superstitions also abound, and he tends to set the stories in rural areas. He tends to be critical of male authority figures like fathers and husbands and he’s very sensitive to the mistreatment of women and children. This doesn’t mean Mia Couto is a bleak or ponderous writer. He has a whimsical lightness mixed with a meditative voice fond of mixing proverbs, sayings and playful reflexions on the human condition. And, like the poet he is, he has that gift of making everyday things excitingly new and mysterious.
As for the novel Jesusalém, it’s one of his most accomplished works, a satire of Rousseau’s noble savage, a study of misanthropy, a tragic love story, an oblique history of Mozambique’s civil war, an endearing glimpse into children’s rich inner life. A man takes his two children to an estate that has fallen into disuse after the independence war, before which it belonged to Portuguese colonials. There he shuts himself from the world. One of his sons is old enough to remember the city, the other isn’t. The older one thinks he killed their mother, the younger doesn’t have memories of her. The older one secretly teaches his brother to read since it was forbidden there. The father tells them the world has ended, that only they, but the kids, naturally curious, try to learn more. Then their fragile paradise implodes when a white woman arrives, bringing revelations. It’s a slow-moving but compelling mystery but above all it’s a powerful story about loss, grief and growing up.
Of all his novels I’ve read, Jesusalém is the one with no magical realist elements. Not that I mind them, being a big José Saramago and Gabriel García Márquez fan, but when Mia uses them they don’t feel instinctive, like part of his voice, it’s just something he borrowed from someone else. I don’t know how to explain it, it just doesn’t feel genuine. But he’s ridiculously popular in Portugal and Brazil, so it’s probably just me. I recommend Mia Couto. Even if he’s not my cup of tea most of the time, I think there’s something very valuable, very human in his writing, an honest innocence about emotions and feelings, a literature that hasn’t been contaminated by cynicism and sarcasm, a writing swimming against the tide. And I like that.