Monday, 17 September 2012

Germano Almeida: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo



Time for another part of the Africa Reading Challenge:

Germano Almeida (b. 1945) is a writer from Cape Verde, the archipelago off the coast of Western Africa. He’s one of the most important writers to emerge from his country since it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. The history of Cape Verde is a variation of the histories of Angola and Mozambique. Cape Verde was discovered by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century, was a Portuguese colony for centuries, started a guerrilla war against Portugal in the 1960s, achieved independence after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, was ruled for decades by a single party with communist tendencies (the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, or PAIGC) until the 1990s, then embraced capitalism and multi-party elections in 1992 and since then it’s been a stable democracy with a considerable development. Unlike Angola and Mozambique, however, Cape Verde was also spared a decades-long devastating civil war, which possibly explains why it’s doing better than the other two countries.

Almeida was born on the island of Boa Vista. At the age of eighteen he went to Lisbon to study law. He now lives on the island of São Vicente and works as a lawyer; he once also worked as state attorney. In the 1980s he also rose to prominence due to his active role in Cape Verde’s literature and culture. He was the director of the literature magazine Ponto & Vírgula (1983-1987), in which he published his first short-stories, under the pseudonym of Romualdo Cruz. He also co-founded the newspaper Aguaviva and currently writes for the Portuguese newspaper Público. He’s also the owner of the publisher Ilhéu Editora, through which he publishes his books, although in Portugal he’s available through José Saramago’s publisher: Caminho (1).

His first novel was the The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, published in 1989 (2). His second novel, O Meu Poeta (My Poet, 1991) is considered, so I’ve read, Cape Verde’s first national novel. Certainly an impressive honor. Maybe I’ll read it one day. Judging from my impressions of The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, that may yet take a while. I didn’t care much for Almeida’s first novel.

It’s not a bad novel, it’s just… How to explain it? This year I’ve read Kafka’s The Castle and The Man Who Disappeared, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger, Melville’s Moby Dick, Roth’s The Counterlife, Raul Brandão’s Húmus, António Lobo Antunes’ Knowledge of Hell, and Ramalho Ortigão and Eça de Queiroz’ O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra. I haven’t been this inebriated with great literature since I read eight Saramagos in 2006. I’m not one to seek great books, I just let them find me, but I can’t deny that this has been an exceptionally good year. And well, Almeida’s novel does seem very inconsequential and mundane in light of my recent readings.

It’s a funny novel that satirizes Cape Verdean society. It’s a novel that shows the author’s experience as a lawyer. It opens with a notary reading from the testament of a dead man, Mr. Napumoceno da Silva Araújo, a respected and famous businessman from Mindelo, a town in São Vicente. The opening scene is rather amusing: the notary is tired of reading the testament because it’s an absurdly long document. “On arriving at page 150, the notary admitted he was tired and indeed stopped to ask to be given a glass of water.” The total length is 387 pages. I admit I laughed a few times, or I smiled more than I laughed. But in the end, I don’t know, the humor seemed facile, many situations didn’t pack a punch. It’s a bit of a superficial book with familiar situations. Sure, it has incident, it has anecdotes, but it lacks vitality, a sense of importance.

The testament, which is more of an autobiography, reveals facts about Mr. Napumoceno’s life that those closest to him didn’t know. The respectable, admired, rich businessman in fact had secrets, well, obviously, who doesn’t have secrets?, and a double life. And the humor comes from the contrast between his public persona and his unruly private life. Perhaps because of the theme of identity I immediately thought of José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons, a better book in my opinion, about a man who forges new identities for war criminals. But secrets is a topic that’s pretty much exhausted in literature. Good luck trying to come up with a shocking revelation that no one has read before.

The most relevant discovery is that Mr. Napumoceno had a daughter from a relationship with his cleaning lady. The popular businessman was constantly having sex with her over his office’s Louis XIV secretary at the import-export company. However the mother kept Graça ignorant of who her father was. One of the best episodes occurs when Mr. Napumoceno tries to offer his daughter, a schoolgirl, money and she thinks he’s a dirty old man trying to have sex with her. Perhaps I just find the wrong things funny but I liked this bit a lot.

Another surprise is that he left everything to Graça and nothing to his nephew, Carlos, blaming him of ingratitude. Carlos is a scheming, greedy little bastard, always worrying about profits only. He slowly tries to take the firm away from his uncle. His materialistic personality is a counterpoint to Napumoceno’s more spiritual one. He’s an old-fashioned man with old values. This is shown in the episode involving his business partner Ben’Oliel: Napumoceno has made a deal with him to buy all his goods from him, and even though he starts taking a loss after a while, he continues to honor it because he attaches great importance to his word. His nephew, of course, disagrees and persuades him to get rid of this dead weight. His frustration over being left out of the will is also amusing. Other facts emerge, facts that reveal his quirky personality without making particularly astute observations.

There’s also an ongoing contrast between old and modern Cape Verde. He leaves orders for Beethoven’s funeral march to be played at his funeral. When Carlos tries to get this done, he encounters problems with the local band. “We don’t play that, objected the chief. At burials we’re used to playing Djosa quem mandób morrê (3). And that funeral something I never heard of. In fact it’s nonsense. If everyone goes with djosa and there have never been complaints, why does Mr. Napumoceno want to piss us off with that other thing? For djosa, anytime. For the other, nothing done.” This vision of a Cape Verde still mired in old traditions but on the cusp of modernity is also seen in Mr. Napumoceno’s love for technical gadgets, which he discovered from his trip to America. There’s a hilarious incident involving Carlos and an answering machine that I won’t spoil.

But although the life of Mr. Napumoceno is expertly told, Cape Verde always remains a distant setting, lacking substance and a sense of time and space. The history and culture of the islands are left mostly in the background, when what I wanted was exactly to see them brought to the fore. Timid references are made to the colonial period, to the PIDE, Portugal’s secret police, to the Indian conquest of Goa from Portugal in 1961, to the rise of PAIGC. Perhaps the mistake is mine, to expect a Cape Verdean author to write of his own country as if he were introducing it to foreigners, a procedure much in vogue in our age of globalization, but if this novel is a satire of Cape Verdean society, I do think it has an obligation to show the texture of life that composes it, otherwise I fail to see what’s being satirized and criticized. Novels like of Eça de Queiroz’ The Maias, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Naguib Mahfouz’ Midaq Alley manage to provide rich portraits of their societies without looking like they’re being written for the outsider.

The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo tells a series of familiar anecdotes about an otherwise unremarkable man, without a style or voice that transforms them into something new. Being the first book I read by a Cape Verdean writer, I obviously wanted to like it. But I have the feeling I’ve read this novel before, almost word by word, and I fear that, like those novels, I won’t remember this one a week from now. It’s not a bad novel, it’s not a crime against literature. But it is light reading, enjoyable most of the time, but just that. There’s little for one to sink one’s teeth into. If it’s guilty of something, it’s of a distinct lack of ambition. Others will surely find something to appreciate in this novel, but for me this was a mere curiosity. Here’s hoping his next novel is more interesting.

NOTES

1 Caminho is a publisher that has played an integral role in promoting Portuguese-language African literature: it has an imprint devoted exclusively to it and publishes almost every major writer apart from Pepetela: Luandino Vieira, Mia Couto, Ondjaki, Agualusa, Paulina Chiziane, João Paulo Borges Coelho, Conceição Lima, Ana Paula Tavares, José Craveirinha, Arménio Vieira…

2 Transled into English by Sheila Faria Glaser, published by New Directions in 2004.

3 A traditional Cape Verdean tune.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent commentary on what sounds like a disappointing book.

    I must admit that I have never heard of any Cape Verdean writers. I wonder who else there is of note from this country.

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  2. It is a disappointing book, but especially because I was looking forward to it. Well, it was the author's first novel. Perhaps I'll enjoy his more mature work.

    Another Cape Verdean writer is Arménio Vieira, he received the Camões Prize in 2009, he's a poet. I'll have to read him one day.

    There's also João Vário, Ovídio Martins, Eugénio Tavares, Manuel Lopes, Baltasar Lopes da Silva, Jorge Barbosa. Cape Verde has a long literary history dating back to the 19th century, but of course most of these writers are inaccessible.

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