Thursday, 26 July 2012

Léon Bloy: Histoires désobligeantes

Following my post about The Library of Babel, I decided to re-read some of the books on the list to refresh my memory. I’m starting with Histoires désobligeantes, by French author Léon Bloy (1846-1917), because a) it was so long ago I barely remember it, b) I strongly remember not liking it and I wanted to see if a re-read would change that, and c) it’s not available in English so perhaps it’ll be of interest to other readers. Well, regarding point b, I don’t know why I didn’t like it at first. I laughed, I laughed, and I laughed some more at the eighteen stories in my edition. It’s a mad trip down the gloomy recesses of an unhinged mind at war with polite society.

Imagine a sordid world, so over the top misers are ten times worse than Mr. Scrooge, and fathers and children spend their time killing each other in cruel, sadistic ways. A hopeless, sunless slum-world where happiness is impossible and love, or a pathetic caricature of the platonic ideal, is but a trigger for petty, revolting crimes more appropriate for The Sun than history books. And now imagine someone writing of this world in a sardonic, complicit, familiar tone complete with reverence for these damned souls.

Histoires désobligeantes (1894) is less a collection of short-stories than an endless litany of perversions, scandals, atrocities and corruption. I don’t even know where to begin. Murder is a big theme, particularly crimes within the family: patricide, filicide, infanticide. A few examples. In “Le Vieux de la Maison”, a poor woman turned Madame of a brothel is tired of putting up with her good but useless father. It’s 1871, the Paris Commune is being overtaken. One day she just accuses her father of being a communard and the soldiers kill him. “We were living charming days when this was enough,” the narrator enthusiastically adds.

Another story, Terrible Châtiment d’un Dentiste”. Reminiscent of Poe, it’s about a paranoid murderer hallucinating with guilt; the protagonist, a dentist, kills the suitor of a woman he loves and then marries her; but mad with guilt he strangles their baby because it reminds him of the dead man. In “La Tisane”, a son overhears his mother confessing to the priest that she’s dropped poison in someone’s tea; he discovers he’s the victim too late. La dernière cuite” concerns a son who cremates his father alive. In one of my favourite stories, “Une Martyre”, an overly pious mother drives her daughter and son-in-law to suicide with a series of anonymous poison letters that ruin their personal and public lives.

Main reasons? Love, money, ennui, respect, to protect appearances. In one, an honourable judge prostitutes his daughter to a former friend who’s blackmailing him with compromising photos and letters from his youth. There’s also cannibalism, of course: a cuckolded cheese seller serves bits of his dead wife’s rotten heart to the several man she slept with. And obviously good old 19th century incest. This wouldn’t be fin-de-siècle decadence without incest.

Not all stories are about murderers. Some are just about strange, desperate people who do strange or irrational things. A destitute artist unable to live on his art (like Bloy) burns down a house in a fit of despair. In another story a woman becomes a slave to her husband and his friends. In another one, a translator of Latin fiercely protects his library from his family of voracious readers.

“Le Parloir des Tarentules” is one of the best ones. The narrator has to put up with the bad poet from hell. He’s invited to his place to listen to him read his awful poetry. The first hour is pleasant, but the novelty wears off and then he has to endure four more hours of awful poetry. When he thinks it’s finished, the poet asks him to listen to more. “Judging from the tone, a man ignorant of the French language would have thought I was being offered a cup of chocolate, when in fact he was singing one thousand five hundred sonnets, more than twenty thousand verses!” The story ends with the poet forcing him to listen at gunpoint.

There’s no supernatural in the stories, save for one exception, another great story: “Les Captifs de Longjumeau.” A couple is incapable of leaving their house. Some invisible force always conspires to prevent them from visiting other people, getting on trains, driving cars, keeping appointments. Something always happens that forces them to go back. “Since we’ve moved to this cursed place, I’ve missed seventy-four funerals, twelve marriages, thirty baptisms, a thousand indispensable visits and trips. I let my mother-in-law die without seeing her again just once more, even though she stayed ill a whole year, and because of that we lost three quarters of the inheritance (…).” In the end their solution is suicide. Suicide is another recurrent theme.

Histoires désobligeantes is basically a book about people totally unfit to live with other people. All the relationships are skewed, built on hatred and power, they all deteriorate into grisly or disgusting behaviur. All these people are living on the edge, and the stories merely capture the moment when they tumble, happily, into the abyss. It’s a book about the people living on the fringes of society – killers, prostitutes, poor artists – and those hiding within its respectability – priests, devout women, businessmen, successful mediocre novelists. But Bloy isn’t judgmental, in many cases he’s actual appreciative of his human monsters. Léon Bloy lived most of his adult life in utter misery, subsisting on charity from friends. And his great love was a prostitute he tried to ‘save.’ He’s clearly comfortable in the slum. His anti-social protagonists become tragic heroes in their own mad, immoral worlds, There’s something Romantic about Bloy’s ferocity and love for misery, turning these people into rebels against bourgeois society.

Also the number of sexual and scatological references are many and hardly oblique. Even for a French decadent writer, this was pretty outré. I’m pretty sure one of the stories ends with a woman urinating in a church, in front of a congregation right after the priest’s sermon, or perhaps it’s vomit and I’m just assuming the worst. But there’s a reference to having to clean up the church, so something, I’m sure, was expelled from an orifice.

I’m just sad my Portuguese edition isn’t complete. The original one has 32 stories, and mine only has 18. Of those, 9 are also in Borges’ selection. But I’m still missing “La Plus Belle Trouvaille de Caïn”, “On n’est pas Parfait” and “Tout Ce Que Tu Voudras!” Still, I think Borges overlooked a few great ones too. Histoires désobligeantes is recommended for lovers of the macabre and readers with a dark sense of humor.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Jorge Luis Borges' The Library of Babel

In my last post, Tom providentially brought up Jorge Luis Borges’ other collection: The Library of Babel. Although I knew the collection by name and knew a few details, this seemed like the right time to learn more about it. Turns out that Grant Munroe, at The Rumpus, has already done a splendid job investigating it. But he overlooks a few facts that I can add to give it a fuller picture. Munroe made the understandable mistake of assuming that, because Borges wrote in Spanish, he would find the answers in Spanish. Actually the origins of the mysterious Library of Babel begin in Italy.

In 1974, Franco Maria Ricci, an Italian editor who did much to introduce Borges’ work in Italy, asked him to edit and write the prologues for a collection of fantasy books. Borges wanted the collection to be called Colección del hombre (roughly a man’s collection), but Ricci, to Borges’ chagrin, insisted in using the title of his famous short-story. Thirty-three books were released, between 1975 and 1985. In1983 the Spanish publisher Siruela, owned by Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, count of Siruela, starts publishing them in Spanish. The count was a fantasy aficionado because in 1987 he created his own fantasy collection, called “El ojo sin párpado,” now mythical amongst Spanish book collectors for its rarity.

But back to Borges. He only wrote twenty-nine prologues; four of the books were edited by Ricci without Borges’ assistance, but more on that later. Then the prologues were published in Italian in book form and next in Spanish. Although I own a four-volume set of the so-called complete works of Jorge Luis Borges, these prologues are not anywhere in them. And that makes me feel indignant.

Since Ricci first published the collection, other publishers have reprinted it. Mondadori, in Italy, did it in the early ‘90s. I’ve also discovered collections in France, Germany, and even Turkey. A couple of years ago Portugal started publishing it too, but I embarrassingly confess I haven’t bought a single volume yet. Remarkably, it seems every country uses the original Italian covers… except for the evil Germans. And it’s understandable why the original covers are so popular, they’re gorgeous works of art! Ricci and Marcella Boneschi designed them, and what immediately strikes me is that they all share an identity, in spite of the varied palette, you just have to look at them and know they belong to the same collection. I’ve found a set with 30 of the covers so you may marvel at them:

Now for the actual books: acquiring them is a difficult task. One of the main difficulties was to find out what each book contained, since they were anthologies edited by Borges and others. Thanks to Grant Munroe, now we know. Even so, many of the texts aren’t available in English, or they’re likely out of print. So it helps knowing a couple of foreign languages. But even if you do know the foreign languages, that won’t do you a lot of good because they’re also out of print in their own countries. I bitterly discovered that when I tried to order Giovanni Papini books from Amazon Italy. There’s really no pardon for people who let books go out of print! They’re the scum of the Earth. But don’t despair, with patience, perseverance and luck, maybe one day we Borges fanatics can obtain them all.

My order differs from the English one. As I understand it, English sources are based on Eliot Weinberger’s book Selected Non-Fictions, which obviously uses the order of the Siruela editions. But the original FMR editions used a slightly different order. The ones I’ve read are in bold:

Jack London, The Concentric Deaths
Giovanni Papini, Lo specchio che fugge
Léon Bloy, Histoires désobligeantes
Gustav Meyrink, Der Kardinal Napellus
Arthur Machen, The Shining Pyramid
Jacques Cazotte, The Devil in Love
Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener
Pedro Antonio de Alarcon, El amigo de la muerte
Franz Kafka, The Vulture
William Beckford, Vathek
Charles Howard Hinton, Scientific Romances
G.K. Chesterton, The Eye of Apollo
Voltaire, Micromegas
Rudyard Kipling, The Wish House
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Isle of Voices
Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Leter
Pu Songling, The Tiger Guest
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Great Stone Face
Jorge Luis Borges, Venticinque agosto 1983 e altri racconti inediti
Henry James, The Friends of the Friends
Leopoldo Lugones, The Pillar of Salt
Saki, The Reticence of Lady Anne
Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Le Convive des dernières fêtes
H.G. Wells, The Door in the Wall
Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
Antoine Galland, The Arabian Nights
Richard Burton, The Arabian Nights
Argentinean Tales
Lord Dunsany, The Country of Yann
Russian Tales
J.L. Borges & A.B. Casares, Nuevos cuentos de Bustos Domecq
The Book of Dreams
Jorge Luis Borges, A/Z

Some words on four of the books: Venticinque agosto 1983 e altri racconti inediti was a special translation of previously unpublished Borges stories in Italy, to celebrate the author’s 80th birthday. For that reason this book didn’t have a prologue by him. These four short-stories are in his last book, Shakespeare’s Memory.

The last three books don’t have prologues either because they were added by Ricci after Borges had finished editing the collection. Russian Tales, the last book edited by Borges, was from 1981. The last three came out in 1985. For A/Z, the most elusive of them, I can offer two explanations: from what I’ve read in Italian, it’s a compilation of the prologues Borges wrote for this collection; it was edited by Gianni Guadalupi, who co-wrote The Dictionary of Imaginary Places with Borges scholar Alberto Manguel. But I’ve read it elsewhere described as a ‘Borgesian dictionary,’ which sounds great! Furthermore the Spanish edition had another editor, one Antonio Fernandéz Ferrer, and from what I’ve gleaned from reviews, it’s a collection of sentences, paragraphs, quotes, interview excerpts by Borges, organized as a thematic dictionary of his thoughts. I want to believe two different editors created two different books with the same title, in the same collection; that would be truly Borgesian. But it’s probably some mix-up.

And that’s that. There’s a lot of overlap with the other list, many of the same authors, but this list is more fiction-oriented, no essays, no poetry, no non-fiction, just straight up narratives. It’s pure entertainment: crime, horror, adventure, mystery, and general weirdness. I think I actually like this one more. It also seems I’m closer to finishing it. Instead of leaving my thoughts of on the books here, I’ll create separate entries for each one. Just thinking about them lately, I feel like re-reading them. So stay tuned. And let me read your thoughts if you’ve read any of them.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Jorge Luis Borges' A Personal Library

In 1985 the Argentinean publisher Hyspamérica asked Jorge Luis Borges to select one hundred works of great literature, which they’d publish in a special collection, and to write accompanying prologues to each edition. The books started coming out in kiosks on the same year, but Borges only had the time to choose seventy-four volumes because of his death in 1988. I’m not sure if the books he chose were the great books the editor expected, but they’re certainly illustrative of Borges’ eclectic tastes, vast erudition and distaste for pedantry. He loved books and to talk about books, and even if he was most of the time courteous, he could be gently critical. He didn’t like Gabriel García Márquez, Jane Austen, Radclyffe Hall, Goethe, and thought Gustave Flaubert’s only good book was Bouvard and Pécuchet. He compared James Joyce unfavorably to Lewis Carroll, as any sane man would.

He was ridiculously well-read, articulate and passionate about reading and literature, but although some strangely call him the father of post-modernist literature, his tastes were very non-academic: ancient holy books, adventure novels, lots of detective stories, fantasy, the delectable storytellers of the 19th century – Stevenson, Kipling, Salgari, Poe. A Personal Library is hardly a guide to the best literature produced by Mankind, but it’s an excellent invitation to delve into some obscure and neglected writers, and an opportunity to discover some lost treasures. Anything with Borges’ stamp of approval is worth trying, as far as I’m concerned.

For some years now I’ve been trying to finish the list. It’s been a slow and frustrating task, it requires patience and lots of luck in finding some of the items. Some have been worth it and others have been major disappointments. The task grows more complicated due to the fact that some are a) anthologies organized by Borges himself, b) specific translations of texts into Spanish, like Frei Luis de León’s translation of the Song of Songs, c) prologues or individual essays, and d) some are of so little importance it’s not likely they’ll ever be translated into a language I can read. But I keep searching, who knows?, maybe they’ll show up one day. I had pretty much given up ever reading Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, and then a few weeks ago I walked into a bookstore and found a new Portuguese translation staring me in the face.

In some cases where it’s really difficult to find the text, I just try to find some alternative book by the writer. Since they’re all pretty obscure anyway, reading Borges’ choice or some other ends up being an act of discovery in itself. Even so I admit I haven’t made huge advances. The ones in bold are the books I’ve read:

Julio Cortázar, Stories: I don’t know which stories Borges means in particular. A selection? All of them? I find that unlikely, these editions were meant to be short and affordable. A complete edition would be prohibitive. I’m not Cortázar’s greatest fan, but I’ve read several of his short-story collections: Bestiario, Las armas secretas, Todos los fuegos lo fuego. “La autopista del sur" is one of the best short-stories I’ve ever read, turns a traffic jam on its head and becomes a parable of Mankind, darkly hilarious stuff. But I think I’m done with him.

Anonymous, The Apocryphal Gospels

Franz Kafka, Amerika; Short Stories: Amerika I read this year, and his stories I read a couple of years ago. Loved the novel (all his novels, in fact) but I can’t stand his short-stories.

G. K. Chesterton, The Blue Cross & Other Stories: I don’t know which other stories those would be, but I’ve read The Complete Father Brown, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, The Poet and the Madmen, Four Faultless Felons; I think I’ve surpassed Borges’ expectations, but I love Chesterton so I’ll continue until I run out of them.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone: I loved The Woman in White more, but this is still a thrilling and very well-written detective novel. It was written when the rules of the genre hadn’t been carved in stone and it’s still very fresh and unpredictable.

Maurice Maeterlink, The Intelligence of Flowers

Dino Buzzati, The Desert of the Tartars: One of the most moving novels I’ve ever read; Buzzati is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century that no one has ever read. In the prologue Borges wrote that it’s easy to know the great classics but hard to know the great contemporaries. How true. His short-stories are equally extraordinary.

Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt; Hedda Gabler

Eça de Queiroz, The Mandarin: Like most Portuguese high school students I was sure Eça was a bore when I was forced to read The Maias. (I only read half, and still got a good mark in the exam; take that, educational system!) Years later I discover my beloved Borges loved Eça. I had to see what that was all about, so I tried the shortest of his books – The Mandarin. It was amazing! A novel had never made me laugh so hard before. Since then I’ve read Eça’s complete fiction.

Leopoldo Lugones, El Imperio Jesuítico

André Gide, The Counterfeiters

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine; The Invisible Man: I really didn’t need Borges to tell me to read those two, but I’m glad we agree on Wells.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons: This novel managed to keep me off Dostoevsky for a few years until I gave Poor Folk a try. Maybe it was the translation’s fault, it was pretty old. A newer one might be more captivating.

E. Kasner & J. Newman, Mathematics and the Imagination

Eugene O'Neill, The Great God Brown; Strange Interlude; Mourning Becomes Electra

Ariwara no Narihara, The Ise Stories

Herman Melville, Benito Cereno; Billy Budd; Bartleby the Scrivener: The first novella didn't impress me, but perhaps I need to re-read it because I've retained so little of it in my memory after all these years. 'Bartleby' is one of the best books I've ever had the privilege of reading, that's it.

Giovanni Papini, Il tragico quotidiano; Il pilota cieco; Parole e sangue: Papini is another great writer no one ever heard of. His superb novel, Gog, is one of the fiercest attacks on Western civilization ever to disguise itself as literature. Borges preferred his short-stories, which are also quite good. Sarcastic, disenchanted, perhaps a bit deranged, I can’t praise his talent enough. I’ve even started reading him in Italian.

Arthur Machen, The Three Imposters: A horror/fantasy influential classic about a secret magical war going on in the peaceful streets of London, and the two chumps who don’t know how they got caught in it. Some have drawn parallels between this story and the real magical war between Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats inside the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. For fans of the genre, this is an excellent book.

Fr. Luis de León, Cantar de los Cantares; Exposición del Libro de Job

Joseph Conrad, The End of the Tether; Heart of Darkness: A novella I love to re-read.

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Oscar Wilde, Essays and Dialogues

Henri Michaux, A Barbarian in Asia

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Arnold Bennett, Buried Alive

Claudius Aelianus, On the Nature of Animals

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Anthony

Marco Polo, Travels

Marcel Schwob, Imaginary Lives

George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra; Major Barbara; Candida

Francisco de Quevedo, La Fortuna con seso y la hora de todos; Marco Bruto

Eden Phillpots, The Red Redmaynes

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: I didn’t understand a single sentence of this.

Gustav Meyrink, The Golem: A bit of a chore, the prose wasn’t that good, but it’s full of strange ideas and fragments of mystical experiments.

Henry James, The Lesson of the Master; The Figure in the Carpet; The Private Life

Herodotus, The Histories

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo: I just don’t have the words to describe this masterpiece.

Rudyard Kipling, Tales: The man wrote lots of short-stories; I’ve read Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, but I’m in no way finished with Kipling; he’s a better writer than many give him credit.

William Beckford, Vathek

Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders: Not as great as Robinson Crusoe, in my opinion, it's still an otherwise interesting character study of poverty, misery, crime and ruthlessness.

Jean Cocteau, Le Secret professionnel

Thomas De Quincey, The Last Days of Emmanuel Kant and Other Stories

Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Prólogo a la obra de Silverio Lanza

Antoine Galland, The Arabian Nights (selections)

Robert Louis Stevenson, New Arabian Nights; Markheim: I’ve read the “The Suicide Club” cycle in New Arabian Nights but I need to read the whole thing. As for “Markheim,” it’s a chilling murder story about a killer who’s visited by the devil after he murders an old men. Reminded me of James Hogg.

Léon Bloy, Le Salut par les Juifs; Le Sang du pauvre; Dans les ténèbres

Anonymous, The Bhagavad-Gita; The Epic of Gilgamesh

Juan José Arreola, Cuentos fantásticos

David Garnett, Lady Into Fox; A Man in the Zoo; The Sailor's Return: Strange little novella about a woman who turns into a fox, that’s it, no explanation. It wasn’t very interesting.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels: Another great classic; read it many years ago, I should dip into the text again one day. Made me laugh silly.

Paul Groussac, Crítica literaria

Manuel Mujica Láinez, Los ídolos

Juan Ruíz, Libro de buen amor

William Blake, Complete Poetry: No one actually reads the complete poetry of William Blake! Anyone who does it is obviously mad. I know because I did.

Hugh Walpole, Above the Dark Circus

Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Obra poética

Edgar Allan Poe, Tales: I read most of the short-stories in Portuguese, back in high school and loved them. (At least at the time they looked a lot more interesting than Eça.) When I re-read Poe in English a few years ago I realized his prose really is as turgid as many say it is. Amazing what a translation can hide.

Virgil, The Aeneid

Voltaire, Stories

J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time

Atilio Momigliano, Saggio su l'Orlando Furioso

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Snorri Sturluson, Egils Saga

That’s it at the moment. As you can see, I have a long way to go. I’ve never met anyone who’s tried to finish this list, but I’d love to read suggestions and thoughts about the other books on the list, especially the more exotic ones.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Mia Couto: A few words on a Mozambican writer

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.