In 2009 Pepetela wrote a short novel called O Planato e a Estepe (The Plain and the Steppe), a clever way of invoking the countries of Angola and Mongolia, from where its two main characters come. Pepetela is, I’m firmly convinced, one of the best novelists of our age. This novel revisits several of his usual themes: the Independence War, Angola’s Marxist regime, discrimination against white Angolans. For the first time since I’m reading Pepetela, the novel also tells a love story. The novel is based on real events, although whether they happened to the author or to someone he knew, is something we never know and it’s irrelevant.
The novel is narrated by the son of Portuguese settlers, although the protagonist himself is born in the Angolan region of Huíla. Although he’s white he’s not a racist like his sister, Olga, or a defender of segregation like his parents. From childhood onwards he has normal relationships with black children, making him critical of imperialism once he grows up. He’s also sensitive to the deep divisions white whites in Angolan society.
The whites were the ones with the money. That was the truth. We were situated at the bottom of the social scale amongst the whites, chicoronhos, which was non-malicious lingo for colonials. Now the term mapundeiros was an insult used by other whites against us, because our area was Mapunda, where the most miserable of whites took refuge. However we were rich if compared with the blacks, our servants. In hindsight, there were blacks who had herds of oxen, but they lived in their eumbo and didn’t mix with the white. They lived their lives, it was the church that went to them to derail them from their magical practices. So said the priests. If we counted the oxen, the owners of the herds were a lot richer than my father.
This is a fascinating, revealing passage. It shows Pepetela using ordinary Portuguese with unique vocabulary from Angolan Portuguese and indigenous words. It describes the country’s complicated social hierarchies, and the discrimination even within the whites. It also shows the protagonist’s ability to reflect about what he sees around him. Growing up black children, playing with them, has made him see many of the sharp contradictions in society. This in turn impels him to join the liberation of Angola.
His childhood in Huíla is happy, filled with ordinary experiences. He starts noticing more social and racial divisions when he goes to high school, although he continues to maintain relationships with his black friends. Things sour when he wins a scholarship and travels to Portugal, to study medicine in the University of Coimbra. This is a miserable, lonely period in his life because he’s under the surveillance of his father’s relatives, and because he has few friends in Coimbra. To make matters worse he has no interest in medicine and is only studying to make his father happy, who wants to have a son with a college degree because of the prestige (it’s worth remembering that Portugal was a predominantly rural country in the 1960s and just having a degree was a matter of social status – sadly this mentality lives on). Instead of studying he becomes more interested in the political conversations within the students’ circles, secretly held since censorship didn’t allow their public discussions nor gatherings. Little by little he becomes part of a group interested in the war between Portugal and Angola.
I ended up rebuilding a group of friends, amongst the ones who had studied in the same high school in Lubango and others, in Luanda. A Mozambican and a Cape Verdean in the middle. With more or less loose connections with companions in Lisbon, the main centre. People with similar ideas, especially on colonialism, a group then. Subversive books started circulating, with them poems by people who were or were about to be arrested, or had already fled to abroad. There was energy in the air, you could notice it. I changed republic, moved to one constituted solely by people from the group of friends. My father mustn’t have liked it, but he said nothing. I kept a distance from his family of Trás-os-Montes. I endured classes without positive results and dreamed of fights. Of liberation, of course. Like the one of the Algerians, who had made the French go preach other places, in their land they didn’t want more foreign masters. The French didn’t respect those desires, tried to keep the empire, and the war went on. I read the famous book by Frantz Fanon, an Antillean doctor who fought alongside the Algerians and theorized the struggle of liberation. I not always understood the contradictory ideas inside the books, for I realized Fanon differed from Marx or Sartre, being close nevertheless. I read all the propaganda considered clandestine which reached my hands, I discussed matters in hushed tones, dreamed with my eyes wide. I obviously didn’t have time for the Anatomy door-stoppers.
The narrator loses his scholarship but he doesn’t worry because he doesn’t believe his future is in high education anymore: he wants to join the fight in Angola, liberate his country and help create its future. For that end he and some friends travel to Russia to become volunteers in the international movement to spread global socialism. He learns to speak Russian and enrols in Economics. He’s denied proper fighting because there aren’t ‘subjective conditions’ for it. What this means is that he’s not completely trusted because of his skin colour. This is just one of the first signs that tells him that socialism is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not until their courses end and they prepare to join the fight abroad that they start learning how disenchanting socialism really is:
When we finished the Economics course, Jean-Michel returned to Brazzaville, anxious to participate in the ongoing revolution in his country. Socialism had been instated as the regime’s official doctrine. The letters he wrote me spoke of his dreams and his hopes. He got a job a ministry’s office, rose up quickly in the Youth wing of the Party in power. And I realized, as time went and he rose in the Youth, until he became the top leader of the organization, that he had lost his old convictions. His letters demonstrated despair for collaborating with a farce, socialism my ass, they only thought about women and cars, since getting rich is hard in such a poor land. The sudden news didn’t surprise me. Jean-Michel got involved in a revolution attempt that went wrong, they shot him in the corner nearby the football stadium. Together with a singer of revolutionary songs.
The protagonist has a different experience, however. In Russia he falls in love with a Mongolian student called Sarangerel. There’s nothing more banal than two young people being in love, the problem is that he’s a white Angolan and she’s the daughter of a high-ranking Mongolian officer. Their relationship is not well received by Russian and Mongolian authorities; the Russians fear antagonizing the Mongolians because of their own stressful relationships with China; and the Mongolians don’t want Sarangerel mingling with a white man; she’s reserved for a better marriage with someone approved by the Party.
Many are the tribulations the two lovers face and many the means the authorities employ to keep them away; not even when they marry and have a daughter they’re shown pity; instead Sarangerel and her baby girl are taken out of Russian in a hurry and the protagonist is sent to Angola to finally hold a place in the rebuilding of his country as a Marxist state. Amidst his rise in the party and his growing disenchantment with politics and the expectations he had for his country as a young student, the protagonist continues to try, over decades and overwhelming red tape, to reunite with the family that was stolen away from him. His travails expose the contradictions of communism as practiced in the former Soviet republics, which pledged to stand up for the international proletariat, tolerance and world peace, but internally continued to be torn apart by social and racial discrimination.
I found this novel delicious form start to finish, and it’s a very easy read, particularly because Pepetela is a funny storyteller. But what I found most interesting about it was the criticism of communism from the unique perspective of its attack on love. It’s terrifying to imagine how such an innocuous situation as two people in love could make two nations launch such an attack on two individuals, and the way communism had so little respect for people’s private sphere. After reading this novel, one is well convinced of the protagonist’s thesis that this ideology was totally inhuman.