Monday, 12 May 2014

Paulina Chiziane reveals a world of magic

Paulina Chiziane (b. 1955) has the awkward distinction of being Mozambique’s first novelist. If you consider that she publisher her first novel in 1990, that should give you an idea about the inequality between men and women in Mozambican society, a topic fond to the author.

She grew up in a Protestant family, speaking native languages, and learned Portuguese in a Catholic mission. In her youth she was a member of FRELIMO, the revolutionary movement that fought colonialism. In 1977 FRELIMO became a Marxist-Leninist political party that ruled the country alone. In 1994 it changed the rules to allow new parties, but even so it’s been ruling uninterruptedly, amidst accusations of electoral fraud. Although Chiziane was a militant member, she became disappointed with the party’s politics and turned to writing. She said in an interview: “I’ve always been a person who enjoys silence, loneliness and watching, so that when others slept, I always had the tendency to stay up listening to music, doing something, reading. So that was my first childhood. Next was contact with books, with school and I began discovering existence in other ways of being. In my loneliness at night I liked to paint, to doodle and I believed I could one day be a painter, but the economic conditions I was born into could never allow me to have brushes or canvases or anything like that.” Chiziane has not yet been translated into English. A translation of Niketche: A Tale of Pologamy was slated to come out in 2010, but the publisher balked at it. In this novel her concern for the social role of women comes to the front. As a writer, she’s especially interested in the themes of poverty, injustice and the mistreatment of women in patriarchal societies.

The novel I chose for this project, however, is called O Sétimo Juramento (2000) and plunges the reader straight into a terrestrial hell. After a litany of horrors, the novel zooms in on a strike at a sugar company coming to an end. “The men resume the march saddened because all strikes have the same end: humiliation, struggle and death. Fifty percent increase is a false conquest because they’ll be stolen again with the rise of the price of bread.” Listening to this news is David, the director of a state-owned company, who wakes up in shock to it. “Despair takes over his soul like a doomed man one step away from death.” This victory for these workers worries him, “signs of change” he does not welcome. David is a corrupt factory director who embezzles money. “The sugar workers haven’t been paid in twenty-four months. His haven’t been paid in only six months. Too little time. Compared with other directors, he’s a saint. The reasons for this delay have their logic. He took some funds to acquire a new car and celebrate with dignity the fortieth anniversary of Vera, his wife. He took more funds to buy stocks in a large enterprise. It’s not fraud, not even theft. It was a transference of funds, a sort of loan to create capital, whose reposition will be made in due time. A self-respecting director must have his own capital, an image commensurate with his position.” If this isn’t enough to make you despise the character, there is more. “In this world no one is good to anyone. We trick one another. White tyrants replaced by black tyrants, it’s the moral of the story. Tyranny is the legitimate daughter of power. Justice and equality are God’s business and not a concern of men.” David has changed, he used to be an idealist, in the bygone days of the revolution. “He remembers with nostalgia the study group sessions about revolutionary politics. He remembers the old language. Comrade commandant, comrade father, comrade wife, comrade boss. So much friendship, solidarity, true comradeship. Back then he had his heart the size of a people, but today it’s so small it only harbours himself. Now the word people is a mere number, without age or sex. Without dreams or desires. Just statistics.” Greed, corruption and amorality running amok amongst the ruling classes is a recurring theme in African literature. Pepetela’s masterpiece, Predadores, has a protagonist who is very much like David.

But we’re not done with David’s description. He’s also a wife-beater who neglects his children, Clemente and Suzy. This is how he justifies himself after he hits Vera as an outlet for the strain the threat of a strike at his own company causes him: “In the world of patriarchal power there’s no room for male tears. Everywhere there are piazzas and pedestals for man to climb and celebrate bravery. Quickly he finds out that a bar is all he needs to burn his sorrows in the fire of alcohol.” Yes, he also loves to drink. The venality doesn’t end here. David cheats Vera with Cláudia, his secret mistress. On top of that, he patronizes a whorehouse run by a woman called Lúcia, who deals in young girls. “The girl trade is a diamond mine. With the end of the war there won’t be anymore orphaned girls wandering by the road. The young virgins, where will they come from? In peace time, the city will continue to have immigrants, and the girls will come without their maidenhead and full of diseases. The virgin business is the most lucrative one and the one that attracts the finest clientele, because moneyed men are afraid of experienced prostitutes, because of the disease of the century.” As you may expect, David likes to sleep with underage virgins. It’s a complete picture of despicability.

Let’s move to Vera. She likes her opulent life. “I have a husband who gives me everything: a fat budget at the end of each month, sex on time, honour, social prestige. Everyone has his fate and carries his cross.” She has conflicts and tries to hide the wretchedness around her behind self-righteousness: to her poor people are poor because they’ve done something to deserve it. She tries not to think about them by devoting herself to her family. “That’s how bantu women are. They have too big a heart for all the loves and all the pains, the husband’s, the children’s and of all the things the world has.” Of course her inability to ignore her husband’s behaviour and her love for her children will turn her into David’s adversary in due time.

David, I was saying, is facing a strike in his company. “Management is terrible and what little is produced doesn’t benefit the workers,” he’s informed by the workers. Let’s expand on that: “One of the workers was caught by the police having murdered his wife during a dispute over a piece of bread. The chief engineer killed himself after catching his wife in the act, in an adulterous relationship, to earn something. None of our children studies, eats, plays, and our pregnant wives don’t have medical care, because we haven’t received our wages for more than six months now.” David is upset, the strike can derail his plans, he can be fired, his fraud may be discovered. After the meeting, after hitting Vera, he drives to a bar and sits down drinking with a friend, Lourenço, who offers him a solution to his predicament: witchcraft. David is incredulous, but Lourenço vouches for its powers. “The madness of beliefs shakes the whole universe and Lourenço is no exception. In the current atomic age, people from every culture listen to the language of the bones. Businessmen seek astrologers and card readers to know the fluctuations of the currency in the next morning. Right inside casinos, rich and addicted people consult the prophecies of the shells to know their luck during the game. The wise men of the West also consulted the stars and a star told them: in Bethlehem Christ was born, the one who’ll die for the sins of Mankind.” David has misgiving – “I’m a Christian, I’ve sworn to renounce to all manifestations of the devil.” – but eventually he uses magic to succeed and becomes embroiled in a coven of male witches, who use their powers to end the strike, at a price: he has to provide them with young female victims for rituals.

Vera and David enter magic through different roads at the same time. Magic is present throughout the novel. Vera herself discovered the magical world very young. “Vera was about eight years. She splashed in the muddy lagoons of the suburbs with a group of friends when she saw a floating bag. Child curiosity led them to grab the bag and open it. Two newly-born children were inside. Screaming followed and police activity. At first it was thought it was one of the usual cases of babies thrown into the garbage, but investigation proved otherwise: the children had been sacrificed to the thunder god by a couple from the Matutuine region, land of thunder tamers. They believe twins are friends of the thunder, they attract the rays that cause misery.” Interesting paragraph, throwing newborns into the garbage is a usual practice, but no more extraordinary than human sacrifices. As David meanwhile finds out, it’s still happening, even in spite of the Communists’ efforts to destroy the old myths and sorcerers, who simply went underground, continuing to operate in society. “We were despised, humiliated, fought, but we endured. We gave support to the political regimes that persecuted us. We gave strength and courage to the ancient and modern warriors. We elevated the morale of the fighters during the war against the colonial regimes. Today we give spiritual support to the politicians who yesterday persecuted us, to priests, ministers, bankers and even academics in high positions. We psychologically rehabilitate war criminals. We console the people in times of great crises. We’ve always had a social role of great utility. So long as the world exists, we’ll exist, because sorcery is the work of God, and not human invention.”

David’s involvement in witches’ meetings constrains him to procure girls to sacrifice in order maintain his magical powers. For this purpose he enlists his unwilling daughter by poisoning her and using her to attract school friends. As Vera begins to grow suspicious of him, she learns from Inês, David’s mother, that David’s father made a similar pact with the dark forces in return for good luck. As a result, David was fated to be driven into the world of magic in order for his father’s end of the bargain. David slips into this role with awareness that he’s turning into a monster, but unable to stop it, obeying fate. Inês, in order to save the family, reveals that their son, Clemente, has his own latent magical powers, and he’s initiated into a magical path that ends with him turning into a powerful mage. Yes, this novel’s a dozy! Magical skirmishes, visions, spells, spirits, rituals. The reader may prefer to read it as a parable about man’s thirst for power, money and security. As Clemente has the wisdom to appreciate, “Everything father did, he did it to improve life. And he did it for us.” And perhaps that’s what makes David’s action even more damning. 

Read for the 2014 Women Challenge.


  1. Miguel, the combination of this novel's social realist strains and the magic plot elements you mention seems like a strange mixture. Do they really work well together? Have been enjoying your posts this month as usual, so I'm sorry for my lack of comments this far (these writers are almost all new to me, so I appreciate the effort you're putting in to introducing them to a Portuguese-language African lit neophyte like me).

    1. Richard, don't feel obliged to comment unless you have something to say. But I'm glad to know you're reading.

      Yes, I think the novel works well. It's a weird novel, not really magical realism, more like dark fairy-tale with its own logic. And, well, Chiziane is just exaggerating reality a bit: Mozambique is a kind of a social hell, and there is widespread use of magic there, so she's really just writing about what's around her.

  2. Miguel - I'm terribly far behind on reading your contributions to Portuguese Language African Literature Month, let alone on reading any of the works themselves, but I wanted to pass along this timely post from Writers No One Reads, in case you hadn't seen it:

    1. Scott, thanks. That cover's amazing! I wonder what authors were included. For now I'm done with Angola, next we're having a bit of Mozambican poetry.

      Don't be in a hurry, the post are not going anywhere :)