WOMAN OF THE ASHES
By Mia Couto
Translated by David Brookshaw
255 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
Mia Couto’s abiding preoccupation, over the course of nearly a dozen novels, has been the ravages wrought by 15 years of civil war on his native Mozambique. In his latest book, “Woman of the Ashes,” those ravages precede the country’s very existence; war, as he writes, is “a midwife.” Set in the late 19th century and skillfully translated by David Brookshaw, this is the first novel of a trilogy about the last days of the “so-called State of Gaza.” This vast African empire, led by the legendary warrior-chief Ngungunyane, once covered much of what is now Mozambique. To give birth to his embattled world, Couto, a recent finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, draws from a trove of historical documents, alternating between the perspective of a disgraced Portuguese sergeant, Germano de Melo, who is consigned to a remote area of what, as he puts it, “we so pompously call ‘Lands of the Crown,’” and that of a young VaChopi girl, Imani, who serves as his translator. From the myths that swirled around Ngungunyane (and still do), Couto conjures what he has described as the “many and small stories” out of which history is made, offering a profound meditation on war, the fragility of empire and the ways in which language shapes us.
It is with the 15-year-old Imani that the novel begins. Her name, we are told, means “Who’s there?,” a question that speaks as much to her own still-forming identity, and that of her country, as it does to the fears that assail her village in the wake of Ngungunyane’s approach. Salvation, or rather its promise, arrives in the form of de Melo, who has traveled hundreds of miles across “the vast hinterland” from the poorly fortified capital of Lourenço Marques. But de Melo is an army of one; the Portuguese soldiers and their platoon of Angolans never arrive. “I was under the impression that we actually ruled over our territories,” he writes as he settles into the town’s run-down garrison. “In fact, our presence has been limited for centuries to the estuaries of certain rivers, and to the provisioning of fresh water for ships.” Like the Portuguese empire, which seems to be unraveling before it is even formed, the sergeant can’t hold himself together — his reports to his superiors grow increasingly, inappropriately personal; his hands disappear before his eyes; he is haunted by dreams of Ngungunyane stuffing sand and ivory down his throat: “You wanted our land. …”
Through his fevered days, de Melo’s bulwark is Imani, to whom he feels a profound attraction, one that she at times reciprocates, at other times finds repellent. Yet both Imani and de Melo are, in a sense, displaced. De Melo because he is unmoored, “fallen sick from Africa, the whole of it”; Imani because she has one foot in the world of her tribe — its legends, memories, rituals — and the other among the Portuguese, whose language she has mastered. Imani, not de Melo, is the book’s conscience. Her story bridges, much as Couto himself does, various narrative modes: the epistolary and the oracular, the chronicle of the colonial expedition and the fabulism of a universe unbounded by time. In a world where words have a way of slipping their bounds — a missing Bible is discovered chewed to bits, the “divine word” literally “chomped by a goat” — language nonetheless has a strange power. De Melo gets “an uncomfortable feeling at seeing a black person writing.” Imani, fleeing down a river with him, realizes that she has learned to write in order to tell “the stories of those who have no form of writing.”
Read Automatic By TracePress.com Company
if this Post need Change Tell Us!