In the first story of The Blind Fisherman, a collection of Mia Couto's early stories, an old woman watches her husband dig her grave. “We are poor, all we have is nothingness,” he explains. “I think it better that we start digging your grave now.” As he digs, a storm breaks and the old man catches fever. By the end of the story, in an expected but satisfying twist, it seems as though he will die. Before falling, finally, asleep, he says to his wife, “I can't leave that grave without a use. I must kill you.”
This story was originally published in Portuguese in 1986 when Mozambiquan writer Mia Couto was thirty-one, and you can see – if in a fairly unspectacular fashion – some of the strengths that have won Couto his share of prizes. Among these strengths is a remarkable willingness to follow his imaginative instincts, form be damned. This is a risk, and the fact that he runs it gives his writing an unsentimental force.
But there's another side to Couto's writing, which you see it when his narrators adopt – as his narrators often do – a tone of cosmic detachment. To understand what I mean, let's finish that first story. As her husband lays dying, the old woman, expecting to be killed in the morning, dreams of her “children and grandchildren. Life itself was there, unrolling pregnant with promise.” When she wakes, we are faced with the following sentence: “The noises of morning began to summon her out of herself, and she tried hard not to abandon her slumber.”
In Janet Frame's autobiography An Angel at My Table, Frame talks about showing her writing to Frank Sargeson, a well-regarded and resolutely working-class New Zealand writer. Sargeson – who happened to be letting her live in his shed – came across her using the word “rose” and gave what would be one of his only pieces of advice: "'Never say ‘rise’, say, ‘get up'" The lesson here is not that 'rose' is pretentious and 'got up' is not (though that may well be true), so much that 'literary' is not a synonym for 'fancy.'
So where does that leave Couto? Let's return to that sentence quoted above, as it encapsulates the weaker bits of these early stories. Couto writes 'summon her out of herself' and 'tried hard not to abandon her slumber.' Why not 'woke her up' and 'tried to stay asleep'? These are, of course, obnoxious questions, and we can always take a stab at why Couto made his choices. The woman, after all, believes she is about to die—and her dreams are of her family in a kind of afterlife. This is no ordinary moment. Perhaps this explains the fancy diction.
But perhaps not: these sorts of sentences occur in every one of Couto's stories; Couto, for his part, seems unable to leave his sentences alone. Elsewhere in that first story, he writes, “Her worldly goods were spread out on the ground: bowls, baskets, a pestle. Around her was emptiness, even the wind was alone.” This second sentence, with its bombast, quite simply ruins the first, just like the faux-poetry of “all we have is nothingness” ruins the simple statement on poverty I quoted at the beginning.
To give a final example from this first story, Couto writes, “In the shadow of her repose she watched the sun, king of light, gradually drain.” To be obnoxious once more, does the sun really drain? Is the shadow really 'of her repose,' or is she reposing in shadow? And is it really necessary to describe the sun as the king of light?
Maybe it is—Couto's stories suggest, over and again, that bare, prosaic life is not enough. And yet the strongest and most affecting stories are those that place the fantastic and numinous alongside, and without embellishment, the quotidian realities of starvation, poverty and war – without letting former overwhelm the latter.
Take, for example, 'The Whales of Quissico,' set during a famine. It starts with our narrator hearing about a beached whale whose great mouth provides “peanuts, meat, olive oil. This being a famine, he decides to see for himself. As our narrator travels to the coast, he sees “Signs of war... all along the road. The charred remains of buses coupled with the wretchedness of the machambas punished by drought.” When he arrives, he can see no sign of the whale. Eventually, his friends arrive and tell him that 'whale' is actually code for arms shipments from South Africa, which are being used to supply the anti-communist rebels.
There seems to be something about magic-realist writing (a badge we may as well pin to Couto) that demands the pose of wisdom. And so, Couto stocks his tales with portentous phrasing, even when the content doesn't really portend all that much – such as when we learn that “it is a truth: the dead ought not to return, to cross the frontier of their world." At other times, however, you get sentences like this, sentences that mix the cosmic and the casual in a startling – and startlingly successful – way: '”It's not enough to be alive. Take my word for it, living is more than that. And so that is how Jossias had come to a conclusion on the matter of dying and not dying.”
Couto is the kind of writer to refer, unabashedly, to the soul, to life, to the universe. He is the kind of writer to use words like 'nothingness.' The only possible conclusion – and it is a pretty obvious one – is that he bloody well means to use these words. Just as well: the failures in these stories are those of style – such as calling your story “The Flagpoles of Beyondwards” – and not substance.
For there is a great deal of substance, here. While these are tough stories, Couto is never condescending. He never mocks the beliefs of his characters, or treats them as anthropological subjects; to the contrary, he goes out of his way to enact them. This kind of hard-nosed empathy is rare, and it is quite clearly the quality that has ensured the popularity of these stories, which are happily published in English once more.
Matt McGregor lives in Wellington, where he works for Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Monthly Review, The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Millions and The Literary Review. Other writing by Matt can be found at www.oldcommaforeign.com.