Saturday, 19 April 2008

sleepwalking land [w. mia couto]

Sleepwalking Land opens like the book MacCarthy might have stolen The Road from. A young man, Muidinga, walks down a highway, deserted, in the company of an elder man, who might be his father, and might not be. They arrive at a bus, which has been burnt out. Inside are dead bodies, which keep them company. Who knows what is on the road. It's safer with the dead. One of the dead men had a case. They prise open the case. Inside they find a journal of another young man, Kundzu, telling of his wanderings through the dreamland that Mozambique has become. The young man reads the journals to his elderly companion. They never travel away from the bus, but they travel across the country, as the reader does, in the company of Kundzu's notebooks.

Couto's novel, first published in 1992, seems to nod its head at magical realism, or maybe this is just African realism. In this particular catastrophic world, realism as it has been defined in 'the west' has no value. The world contains too much that is unspeakable to tell what has been done. The writer has to mediate reality through fable and digression. Kundzu's journey involves a stay on a wrecked liner with a Sirenesque woman, a search for her son, his own brother turning into a chicken, and other haphazard, near Chaplinesque escapades. Reading Kundzu's narrative offers Muidinga a way of filling in the gaps of the things he cannot remember, or has chosen not to.

The text is steeped in a tradition of oral history as well as post-modern playfulness. Cuoto seems to be exploring how to write about a world where nothing is reliable: rivers can turn to mud in an instant; ghosts can rise up at the drop of a hat. It may be that there are allegories within the text which passed me by. The reading of it was not always straightforward, but gradually the text's tendrils took hold. In a world which seems as much shaped by dystopias as utopias, Couto's Sleepwalking Land is a playful companion, hinting at what perhaps lies beyond the catastrophe MacCarthy describes, once the tragedy has become routine, and the western fantasies of order have been just about forgotten altogether.

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