Friday, 17 October 2008

under the frangipani [w. mia couto]

Couto's Sleepwalking Land has stayed with me, even though the tradition of oral storytelling his work derives from feels a long way removed from the literary tradition I belong to. The work of this writer from Mozambique has felt peculiarly significant over the course of the past weeks, for reasons explored below.

The narrative of Under The Frangipani is superficially straightforward. A policeman, Izidine Naita, is sent to a remote fort to investigate the murder of the mightily named Vastome Excellency, the fort overseer, a kind of head honcho. Besides one nurse, who flies to the fort with Izidine on a helicopter, the only people who live there are an odd collection of elderly waifs and strays. These witnesses are questioned by the policeman, one-by-one, and each one successively claims responsibility for Vastome's murder. This potentially quaint, Agatha Christie-esque story is underpinned by darker realities. It emerges that Vastome had been smuggling weapons and hoarding them at the fort. Izidine has essentially been sent not to discover Vastome's fate, but to recover the weapons. When it's clear he's failed, his own life is put in danger.

The story is complicated by the fact that the policeman has been possessed by the story's narrator, Ermelindo, a man who's been dead for 200 years, buried under the frangipani tree. Ermelindo took part in the construction of the fort and the jetty which still stands. This was built to receive slave ships at the beginning of a seemingly uninterrupted dark history for the country which now wants to dig up his bones and proclaim him as a national hero.

Couto weaves the threads of his story together, dovetailing Ermelindo's narration of Izidine's enquiry with the verbatim confessions of the various inhabitants of the fort. The fort is a small island, cut off from the rest of the country, only approachable by helicopter. As in Sleepwalking Land, war has ravaged what might have been taken for normal society, so that it's become fragmented, with isolated enclaves surviving on their own, although even these cannot resist the wider chaos of the country. It is clearly not by chance that there are no families here, no children, not even grown adults, just the elderly, struggling to survive.

Recent events across the world have raised the spectre of even the most affluent societies facing increased economic and political pressures. There has been much gnashing of teeth and grinding of forelocks at the dystopian possibilities that could be engendered by a kamikaze use of renewable fuels coupled with an insatiable demand for growth. Of course, as one comment on an economics blog I was reading last week noted, in Africa the weak have rarely been anything other than susceptible to the destructive powers of unregulated capital. The commentator observed that the affluent West was now learning what it feels like to see one's destiny in the hands of young, ignorant pursuers of greed, and ended his careful comments with the hyperbolic, 'Welcome to hell.'

Apart from those in my grandparents' generation who lived through the conclusion of World War 2 on mainland Europe, very few of us have any idea what this dystopian future would be like. A report on Newsnight from one of the few journalists to have visited Mogadishu in recent months gives the slightest hint: buildings that are nothing more than ghosts, a place where even a well- armed UN force will not travel so far from base that they can't get back before nightfall. Mozambique, like other parts of Africa which have barely benefited from the great economic prosperity which the world is so scared of losing, has suffered in similar ways to Somalia. Given this, Couto's books really do feel like dispatches from some kind of front line. Only in those societies where chaos has at some point become the norm rather than the exception will it be possible to discover what it might be like when a projected societal breakdown has become the norm.

In which sense, Couto's mixed messages, whilst dystopian (again it is worth noting the parallels between McCarthy's exalted The Road and Couto's unknown Sleepwalking Land), seem far from disheartening. There remains a clear, engrained notion of a social fabric, which can be rooted both in an idea of fellowship and nature, most obviously, in this instance, enshrined within the frangipani tree the book is named after. The relationship between the soil and the humans who live on it (also known as history) has a power which is all too easy to forget, but which Couto's elderly and irascible would-be murderers understand.

One thing I find about Couto's books is that they demand I adapt my notions of reading. His books seem like a journey down a lazy, meandering river: they cannot be rushed, because each aspect of the narrative is a story in itself, with its own beginning, middle and end. Although the books are short, progress through them is dense. They don't have the compelling nature of Western narratives, continually driving towards the consumption of the next page and the next. It feels more like a journey through a village of standing stones: no matter what happens, the book and its stories will still be there tomorrow. Perhaps this is because the stories belong as much to the soil as they do to the mind.

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