Mozambican author Mia Couto has practically created a genre all his own. His novels, from Sleepwalking Land and The Last Flight of the Flamingo to Under the Frangipani and A River Called Time, brim with a quality that may seem like magical realism, but it is in fact something altogether more personal. Call it Couto’s African spiritual realism. The land is pregnant with spirits as well as landmines; the souls of loved ones are rooted in trees; and rivers offer visions of the flow of humanity far beyond their banks. His characters are a mix of peasants and former soldiers, bird-sellers and fishermen and street barbers, anonymous and unsung widows and orphans of the soil.
Here’s how he describes a loner named Gentipó in The Blind Fisherman, for example: “one of those men who never leave their shadow.” In the story, “A Gentle Voice of Dust,” Couto writes: “This man produced nothingness, yet out of the palm of his hand there flowed a continent. Within him was the mouth of the land. His gesture exuded vast green spaces but he himself, Gentipó, didn’t feature in any roll of honour.” Meanwhile, another character, in “So You Haven’t Flown Yet, Carlota Gentina?” explains, “I are sad. No, I’m not mistaken. What I’m saying is correct. Or perhaps: we am sad? Because inside me, I’m not alone. I’m many. And they all fight over my one and only life . . . . That’s why, when I tell my story, I mix myself up, a mulatto not of races, but of existences.”
Couto’s language is rich, fertile, and often full of riddles that turn reality, as we know it, on its head. His stories straddle African and European worlds, and his preoccupations range across issues of race and identity, national culture and legacies of the country’s civil war. And while these themes are presented and toyed with in his delightful, often playful, book of stories, The Blind Fisherman, his latest novel, The Tuner of Silences, also translated into shimmering prose by David Brookshaw, is a true tour-de-force of modern African writing.
The Tuner of Silences is set in a sort-of double remove or exile from the modern world and mindset. We are in “Jezoosalem,” a self-contained community of just one family, which has marched away from the city and deeper into the Mozambican jungle—reversing the path of others fleeing the war-torn countryside—to settle on the site of an abandoned game preserve. Why they’ve turned their backs on civilization is the central mystery of the book; all we know is that the patriarch, Silvestre Vitalício, who has lost his wife and quite possibly his mind, is suspicious of a world without love and has thus forsaken all memory, dreams, cities, and forms of government.
It is Silvestre’s eleven-year-old son, Mwanito, however, who gives voice to the myriad questions of this book. He is the “tuner of silences,” his father’s quiet and soulful companion when Silvestre is overcome with yearning for his lost world. But there is so much Mwanito remains curious about: What did his mother look like, what did she sound like? (She died, an apparent suicide, when he was three.) What is a woman like? A city? A grandfather? Mwanito’s older brother, Ntunzi, helps him to summon images. “If you caress a book like this,” he tells Mwanito cryptically, “you’ll know what a grandfather is like.”
The joy, and magic, of this strange and enchanting book is in listening to Mwanito describe their isolated landscape, an Edenic refuge nevertheless teeming with life: “We complained that we were alone? Well, everything that was around us were people, humans turned into stones, into trees, into animals. And even into a river.” When an outsider, Marta, arrives from Lisbon grieving over her disappeared husband, a veteran of the Portuguese colonial war who has returned to Africa to die, Mwanito’s allegiance—and the future of the settlement itself—will be severely tested. “Just like me, Marta was a foreigner in the world,” Mwanito thinks, as he pores over her intimate diary. “She wrote memories, I tuned silences.”
If Couto’s stories offer sketches of an African shadow reality, The Tuner of Silences delves deeper into the dramatic and poetic possibilities of such a world. The book’s characters are complex and fleshed-out, besieged by doubts and secret pasts, and bound in different ways to one another. Couto’s hypnotic writing, too, takes its cue from verses of poetry that open each chapter, helping to set the book’s allusive tone. This is a book about love and memory, death and war; about fathers and sons and the nature of women; about African ideas of existence and the liberating power of writing. As Mwanito discovers, “The river made me see the other side of the world. Writing returned my mother’s lost face to me.” Couto’s literary cosmos, immersed in the history of Mozambique and the inner life of its people, is unforgettable. These two books are a wonderful chance to discover his visionary world.