In this excerpt from his novel Quantas madrugadas tem a noite (How many dawns has the night), Ondjaki gives us a farcical view of urban catastrophe provoked by human folly.
Then lemme take a step back to fill you in on the whole business: we started with the tick because now I know it came from the tick, but nobody knew at the time, you get my drift? Take it easy, there’s no confusion, there’s a whole bunch of different confusions: first, the dead man had two ladies; second, there was that kerfuffle over the widows of the state, the revenues for veterans, doesn’t that ring a bell? That was in the weeks when the downpours came, don’t you see? Then take it easy, I’m going to duly situate you.
It was during that rainstorm that nobody understood, they were even sayin it was ’cause of the death of that dude Savimbi, who was a witch doctor, and that now all that rain was ’cause of him dying like that without saying farewell, killed dead all of a sudden, you see them sorcerers need a whole bunch of farewell ceremonies, it’s not just point an AK-47, pull the trigger, and bingo! And the rains were there to confirm it––Angola soaked, I remember it well, they were days from another world…In Luanda, bro? Even the goddess Kianda, no stranger to the waters, was stuck!
Buddy: the world’s sewer? End of the river’s course where the rain takes its vengeance? Rain was no longer rain! We even earned the respect of our Mozambican brothers, the real experts in flooding. The sky’s seams had burst and the seamstress-angel had checked out—and here we were, sitting out the aquatic consequences: more catastrophe, less catastrophe, who even wants to hear about it? Internationally we stand out for war and famine, the only rain that interests anyone in coming here to suffer is the petroleum-diamantine rain, you get it, right? other kinds of rains––of mud of fat mosquitoes that kill kids of fever in the pre-dawn hours, or else a rain of sudden smiles or the cracking of asphalt never to be repaired, or rain dampening the tents and roof tiles of people from the provinces displaced by our big fat and fattening war—those are rains better suited to poor people and nobody came here so his eyes would be pained by having to look at that: to go out on a whim was already to go for a swim, to take a drive was to sail the seas, to live was just to suffer. It’s our people themselves who give me a pain in the heart: to laugh is to laugh, an eternal act of the lips, and not just laughing to oneself but to others as well, to take aim at life and leave a stain. Now it looks like I’m going to have to tell you this: here it’s life that's adopted, as though it were a little girl with rheumy eyes that you search and find gentleness—you like her, and slowly you get used to her. Here life resembles a little stepdaughter we take into our home, a girl fleeing the war… So I’m losing my way, buddy? I’m adrift on my sodden memories of those days? It’s because you weren't there: here we treat suffering well! It stops mistreating us and an Angolan gets nervous: the rain, a near catastrophe? We took it in stride, smiles, new business dealings came in with the tide, now you can learn to swim in an asphalt pool, your ex-street, the ex-trajectory of dusty feet. Without the slightest doubt, it was a lot of rain, only that: there are lots of us here, too. Is there new strength in unity? Dear fellow: it’s in suffering that a people’s smile becomes one––a single faceless mouth laughing in misfortune’s face, mollifying it. Are you joking? Why misfortune, social flooding?––it’s almost always a question of looking, how you look at it. Don’t look so shocked, hey, get this: for you the baobab can be an ugly-withered little tree. But! And if I can lend you broader vistas: an old-robust tree, often pretty when it shows off the setting sun.
Even when he’s behind schedule—you thought it'd be any different?—Burkina doesn’t give breakfast a miss even where peaceful waters flow, I mean the waters aren’t as peaceful as they usually are, but even so he goes to the porch, calls the kid WWK (Walk With Kare) to eat breakfast together and sit watching the rain falling from the skies.
the whole tap! am i right, Uncle Burkina?
the kid asked, Burkina just nodded his head, the milk slowly streaming from his mouth, that stomach thing he’s got, a special milk the guy drank till he felt not more pain from the nervousness brought on by life’s daily routine.
Dear fellow, it was no longer funny to talk about catastrophe and excess water, I’ll put you in the picture: two districts of Lobito, one in Huambo and one in Moxico, had already disappeared; in Boavista, folks everywhere were bathing daily, not of their own accord or some sudden desire for corporeal cleanliness, but because that was the only way to round off their day, their assigned duty of standing out in the rain, eyeing the sky with open, damp eyes, inquiring of God, for those who had a God, when it all was going to end, then nothing at all, no sign of letting up, not the slightest crack to let rays of sunlight in, not a fig-leaf of hope for a dry spell—just water.
There was no longer any charm in interviewing nor in photographing nor in filming, as here charm, too, had died of drowning, kids in the street and street kids still guffawed now and then, their means of getting around their neighborhood was a wooden boat, an inflatable tire from an Ural or Ifa truck, oh man, Soviet technology!, many died of drowning from never having learned to swim over the asphalt, which was no longer visible. International television coverage, are you kidding?, they were reporting the facts, comparing us with Chinese rainstorms with the difference that here we had neither rice nor helicopters to offer a lifeline, and one guy they picked up walking through the rain during the hours prior to the worst thundershower they wanted to interview, he just stood there, like he was defying the heavens, right in front of a church that was even open and receiving people but he didn’t want to go in
but why aren’t you going into the church, sir?
the reporter of foreign misery asked him
I’m not a believer!
the dude, taking it easy
but at least don’t stay out in the rain, get inside the church
the reporter almost forced him, while he stood there damply, raindrops on his lips and drooling spittle, plain-as-plain by the look in his eyes that he had no patience left, when he responded
oh comrade . . . just leave me in peace, for fuck’s sake . . . I’m going straight into the church, to kneel down in there and all, being a believer why wouldn’t I?
From Maianga on down, down to downtown, the traffic still flowed like always, though only jeeps could get through fine, but watch out, it was getting dangerous there, invisible potholes, even Rua António Barroso had swallowed two cars, vanished just like that, according to the testimony of those in the know among the audience lining building windows, who saw one car go, and another bigger one that tried to get through right after, disappear as well, not just disappear from sight, into the lower waters, but disappear like a crane came the next day and found the pothole empty, some people said.
Kianda’s tentacles reach all the way up here
others put forward the theory that the two cars had been ripped off overnight, I dunno.
Burkina’s minivan, its reinforced shock absorbers and suspension sparing him from the jolt at each curve or pothole, was still in working order, and with the delay of having overslept due to recollections of the night before, he sent Sete to hook up the police siren and had nothing to write in the blank on the form that the policemen would see, because he didn’t have either the Honourable Lady Judge or a dead man on board, so he just wrote the famous initials PUN (Prostitutes’ Union—National), but, with the luck of those who rush when they’re late, a cop perched right there on Mutamba, skinny with hunger, like a bald, rain-soaked version of the dwarf Pintainho in the cartoons, orders the guys to stop and stands there, saying hum . . . hum, chewing his lips, eyeing the makeshift siren and trying to read in the box on the slate. And then
good morning, comrades… Pleeze present your personal identification and registration documents for the car
Sete started to pull out the documents while he dismantled the siren, and everybody gave up their documents; then the dwarf asked permission to enter the van, because if he didn’t, everybody’s documents were gonna get soaked.
Excerpt from Quantas madrugadas tem a noite © Ondjaki. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Stephen Henighan. All rights reserved.