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Dina Salustio: A Louca de Serrano (The Madwoman of Serrano)

This novel has several claims to fame. It is the first novel written by a woman to be published in Cape Verde and the first to be translated into English. Indeed, as far as I am aware, there are not many other Cape Verdean novels translated into English. I am only familiar with The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germán Almeida. The only Cape Verdean novel on my site has not been translated into English. I could add further claims for this novel. I am guessing that it is the first magic realist novel from Cape Verde and also the first feminist novel.

As mentioned above, this a magic realist novel. As the title tells us, it is set primarily though not exclusively in the remote village of Serrano, a village of one hundred and ninety-three souls including a young madwoman several infants and three babies on the way, two of them twin girls and also a remote village steeped in strange customs, half beautiful, half woman, half man.

Before we get to the village as described, we learn a little about its history. In particular, for a long time, it had no name because there was no need for one. The place had never asked to be identified. When some government officials turned up ans asked the name, no-one knew so, as usual, the midwife was consulted. She went into a trance and named the village Serrano.

The midwife is key to the village. She has three roles. The first role is, of course, midwifery. However, she also helped men who were impotent and it was also her role to provide boys with their first sexual experience. Obviously, over time, there were different midwives. We only see one occasion when one midwife dies and another is not readily available to take her place. Without a midwife, no woman could become pregnant and no boy be sexually initiated. In short, she was very powerful.

While we follow the stories of the inhabitants of Serrano (and, in some cases, elsewhere) we mainly follow the stories of a few key characters. The eponymous madwoman is not a main character but she plays a key role. Firstly, she is the good friend of one of the key characters. Secondly, she is something of a Cassandra, giving warnings to the inhabitants but often being ignored and/or mocked. She comments that the villagers had bodies but no brains. She lives to the age of thirty-three and then is reborn, aged nine. On one occasion, she almost destroys the village, as she seems to have special powers.

Jéronimo does get out as he has to do military service. He goes off to the city and learns a trade as a mechanic. However, when he returns to Serrano, he promises his father that he will stay and stay he does, albeit very unwillingly. It is through Jéronimo we learn a lot about Serrano, e.g. seeing his sexual initiation with the midwife. He marries Maninha. It is through this couple that we learn about the sexual life of the village.

Women seem to take time to procreate, comparing themselves unfavourably in this respect with animals. However, they generally eventually do. When they do not, it is the women that are blamed, not the men. These nominally infertile women go off to the city there they do get pregnant. Maninha does not get pregnant but does not go to the city. His father suggests he gets another woman and makes her pregnant.

One day, at his remote plot, a strange woman turns up, barely able to speak. She has a locket with the inscription F San Martin, so Jéronimo calls her Fernanda. He keeps her a secret from the village, and she stays in his hut. She will get pregnant, and have a child called Filipa, whom Jéronimo adores and, not surprisingly, Maninha does not. Fernanda will disappear and Filipa will eventually go off to the city, making her way but unsure of her parentage, losing touch with both parents but having a daughter of her own. This complicated issue will be key to the book.

Linked to this story is the story of Genoveva, the spoilt child of a rich family in the city. Genoveva is the only child as the husband became infertile after a messy affair with a woman who has a sexually transmitted disease.

These stories are certainly important but we also learn a lot about the villagers and it is is by no means positive.

People in the village learned to accept whatever was thrown at them without explanation or complaint. There seems to be a lack of ambition, as we see in various villagers but, in particular, with Jéronimo.

Women’s issue are also to the fore. Men believed that ideas were best preserved though silence, that bringing them out in the open was to expose yourself and risk being crucified. Women, of course, are blamed for infertility when, as we learn, it just as likely to be the man who is infertile. While the midwife is respected, she is still considered a witch. Women are expected, when infertile, to go off to the city to get cured. One woman who does not pays a terrible price.

We also learn a lot about their sexual habits. For example, people don’t kiss in Serrano and their sex is as with animals.

As mentioned above, magic realism is also key. From the powers of the madwoman and the midwives to various events that take place in Serrano, Salustio uses magic realism wisely and sparingly.

Above all, Salustio tells a wonderfully inventive story, mixing in magic realism, creative story-telling, the strange behaviour of a group of people in a remote village, family saga, city vs country, women’s issue, sex and, inevitably, tragedy.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Edições Spleen
First English translation by Dedalus in 2019
Translated by Jethro Soutar