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Abdulai Sila: A Última Tragédia (The Ultimate Tragedy)

This is something of a strange book, as the plot meanders, as Sila seems to concentrate first on one person, then on another, then on a third, before finally returning to the first person, without giving a clear reason for the transition. It does not matter, as Sila’s basic premise is clear – that the white rulers (in this case, the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau) are cruel and arbitrary in their treatment of their black subjects.

The story starts with Ndani, a black woman, who is probably only thirteen years old (she does not know her own age, considering knowledge of one’s age one of the many mysterious characteristics of whites), out looking for a job as a maid. She has left her village where her only real friend seemed to have been her stepmother (her father’s fourth wife) and is now knocking on every door looking for work with the few basic words of Portuguese she has learned from her stepmother. She meets with rejection, till she finally arrives at the house of Dona Maria Deolinda Leitão, who is watering her garden. Her response is to turn the hose on Ndani and then to go into the house. However, when Dona Deolinda’s husband turns up, he is more sympathetic and reminds his wife that they were looking for a maid. Ndani is taken into the house where, on being given soup, she promptly vomits and faints. However, she is given the job. Dona Deolinda mishears her name and thinks she is called Dania, a name which, for Dona Deolinda, sounds Russian and therefore communist so Ndani’s name is changed to Daniela. Dona Deolinda is not a particularly good employer, generally abusing Ndani, shouting at her and having her run around. She only starts being nice when she want to persuade Ndani to come to church, which Ndani has to accept.

Dona Deolinda’s husband has a job in the civil service and is looking for a promotion but he does not have the necessary qualifications. When his wife decides to take up good works and set up religious schools in the villages, training the locals as teachers, she comes to the attention of the Governor. When she is invited to the Governor’s house, her husband asks her to use her influence. When she returns home early however, she finds that her husband probably does not deserve her support.

At this point we lose touch with Dona Deolinda and her husband and move to the story of the local régulo (the local village chief). The new administrator tells him that he has to pay taxes, something he has never had to do before and he is upset by this, till he despatches his advisers to investigate and finds out that it is a joke. Deeply offended, he plots his revenge – spending pages on thinking about what he can do and what the consequences might be for him, a black man – before coming up with the idea of building a nicer house than that of the administrator and using a white man’s help to do so. All of this story line becomes a somewhat murky but it results in his acquiring a sixth wife, specifically to live in his new house. We do not know till the next section who this wife is but we can guess. Sadly for Ndani, for, of course, she is the sixth wife, the régulo dies suddenly and unexpectedly, soon after she has been forcibly married to him. She then takes up with the local teacher who had helped the régulo draw up his decidedly vague will. Finally she seems to be happy with him but, once again, the white man strikes and poor Ndani is again left adrift.

Sila tells an interesting story, even if it is, all too often, meandering. He does mock the whites, all too often commenting on their foibles through the eyes of his characters, such as their strange love for flowers or Doan Deolinda’s push for her husband’s promotion. However, there is no doubt that he feels that most if not all the ills of his people are to be laid at the door of the colonial Portuguese. Indeed, his dedication is to all those people who have dreamed of a dawn without foreign domination and who have fought for the day when men will simply be men. And one cannot argue with that sentiment.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Ku Si Mon Editora
Published in English as The Ultimate Tragedy by Dedalus in 2017
Translated by Jethro Soutar