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Mia Couto: O Último Voo do Flamingo (The Last Flight of the Flamingo)

All too often we see the conflicts in Africa from the European perspective but this one, albeit written by a white man, makes every effort to show it from the African perspective. The UN troops in the remote town of Tizangara are exploding and no-one really seems to know why. Are they stepping on land-mines? Possibly is the answer but, if so, why only the UN soldiers and not anyone else? Couto aims to show how the Africans see these events, starting with the discovery of a large, severed penis on the road. While it might seem obvious that the penis has been detached from its unfortunate owner as a result of an explosion, for the locals the explanation was almost certainly more supernatural. The narrator is an interpreter, a man who tries to keep out of controversy but who is summoned by the administrator, Estêvão Jonas, to assist. Jonas is a former guerrilla fighter who has now become local administrator and who is totally corrupt, stealing from the hospital for his benefit. His wife, Ermelinda, who insists on being called The First Lady urges him on. The narrator is summoned because some important foreign officials are coming to investigate the explosions and Jonas feels, to show his importance, he needs an interpreter. One of the members of the UN mission is Italian. The narrator, as he points out, does not speak Italian but that does not seem to matter to Jonas. English, German, Italian, they are all the same.

The mission arrives and it turns out that the Italian, Massimo Risi, speaks Portuguese (but not the local languages). However, the narrator is sent to help him. By his own admission, Risi does not understand Africa but needs to get to the bottom of this crisis to further his own career. He stays in the guest house which seems to have limited facilities – no water, except what is dripping down the walls and electricity for only an hour a day. He finds an old woman, Temporina, who may or may not be old. It seems that she is around twenty, as regards her body, but has the head of an old woman. Risi falls asleep and dreams that they are having sex. But is it a dream? Risi starts his investigation with Anna Godwilling, the local prostitute (and only one in town), for who better to recognise a penis? But Risi is finding Africa and the Africans more and more complicated, with their culture, their folklore and their superstitions. The witch doctor tells him that exploding toads are causing the death of the soldiers. The administrator, when reporting to his superior, is more concerned about telling his superior about his relations with Ermelinda, his wife. Nothing seems to be straightforward and no-one seems to be able to get to the bottom of the explosions, which continue while Risi is there. Indeed, even Jonas’ Pakistani guard blows up and his severed penis gets caught in Jonas’ fan.

Things are further complicated when Sulplício turns up. Sulplício is the narrator’s father. When the narrator was growing up, his father behaved strangely, often spending time away, though in the town on his own. He is now very anti-European and wants Mozambique to be run by Mozambicans in the old way. Risi is no match for him and things only get worse for him and for Jonas. That Couto’s message is Africa for the Africans is clear and it is also clear that African ways are not the same as European or North American ways. The exploding UN officials are explained as are the flamingos and their flights but Mozambique remains a mystery to the UN and to outsiders. Couto is really a first-class writer, showing us a very different perspective from the standard European one but one that deserves to be known.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Caminho
First English translation by Serpent’s Tail in 2004
Translated by David Brookshaw