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Mia Couto: Jesusalém (Brazil: Antes de nascer o mundo) (Tuner of Silences)

The Portuguese title of this book is Jesusalém, which does not mean Jerusalem but, as we shall see, is a corruption of the word Jerusalem. The English title makes sense, as we shall also see, but the place the main characters call Jesusalém in the Portuguese version is called Jezoosalem in the English version. I understand that this is a (very approximate) attempt at conveying the English pronunciation of the Portuguese word but surely Jesusalem, like the Portuguese but without the accent, would have been better?

Silvestre Vitalício, (whose his real name is Mateus Ventura, as we learn later), has fled the city, with his two sons, Mwanito (the narrator and the tuner of silences) and Ntunzi, as well as Zachary Kalash, their servant, and Silvestre’s brother-in-law, Uncle Aproximado (also not their real names). It is not entirely clear why but clearly has something to do with the death of his wife, the mother of Mwanito and Ntunzi. People, including Uncle Aproximado, wonder why they have done this, as most people are fleeing the war but they are heading into it. Silvestre has found a deserted camp in an abandoned game reserve and he has christened it Jezoosalem and they have settled there. Silvestre has also declared that everyone else (including God ) is dead. There are no women there, so Mwanito, who was just three when they left, has never seen a woman. There is one slight exception to this – Jezabel. Jezabel is a jenny (a female donkey). Silvestre is very fond of her, perhaps too much, as it seems that he has sex with her. While Uncle Aproximado is technically living with them, he actually lives on the edge of the reserve where they are living and maintains some contact with the real world. The other four do not see any other humans, till much later in the book.

Mwanito is the silent one. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence. It was my father who explained this to me: I have an inclination to remain speechless, a talent for perfecting silences. He seems to be his father’s favourite (to the disgust of his older brother), partially because he reminds him more of his dead wife. However, for Silvestre the world is dead. . It happened like this: the world finished even before the end of the world . . . The universe had come to an end without a spectacle, with neither thunderclaps nor flashes of lightning. It had withered away, exhausted by despair. This was how my father prevaricated on the subject of the cosmos’s extinction. First, the female places had begun to die: the springs, the beaches, the lagoons. Then, the male places had died: the towns, the roads, the ports. God is partially to blame. One day, God will come and apologize to us.

They are limited to the encampment where Silvestre has chosen for them to live, though Uncle Aproximado ventures farther afield and Ntunzi is very keen to leave and return to the real world, which he vaguely remembers. It is he that initiates the various (mild) forms of rebellion to their father’s autocratic rule. For example, there is a river that they had never thought of crossing, not least because of the risk of crocodiles but Ntunzi encourages Mwanito to join him and he does enjoy it. However, he would never have thought of doing it on his own initiative. Silvestre’s despotic rule extends to education. He is opposed to Mwanito learning to read and very much opposed to books, though both Ntunzi and Zachary teach him to read and write. He is even against prayer, as prayer can brings visitors – angels and demons.

Silvestre can be very brutal. He nearly beats Ntunzi to death when he is crossed, though is very contrite when Ntunzi seems to be dying. This furthers Ntunzi’s desire to leave and return to the city. However, when they try to do so, Ntunzi is unable to do so and becomes paralysed, so that Mwanito has to take him home in a wheelbarrow. Mwanito hears about the other world from Ntunzi, Aproximado and Zachary and is interested. However, even when Aproximado comes to tell them that the war has ended, Silvestre is not going to move. No war ever ends he says.

However, one day, Mwanito steps outside and sees a strange creature who, he assumes, is a woman, and she confirms this. She is Marta, a white Portuguese woman. Her husband, Marcelo, had left her for an African woman and she has followed him to Mozambique. She has found her husband’s mistress, Noci, but he has left Noci, too. Noci worked for Aproximado and she tells Marta that Aproximado had taken Marcelo out to the reserve. This was the case but Aproximado had not seen him since. However, she asks to go to the place where Aproximado had taken him and that is near the camp, where she stays for a while. Inevitably, her presence causes a certain amount of disruption. But the war has ended. Aproximado has got his old job as reserve warden back and, despite Silvestre’s bold statement – Jezoosalem is a young, independent nation and I am the President. I am the President of the Nation – the government has privatised the reserve and it is time to move on.

Couto has written on the devastating effects of war on people and also how a colonial war is seen from the perspective of the native population. While this is a certainly a theme in this book, it is not the driving theme. The focus is on Mwanito, the only one who kept his name when they moved to Jezoosalem and this book is about how he discovers life, who he is, what he is and what he is to become, when he has been separated from what we would call normal life. The others also have to make their adjustments and clearly Silvestre is the one who has make the most adjustments after the traumatic death of his wife, the details of which we only learn towards the end of the book. Silvestre is also the one who, ultimately, cannot adjust while the others, albeit with some struggle, do. For much of the book, the lives of the others revolve around Silvestre but as he does not adapt and they do, his influence wanes. But for all of them, Jezoosalem will remain very much part of their lives for we may adapt but we cannot reject our past.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Caminho
First English translation by Biblioasis in 2012
Translated by David Brookshaw