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Mia Couto: Terra Sonámbula (Sleepwalking Land)

There are many ways to write a book about war. You can do the full-blooded realism, as with Barbusse‘s Le Feu (Under Fire). You can try and put it in the background and focus, at least to a certain degree, on other issues, as in Saša Stanišić‘s Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone). You can have a good laugh about it, as Jaroslav Hašek did in Osudy Dobrého Vojáka švejka Za Svetové Války (The Good Soldier Schweik). You can take the woman’s point of view, as Virginia Woolf did in Mrs. Dalloway. You can mock it, as Evelyn Waugh did in the Sword of Honour Trilogy . Couto takes a somewhat different approach. He certainly does not eschew the horrors of the Mozambique Civil War, a particular nasty war which received relatively little attention in the West. Brutal and arbitrary violence, rape, both men on women and women on men, unbridled cruelty and landscapes dotted with burnt corpses, ruined buildings and evidence everywhere of destruction, appear throughout this novel with considerable frequency. But Couto adds his own dimension. Magic realism and surrealism appear everywhere. There is the ox that turns into the heron and the boy who becomes a cockerel. Kindzu rows his boat in the sea but leaves marks like footprints in the sea, while the feathers of the dead bird he has in the boat each suddenly become a new gull.

But Couto uses these effects to illustrate his point, namely that war is devastating, cruel and destructive, that it destroys people not only physically but in their minds but that somewhere deep down there may be hope. Though there is a plot – indeed, several plots – Couto is interested in telling several (albeit intertwining) stories to illustrate his point. We start with a young boy – Muidinga – and an old man – Tuahir. It is not entirely clear what their relationship is (Muidinga calls Tuahir uncle, though Tuahir does not like it) but it seems that Muidinga was lying, apparently lifeless, besides other bodies at a refugee camp and Tuahir was one of those responsible for burying the bodies. He noticed that Muidinga was alive and rescued him. The two are now travelling through war-torn Mozambique, to escape the bandits. (And, yes, it may well remind you of Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road). They come across a burned-out bus, which still has burned bodies in it and Tuahir decides that they will stay there. In fact, they stay in and around the bus for much of the novel. By the side of the bus, they find a body that has been shot rather than burned. There is a suitcase beside the body and, in the suitcase, there are some notebooks, which tell the story of Kindzu right up to a short time before the arrival of Muidinga and Tuahir.

Kindzu had been living with his parents. They were concerned about their son, Juney, and he had to go and live in the henhouse, where he gradually became a cockerel. Taímo, Kindzu’s father, is devastated by the gradual withdrawal of his son and eventually dies, though his spirit will continue to haunt Kindzu (and, to a certain degree, Muidinga). Kindzu is determined to become a naparama, a kind of holy warrior. He sets off on a picaresque journey through war-time Mozambique, where he will meet an Indian trader who is continually burned out of his shop and who tries to send his wife back to India by putting her on a home-made raft and pushing the raft out to sea, a woman who has been cursed because she was a twin and whose son he will try to find, a shipwreck apparently caused because the local inhabitants suddenly put rocks in its way, as well as a variety of people, some vicious, some fantastical, some doomed to die, in his quest to become a naparama and in his quest for the boy.

Meanwhile we follow the life of Muidinga and Tuahir. What is their relationship? How does Taímo fit in? And is the shot body they have found Kindzu’s? They follow Kindzu’s story with fascination but also try to find out who they are and whether to go or to stay. They see a wounded elephant and a one-eyed man called Skellington, who dies soon after. The landscape around them seems to change every day. Is there hope? All of us are alone, the dead and the living. There’s no nation any more, says Tuahir. But, maybe, with the children – Muidinga and the lost boy Kindzu is looking for – maybe there is a fragment of hope.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Caminho
First English translation by Serpent’s Tail in 2006
Availability: Out of print