Mia Couto: O Bebedor de horizonte (The Drinker of Horizons)
This is the third book in a trilogy called Sands of the Emperor about Portugal’s colonial war in Mozambique in the nineteenth century. The first book was called Mulheres de Cinzas (Woman of the Ashes) and the second book Espada e a Azagaia (The Sword and the Spear).The background to the trilogy is about Portugal’s war against the Gaza Empire under Gungunhana. By the end of the second book the Portuguese, under Captain Joaquim Augusto Mouzinho de Albuquerque, have captured Gungunhana without a shot being fired and he and seven of his wives (he has three hundred!) are now being transported into exile. The title of this book comes from a poem by the great Brazilian writer Cecília Meireles.
We start off on a boat that is going down the Limpopo towards the sea, carrying Gungunhana, his seven wives, including, in particular, Dabondi, who, she claims, speaks to rivers, Mouzinho de Albuquerque, our heroine and narrator Imani and various Portuguese sailors and soldiers and the captain of the boat, Álvaro Andrea.
There are various problems of course. Álvaro Andrea and Mouzinho de Albuquerque hate each other. Before capturing Gungunhana, Mouzinho de Albuquerque had asked Álvaro Andrea to lend him some of his sailors to fight with him against Gungunhana. Álvaro Andrea had categorically refused, fearing that they would be be being sent to their death. Mouzinho de Albuquerque had won without any Portuguese blood being spilled and can crow it over Álvaro Andrea. Moreover, Mouzinho de Albuquerque is the senior officer but Álvaro Andrea insists that on the boat, he alone is in charge. The two constantly bicker. In addition the Africans do not all get on well together, particularly Gungunhana and a rival chief, who is also being sent into exile, Zixaxa.
The Limpopo is a difficult river to navigate, with sandbanks and changing currents. Mouzinho de Albuquerque is worried that if the boat gets stuck or has to stop the locals might try to liberate Gungunhana, though, in practice, most of them are happy to see him go. He initially seems to be indifferent to everything. There is also the danger of crocodiles.
Meanwhile Sergeant de Melo is writing to his beloved Imani, hoping that they can soon be together. However, he is worried, with complete justification, that Imani will be kept on as both an interpreter and spy which Mouzinho de Albuquerque has told her he wants her to be.
Imani is caught between the various parties, including Gungunhana who wants her to write to the King of Portugal (as an equal), Mouzinho de Albuquerque who wants her to spy on Gungunhana and his party and Álvaro Andrea, who is seemingly in love with her. In Lourenço Marques, a shock awaits the Africans as a large ship is there to take them into exile.
We have also been hearing what went on in Mozambique. While many of the Africans were glad to see Gungunhana captured and exiled, the Portuguese were not much of an improvement, demanding exorbitant taxes which the Africans could not pay, meaning the men were sent off to the mines and crops and livestock, on which they depended, were taken in lieu.
We follow their journey into exile and we follow Imani, who is pregnant, and her problems and her desire to be reunited with Sergeant de Melo, and the continual enmity between the various parties . The journey from Mozambique to Lisbon has its problems.
TYe world is changing: It is not just the nineteenth century that is ending, it is not just the monarchy that is on its deathbed. It is the entire universe that is emptying away like sand between our fingers. It has been written in the books. However, as we know, for a brief while European colonisation will prevail. Like other Europeans, the Portuguese think that they are bringing benefits to the African populations: In any case, we Portuguese aren’t capable of such gratuitous cruelty. We are not like Northern Europeans who hunt butterflies in the morning and kill blacks at night. We Portuguese are different. Even when we punish, we do so like zealous fathers. Of course, in some ways they were for, as we have seen here, Gungunhana has been viciously cruel to the populations of other tribes.
As we know they will spend their rest of their lives in exile. This photo shows them in the
Azores, looking Europeanised.
Couto gives us an excellent account of how the Portuguese essentially seized control of what is now Mozambique. While he is clearly sympathetic towards the African population – Imani is clearly the heroine of this book – and shows us in some details their customs, myths, religion and way of life, he recognises that they could also be very cruel towards their fellow Africans. But he also gives us the ordinary stories of the various rivalries between both Africans and Africans and Portuguese and Portuguese, various colourful characters, from the African leaders and their wives to the various Portuguese characters, not to mention a couple of stray Italians who have somehow ended up in Africa.
As we know, those that survived the journey – and many did not – ended up in Azores where they spent the rest of their lives. Gungunhana died in 1906, ten years after he arrived there. Mouzinho de Albuquerque died earlier, probably killing himself. The presumably fictitous Imani does better.
First published in 2017 by Caminho
First English translation in 2023 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by David Brookshaw