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Mia Couto: A Espada e a Azagaia (The Sword and the Spear)

This is the second 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). The trilogy is about Portugal’s colonial war in Mozambique in the nineteenth century. The background to the trilogy is about Portugal’s war against the Gaza Empire under Gungunhana.However, we mainly follow the Chopi people who, because they have been oppressed by the Gaza, have sided with the Portuguese. In particular we follow Sergeant Germano de Melo, who is sent to occupy a military post in a village called Nkokolani in Chopi territory. There he falls in love with a local young woman, Imani, who had been educated by the Portuguese at a Catholic mission. Also there is an Italian woman, Bianca Marini. In a dispute de Melo is injured by Imani, who was defending her young, simple brother. The story in this book starts with Bianca and Imani trying to take him to a mission where he can get medical help.

As in the previous book, Couto prefaces each chapter with a quote or mini-story, often a local legend or about some aspect of Portuguese history. The story is also interspersed with letters between de Melo and his superior, Lieutenant Ayres de Ornelas, a very ambitious man who has a a conservative view of the situation, particularly as regards de Melo’s relationship with Imani.

De Melo has been injured in the hands and we will later learn that he has lost five fingers. However he is taken to the mission but Ayres de Ornelas does not approve of the priest. This doctor, who will supposedly treat your wounds, has incited the natives to revolt and should have been expelled from Portuguese Africa long ago. In fact the treatment he receives is more from a traditional healer, Bibliana, though Bianca says that she is a witch. While de Melo is clearly suffering, he is clearly still very much in love with Imani and wants to take her back to Portugal, something that Lieutenant Ayres de Ornelas cannot accept.

In the background we hear about the Portuguese campaign and of various clashes while de Melo is healing physically though perhaps not so much psychologically Having regained the use of my hands, I now lacked my soul.).

We get the interplay between de Melo, Imani , Bianca Father Rudolfo and Bibliana. De Melo is faced with the dilemma that he may have to choose between Imani and going back to Portugal, whch does not help his psychological state.
Meanwhile the Portuguese are making progress in their conquest and a small troop turned up but they do not improve matters. Having met Gungunhana and not being very enthusiastic about the war, the Portuguese captain sums the situation up: The kings of this world, both black and white, can go and fuck themselves while Lieutenant Ayres de Ornelas admits I gradually came to realise how far we are from understanding the territory that we aspire to conquer. How do these people think of themselves? How do they describe themselves, their nations and their leaders?

Initially the Portuguese try to avoid any engagement. Our platoons did not engage with military targets. What we did was to attack and destroy villages. Our intention was not to kill civilians but to seize livestock and food supplies. And by doing this, we calmed our spirits and raised our morale.

The key man in all of this is Captain Joaquim Augusto Mouzinho de Albuquerque. He is determined to conquer Gungunhana, despite his superiors telling him to pull back as they are afraid of Portuguese losses. One person who seems fairly indifferent to all of this is Gungunhana himself, who, basically, just seems to want to chill out. We do see clashes between the two forces and the superior technology of the Portuguese (field guns and machine guns) and, almost as importantly, their greater discipline, will tell.

So what does Ngungunyane want?
He says he doesn’t feel well.
And he’s right to feel like that.
It wasn’t the emperor who was ill. It was the empire that had come to an end. His soldiers were deserting him en masse.

Meanwhile Imani and de Melo have been separated, not least because Imani’s father has a plan of his own to defeat Gungunhana as he is bitter about what Gungunhana did to his people.

We have various sub-plots including the relationship between the Portuguese and the Swiss missionaries, who are sympathetic to the native population, though they also seem to have their own issues.

Imani and de Melo spend much time pondering about each other:? Where would they live? What would their people think of their relationship. Would they be a suitable couple?

Couto again tells an excellent story, mixing in the bigger picture of Portugal and its politics, its military prowess but also military hesitancy as well as its failure to understand the local politics, with the stories of some of the key players – Imani, her father and DeMelo, of course, but also the people at the two missions (Portuguese and Swiss), a couple of other Portuguese soldiers, Gungunhana and his imposing mother and Bianca. In virtually all cases they will act somewhat unpredictably at least some of the time and most seem more concerned with their own agendas, rather than the good of their people, whatever that may be.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Caminho
First English translation in 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by David Brookshaw