Home » Mozambique » Paulina Chiziane »O alegre canto da perdiz (The Joyful Cry of the Partridge)

Paulina Chiziane: O alegre canto da perdiz (The Joyful Cry of the Partridge)

Maria das Dores (Mary of the Sorrows) turns up one day in the town of Gurué, a town where nothing ever happened. Everyone asks where I have come from. They want to know what I am, because I am nothing. I am going where the wind goes, and my life is caught in the web of an unknown hope.. She will be known as the mad woman. Firstly she is wearing no clothes. She claims to hate wearing clothes. Not surprisingly the local ladies disapprove. However the wife of the headman is far more understanding. That mad woman was the true messenger of freedom. This shows us that this is not going to be a conventional realistic novel – though it very much contains much that is clearly realistic – but a novel driven by myth.

While we do follow what happens to Maria das Dores and her life and backstory, the focus of the story is on her extended family. More particularly we learn of sexism, racism and, briefly, one of Chiziane’s favourite themes, polygamy.

Chiziane does not hold back on her criticism of men: at the beginning of everything. Men and women lived in separate worlds across the highlands of Mount Namuli. The women used advanced technologies, and even had fishing boats. They dominated the mysteries of nature and everything… they were so pure, purer than children in a creche. They were powerful. They dominated fire and thunder. They had already discovered fire. The men were still savages, ate raw flesh and fed on roots. They were unhappy cannibals. And then the men invaded and it all went wrong.

It is not just the Mozambican men but the Portuguese invaders. The invaders destroyed our temples, our gods, our language.

The main character is Delfina, the mother of Maria das Dores. Delfina is a very attractive woman. One day she meets Jose. Jose has had a hard life but he is strong and tough. The two fall in love at once, though lust rather than love might be the appropriate word. They marry to gain respectability and have a daughter, Maria das Dores. But this is not a happy marriage, not least becasue Delfina wants what the whites have to offer, primarily money and good living. Initially to improve their lot, Jose becomes an assimilado, a sort of honorary white with certain advantages. He becomes a sepoy, a low-ranking soldier and fights with the Portuguese against the native Mozambicans fighting for independence. He has a terrible reputation. He has tortured. He has massacred. He has captured many Zambezians, and put them in shackles for work on the plantations. He has put many on the ships to exile.

Meanwhile Delfina has taken up with Soares, a rich white man. He is, of course married (to a white Portuguese woman). Soares and Delfina have a daughter, Jacinta. Jacinta is white and she is treated much better than Maria das Dores who, as the black, has to do all the work. Delfina is happier – It’s better to be a white man’s lover for an instant than a black man’s wife for one’s whole life!”. Soares does not do much: a tubby old man, who just ate and slept.. Delfina clearly sees being white as superior: Don’t eat those greens, it’s we blacks who eat those. You can eat chicken, Delfina says to Jacinta. However it is not all plain sailing for Jacinta. She saw that the blacks were very black. And the whites were very white. When she was with blacks, they called her white. And they didn’t want to play with her. They would keep her away, say bad things about her mother and use bad words. When she was with whites, they called her black. They chased her away too.

Delfina has other faults. She drinks and had more or less abandoned her children by Jose. She essentially sells Maria das Dores into prostitution to a man called Simba (who has a love-hate relationship with Delfina and who is, by his own admission a prophet who can’t see the colour of my own eyes. Who cures the pains of others but who was never able to cure his own), even though it was Maria das Dores that took care of her and her siblings when Delfina was drunk. Maria das Dores ends up with three children and, as she is so badly treated by Simba. she flees with her three children but, not surprisingly this does not work out well though the children are rescued and brought up by nuns while poor Maria das Dores wanders the country looking for them.

In many ways this is a sad story as nobody really end up happy but the story, while important, is not as important as the points Chiziane is making. On the one hand it is a paean to women or, at least, good women and, by extension, highly critical of most men: Women on their own are queens and are proud of existing as they did at the beginning of the world. Enslaved, they go out into the street, fight for freedom, but when they’re in the bedroom, they beg once again to be enslaved and dominated by men. And the men, those triumphant heroes, are only kings when they’re alone. In the arms of women, they howl like children.

However, it also is about good mothers and highly damning of racism, sexism colonialism (the Portuguese are bitterly condemned), mixed race marriages and polygamy. Moreover it is both a realist story abut also very much a mythical one with Maria das Dores as the black woman victim, Delfina as the opportunist black trying to get happiness with money, Soares as the lazy grasping coloniser, Jose as the black man selling his soul by becoming Assimilado, Simba as the false prophet and other characters appearing as both characters as well as playing a mythical role. It is a superbly told tell and this English translation is long overdue

Publishing history

First published in 2008 by Caminho
First English translation in 2024 by Archipelago Books
Translated by David Brookshaw