Country Focus: Mozambique (Mocambique in Portuguese)
By Mia Couto
Translated by David Brookshaw
Originally published in Portugal as Terra Sonâmbula by Editorial Caminho, 1992.
My edition: Serpent’s Tail, 2006.
Time period: unclear, but sometime during Mozambique’s Civil War, which lasted from 1977-1992.
Named one of the twelve best African books of the 20th century, Sleepwalking Land was Mozambican author Mia Couto’s first novel. He opens the story with two unlikely companions: Tuahir, a bony old man, and Muidinga, a limping young boy. Their country has been warped by civil war. Walking along a road, they come across a burned-out bus and decide to turn it into a shelter. Muidinga finds a pile of notebooks inside the suitcase of a dead man, and he begins to read them aloud to Tuahir to pass the time.
Tuahir and Muidinga rapidly grow enthralled with the life story of Kindzu, the author of the notebooks. Kindzu leaves home to join up with the naparamas, mystical warriors who fight for peace, but instead he ends up falling in love with a woman who has isolated herself on a foundered supply ship, and subsequently searches for her long-lost son.
Couto alternates the contents of each of Kindzu’s eleven notebooks with brief chapters about Tuahir and Muidinga’s daily struggles. The pair’s relationship grows more intimate. They role play, with Muidinga acting as Kindzu and Tuahir taking the role of his father, Taimo. Reality and the contents of the notebooks become intertwined, and they notice that the landscape around the bus changes from day to day.
Both Kindzu’s notebooks and Tuahir and Muidinga’s lives include elements of the fantastic, like Xipocos – ghosts that enjoy schadenfreude, Tchoti – dwarfs who fall out of the sky, and the Mampfana, a bird that ends journeys. The cast of characters is equally bizarre. There’s Juney, a boy whose family turns him into a chicken; Skellington, an insane one-eyed villager; Nhamataca, a man who attempts to dig a river; Juliana, a blind prostitute; and Romão, a corpse who bargains with a city official to get his old business back.
Along with the mind-bending amount of characters and plot lines, Couto tosses in digs at corrupt officials, Portuguese colonialists, the primitive practices of African tribes, and the black majority’s prejudice towards Indians. Sleepwalking Land is nothing if not “thinky”, and quite overwhelmed me.
Kindzu’s final notebook, a recount of his dream of witch doctor’s rallying speech against war (part of which is excerpted below) is the highlight of the novel and Couto goes on to wrap up the story surprisingly well. If I was an African literature professor looking for a short novel to keep my students occupied for an entire semester, I’d have hit the bullseye.
Do you weep for the present? Well, know that the days to come will be worse still. That’s why they made this war, to poison the womb of time, so that the present would give birth to monsters instead of hope. Don’t seek your relatives any more, those who have left for other lands in search of peace. Even if you find them again, they will not recognize you. You have turned into beasts of the wild, without family, without a nation. For this war was not made to take you away from your country, but to take the country away from within you. Now, weapons are your only soul. They have stolen so much from you that not even your dreams are your own, nothing of your land belongs to you, and even the sky and seas will be the property of outsiders.