Mia Couto has carried off a master narrative which ranks in my mind with such classics as Don Quixote, The Dream of the Red Chamber, David Copperfield, Brothers Karamazov, and more recently those of Jane Smiley, Marilyn Robinson, and Jonathan Franzen. Which is to say I love narrative, and I love Mia Couto’s Trilogy. In fact, it has two narrative lines, Immani Nsambe, a young African woman of the VaChopi tribe, one of a few who rebelled against the Zulu state of Gaza, and Sergeant Germano de Melo, a young Portuguese soldier dispatched to Mozambique. Their paths cross in Nkokolani, a VaChopi village situated on northern edge of Gaza, and hence contested by the Portuguese Empire. Imani was born there. Germano was sent there to take charge of a fort, it being more of store than fort and he is a one man show of force.
We meet Immani first. She is born in a troubled time and her parents struggle giving her a name. Immani in her native language means “who is there?” as when some knocks on the door and you ask “who is there?” She say, “I wasn’t born to be a person. I’m a race. I’m a tribe, I am a sex, I am everything that stops me from being myself.” A misfit in her troubled family, she is sent to a Catholic mission school where Father Rudolfo Fernandes teaches her to speak Portuguese. Between his skill and her native genius, she comes to speak better Portuguese than most of the Portuguese figures with whom she crosses paths. Her native world could not give her a real name, can her command of Portuguese give her an identity? The Immani narrative is a journey out of her determinant present, not a little involved with tribal Africa, to a search for her authentic self.
Germano’s follows. He is born in a troubled Portuguese family. His austere father finds his presence a burden, in the way of his demands on his acquiescent wife. He is sent off to military school at a young age. Severed from his home and his parents, he embarks on a military career. He says of himself, “I was born and lived among shadows. My home had the smell and the silence of an orphanage. I had everything I needed to be a good soldier.” But as we shall see he is not by vocation a soldier, but a writer. His dispatches to his superiors turn into long personal revelations. Germano’s narrative is a journey out of his determinant present, not a little involved with “tribal” culture of 19th century Portugal to a search for his authentic self.
Surprisingly, Germano’s journey takes him more deeply into Africa, while Immani’s takes her out of Africa. If the two journeys are thought of as musical lines, they would be counter punctual. This seems to be a flirtation with a literary disaster. The two narrative lines after their first encounter never actually meet, yet while they are headed in opposite directions, they are constantly reinforcing each other. Couto brings it off with all the grandeur of a Bach fugue.
These two journeys take place in the complex anthropology of tribal Africa so skillfully and sympathetically rendered by Couto, and in the complex socio-political dynamics of late 19th century Portugal, so carefully documented and so astutely exposed. They are crisscrossed by a number of individual narratives often paired. Immani’s Father, Katini, musician and her Mother Chikaza, ritualist, Fr. Rudolfo, the Catholic Missionary and Bibliana, an African spiritualist, Captain Mouziho, the “heroic” cavalryman, Captain Alvaro Andrea, the sober ship captain with a skeptical assessment of Portuguese strategy. With the rich collection of collateral characters and such parings, Couto explores of the nature of race, colonialism, war, love and future happiness.
There is good reason to suppose that Couto would end up burying the journeys in information. But in all the 650 some pages of the trilogy this never happens. A reader finds themselves captivated by the two journeys, looking this way and that to find the means of bringing them together.
The end comes with a coda, to continue the musical metaphor. At age 96, Immani now returned to Nkokolani, the village that had been wiped of the map, still can expect that a knock of the door will be Sergeant Germano. When it comes, it is not, but a young man, a grandson, who has come with the hope of recording and publishing her story. To what end? That the freedom that the two protagonists found might be handed on to a new generation, deeply in need of narrative that will allow them to walk out of morass of their present. In the current Mozambique? Yes! In the current wherever. Yes!