History, Faith and Manners
On Mia Couto
Um rio chamado tempo, uma casa chamada terra1 , a novel by Mia Couto published in 2002, deals, in the first place, with the problem of nation building in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony that gained independence in 1975. The main slogan of the post-colonial nationalism, “o povo unido do Rovuma ao Maputo,”2 is clearly a calque of the former banner of the Portuguese empire: “Portugal do Minho ao Timor”3; the post-colonial falsification follows closely the colonial one. The main problem diagnosed by Couto is thus the imperfect unification of diverse ethnic elements. Mozambique is symbolized by a common house, called the Nyumba-Kaya in order to render its composite nature: nyumba is the word for “house” in the northern tongues, while kaya is the correspondent term in the south.
The main personage, Marianinho, may be identified as an emergent intellectual, who is, according to Edward Said's definition, an individualized figure fostering cultural change through his or her “mastery of language”, and specifically, the mastery of writing. The question of literacy proves to be crucial. Earlier post-colonial reflection on rebuilding cultural identities has shown that the living voice, unsupported by writing, is doomed to be silenced either by the instances of modernization or by the traditional, precolonial figures of dominance. To give just one example, in Moha le fou, Moha le sage4, Tahar ben Jelloun has shown how the essentially oral figure of the Maghrebian rawi, epitomizing the living voice of the earth and alien to both spheres of writing, the Arabic and the French one, is silenced twice: by the local patriarch and by the psychiatrist applying a treatment deriving from the modern concept of the clinic.
The Mozambican case is different and analogous all at once. Apparently, the native African cultures are eminently oral traditions. The gesture of writing appears as the prerogative of the white man not only in the colonial, but also in post-colonial times. This is why it is crucial to give Africa the opportunity of a truly autonomous development. Couto himself, as the author of Um rio chamado tempo..., goes beyond the limitations of his own physical condition as a white, blue-eyed and blond-haired writer. In spite of all his effort of solidarity with Africa, he is a descendant of the colonizers, not of the colonized.5 With Um rio chamado tempo... he places himself in the position of a forerunner, wishing to foster the emergence of a truly African intellectual, such as his personage Marianinho, directly incarnating the spirit of the African dead. The writer is conscious of the fact that his own presence and literary creation is only a makeshift solution, typical of the general rough-and-ready state of the post-colonial affairs. Similarly to the emergent Berber scholars, Mia Couto comments on the absolute necessity of literacy as a means of stepping from circular conceptualization of time into the modern domain of history: “Para a oralidade, só existe o que se traduz em presença. Só é real aquele com quem podemos falar. Os próprios mortos não se convertem em passado, porque eles estão disponíveis a, quando convocados, se tornarem presentes” / “For the orality, there exists only that what can be translated into a presence. The only real entity is the one with which we can talk. Even the dead are not transformed into the past, as they may appear, whence called, and become present.”6 The modern historicity requires writing as a medium of building the past and memory, and, at the same time, of building a future: “tempo por acontecer resulta de equilíbrios entre os vivos e os antepassados” / “The time to come is the result of a balance between the living and the ancestors.”7. Different relations with the dead thus give different scenarios for the future.
Arguably, the Mozambican writing, whether in the Portuguese or in the Bantu languages,8 has at least a century-long tradition; the roots of literacy in the Arabic script may reach even further back in time (the latter has often been neglected in Europocentric optics; perhaps new discoveries, beyond ideological manipulation, may throw a new light on the precolonial literacy of the eastern coast of Africa). On the other hand, Couto evokes, in very touching terms, the enthusiasm with which the idea of creating a university in Zambia, launched by the president Kenneth Kaunda in 1966, was accepted among the illiterate peasants9. Nonetheless, this possible or emergent tradition has been overshadowed, also in post-colonial times, by the vision of writing as a “white” activity; literacy has been associated with a single group and thus the access to it as a practice has been symbolically restricted.
The hero of Um rio chamado tempo..., Marianinho, is a son of parents involved in the decolonization as well as the first stage of the post-colonial transformation, and a grandson of a traditional patriarch, who is currently believed to be neither dead nor alive. This is why the burial ceremony has been suspended. The roof of the Nyumba-Kaya, a house representing the unity of the North and the South, has been removed due to the mourning. Symbolically, this element may represent the opening of the discussion on the national issue, previously closed by the dogma of unity that reveals its falseness through a generalized crisis (the life has “lost its beauty”). The domestic climate is heavy with unspoken truths. The appearance of the young hero who has just completed his studies in the city incarnates a new hope, as his purity seems to shine, contrasting with the multiple, dubious and unclean compromises of the previous generation. In a mysterious way, Marianinho plays the role of a medium, receiving strange letters that appear as written by his own hand and at the same time epitomize the voice of the (un)dead grandfather. In this way, the writing becomes a bridge between the past and the present, a way of recuperating the magical contact with the xicuembos (ancestral spirits worshiped by the family). The task of the young hero is to trace a new destiny of the community: “a sua tarefa é repor as vidas, deitar os destinos desta nossa gente” / “Your task is to put lives back together again, and trace the destinies of our people”.10
This crucial task, a duty towards the community, is nonetheless to be performed in solitude. Writing is essentially an activity of a lonely subject. The essential aspect, accentuated by Edward Said in his Representations of the Intellectual, is the mediation between an individual consciousness and the community: “the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty of representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public”, in order to “represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rag”.11 Such people and issues are many: starting from the fate of the blind Miseirinha, former lover of the patriarch, and finishing with the affair of the sunk ferry. The catastrophe wasn't an accident; it had been caused by the influential local businessmen, as they took advantage of the public ferry to transport the logs cut in the primeval forest. Evidently, the personal risks the young intellectual is facing are in proportion to the financial stakes implied in the game; there had been an assassination before, yet another issue swept under the rug. Nonetheless, the fear Marianinho experiences at the moment of grasping the pen derives from his confrontation with the tremendum of non-human entities he is to represent. A powerful flow of energy is channeled through his hand, as he becomes a medium for “an ancient voice” representing justice, community, the earth: “Seguro a caneta. O desejo arde em minhas mãos mas, ao mesmo tempo, o medo me paralisa. É um receio profundo de que qualquer coisa esteja desabando. Começo escrevendo, a mão obedece a uma voz antiga enquanto vou redigindo” / “I grasp the pen. The desire burns in my hands, but at the same time the anxiety paralyzes me. It is a deep fear that something is falling apart. I start to write, my hand obeys an ancient voice as I go on writing”.12
The mission of the intellectual is to invert the downgrading tendency that marks the post-colonial history of the country. During the second half of the twentieth century, it passed through several stages: the fight for independence (1964-1974), a short period of socialism (1975), the civil war (1976-1992), the deficient transition to the market economy and multiparty political system (after 1992). This historical evolution is presented in the novel as a continuous decadence, specially as it is referred to the evolution of the leaders and the local elite: “Começamos por pensar que são heróis. Em seguida, aceitamos que são patriotas. Mais tarde, que são homens de negócios. Por fim, que não passam de ladrões” / “First we believed they are heroes. Later on, we accepted they are patriots. Still later, that they are businessmen. Finally, that they are none other than thieves”.13 At the same time, the crisis presents not only a social, economical or political dimension. It takes a generalized, nearly a cosmic turn. The earth “closes itself”, forbidding the men to dig the graves for their dead. Not only life, but also death becomes impossible: “O mundo já não era um lugar de viver. Agora, já nem de morrer é” / “Already before, the world wasn't the right place to live. Now, it's not even the right place to die”.14 Thus the mission of the intellectual stretches beyond the usual, rationalistic paradigms of action established by the modernity. He or she becomes a figure of universal salvation, redeeming the “world” conceptualized as a cosmic whole.
One of the Reith lectures delivered by Said in 1993 had a suggestive title: “Holding nations and traditions at bay”.15 Indeed, the most important task of the emergent intellectual seems to oppose solidly legitimized discourses, such as the national unity forged in the battle against the colonizers. These discourses speak loud, epitomizing the symbolic oppression that in post-colonial times should no longer be associated with a colonial power or an external metropolis. The source of this violence is local, yet this fact changes but very little in its oppressive nature. The intellectual's duty consist in “asking questions, making distinctions, restoring to memory all those things that tend to be overlooked or walked past in the rush to collective judgment and action”.16 A critical attitude towards these sanctified visions and values permits to introduce constant correction into the course of the public affairs and to adapt the formulas of the communitarian life to the changing conditions of the contemporary world. This fact transforms the figure of the intellectual into the gauge of the survival of the community.
1 Mia Couto, Um rio chamado tempo, uma casa chamada terra, Lisboa: Caminho, 2002.
2 “United people from Rovama to Maputo”; the evocation of the rivers situated on the northern and southern ends of the country covers up the importance of the Zambezi valley that coincides with the crucial ethnic division into culturally quite dissimilar zones.
3 “Portugal from Minho to Timor” reflects the dogma defended by the Salazarist regime, claiming that the ultramarine territories of the colonial empire, such as Timor situated at the eastern end of the Lesser Sunda Islands, are as unalienable parts of the Portuguese homeland as its European province Minho.
4 Tahar Ben Jelloun, Moha le fou, Moha le sage, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1978.
5 Couto was born in 1955 in the city of Beja in Mozambique as a son of a Portuguese couple that moved to the colony in the early decade of 1950s.
6 Mia Couto, E se Obama fosse africano e outras intervenções, Lisboa : Caminho, 2009, p. 130.
7 Ibidem, p. 131.
8 At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ronga, a Bantu language belonging to the Tswa-Ronga family, spoken in southern Mozambique (also called landim by the Portuguese), became a written language attested in the emergent journals O Africano (1908) and O Brado Africano (1918).
9 Mia Couto, E se Obama fosse africano..., p. 28-29.
10 Mia Couto, Um rio chamado tempo, uma casa chamada terra..., p. 126.
11Edward Said, Representations of the intellectual: The 1993 Reith lectures. London: Vintage, 1994, p. 9
12Mia Couto, Um rio chamado tempo, uma casa chamada terra..., , p. 233.
13Ibidem, p. 223.
14Ibidem, p. 23.
15 Edward Said, Representations of the intellectual..., p. 19.
16Ibidem, p. 25.