Couto’s prowess knows no bounds
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/04/2021 (653 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This extraordinary collection of 64 selected stories (36 appearing for the first time in English) gathered from four volumes of work by Mozambican-Portuguese writer Mia Couto raises the question: are there limits to his ability to create a world the reader inhabits without reservations or emotional limits? On the basis of this collection, which covers the journey of Couto’s career as a writer, the answer is there are none.
Begin anywhere, with any story, and you as reader are safe within Couto’s world. The imagination is without limit, the poetic force is exhilarating and often disturbing, while the surprise of some is breathtaking.
Many are short, in case 64 stories sounds daunting, but Couto is as much a master of the pointed anecdote as the longer tale. He effortlessly creates within the world of Mozambique pre- and post-independence seemingly endless variations on what he has called his “contradictory worlds” — white in an African world, writer in an oral society — as he tells stories “which cross frontiers.” Those frontiers include the world of dreams becoming as real as the daily rituals of life. The fantastical folk tale is found within the realism of a love story, while the outline of a proverb borders complex stories about social and sexual politics.
One masterpiece is Rose Caramela. A woman, described as a “hunchback cripple,” wanders the town. A source of scorn or detached pity, she is generally laughed at as she mourns, like Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, for the man who deserted her at the altar. Only the narrator’s father takes her seriously. Her ending is happier than Dickens’ embittered character, since the father who never laughed at her is the runaway groom. They go off together restored after all those years in some odd way, the mystery of their love unexplained.
Much in the stories is unexplained, or as elusive as they are striking for their passionate oddity. In The Grandmother, The City and the Traffic Lights a rural grandmother becomes so concerned over her grandson’s first sojourn to the city that she follows him and becomes entranced by what appears to her its richness. She remains living under the glow of a streetlamp and traffic lights.
Nature isn’t only in the forest — the city creates its own nature in a way others don’t see. In The Whales of Quissico a man sees whales which no one else in town does. Like a modern Don Quixote, he has mistaken submarines in the modern world for whales, which represent to a people shaped by the sea the ancient noble one.
In the longest story, Sea Loves Me, water dominates the mental and emotional life of a man who believes he has failed to care for, under his father’s wish, a woman that the father mysteriously cares about. The narrator’s relationship with a female neighbour is complex, almost a dance of love. Then she reveals he has fulfilled his duty in a way he didn’t realize. The surprise of the story is both charming and, again, mysterious. Maybe it is enough that he has taken care of the sea which nourished him.
There are also scary, haunting tales which creep up on you. In The Owner of the Man’s Dog, for example, the dog slowly takes over until its owner finds himself regarded by society as the pet.
Any equally great group of stories could be discussed — as noted, Couto’s richness as a writer has no bottom. Editor Stephen Henigan is to be congratulated for his inspired choices.
Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.