August 24, 2019

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African postwar stories stellar

Written in the aftermath of the civil war in Mozambique, Rain and Other Stories is author Mia Couto’s magnificent response to how the barbarity of war is overcome by, as he puts it, “the rain of hope,” tenuous as that may be, and the dream of renewal.

A Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Portuguese-Mozambiquean descent, Couto has fashioned 26 very short stories in the form of prose poems encompassing fable, allegory, legend and a cross between magic realism and Kafkaesque mystery.

The wonder of the collection, indeed its grip on the reader, is that such seemingly disparate tales come together to ultimately present how the land is remade with the “water of ‘benedreamtion,’” a lovely word and indicative of the way Couto renews language as well throughout the stories.

Many are tales of transformation. In Beyond the River Bend, a hippopotamus crashes through a town and is eventually shot. It is revealed that, in fact, the creature was an old man who had died in the neighbourhood, and had returned to proclaim key prophesies concerning drought and plague. The creature is so large it really should be called “a hyper-potamus.” No matter.

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Written in the aftermath of the civil war in Mozambique, Rain and Other Stories is author Mia Couto’s magnificent response to how the barbarity of war is overcome by, as he puts it, "the rain of hope," tenuous as that may be, and the dream of renewal.

A Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Portuguese-Mozambiquean descent, Couto has fashioned 26 very short stories in the form of prose poems encompassing fable, allegory, legend and a cross between magic realism and Kafkaesque mystery.

The wonder of the collection, indeed its grip on the reader, is that such seemingly disparate tales come together to ultimately present how the land is remade with the "water of ‘benedreamtion,’" a lovely word and indicative of the way Couto renews language as well throughout the stories.

Many are tales of transformation. In Beyond the River Bend, a hippopotamus crashes through a town and is eventually shot. It is revealed that, in fact, the creature was an old man who had died in the neighbourhood, and had returned to proclaim key prophesies concerning drought and plague. The creature is so large it really should be called "a hyper-potamus." No matter.

The official sent to kill it comes to realize he has killed a man, not a beast; retribution awaits. But a baby hippo offers a kind of salvation. The aching beauty of the story, entwined with its dark humour, gives the reader the same kind of peace that the tormented official finds.

In Serpent’s Embrace, another transformation has a snake killing a jealous husband from the inside for his suspicion over his wife’s affair with a UN peacekeeper (an outsider much resented by the local population). In lesser hands, the snake would be near cliché in its symbolism. Couto, a true master, makes the symbol universal: the biting snake is within us, and the answer is the realization that our life can only be cured with death.

The best of the transformation tales, Lamentations of a Coconut Tree, has a coconut producing not sweet water but blood; the fruit also cries out in a human voice. Skepticism greets the story when it is widely told, until the narrator understands that green coconut was sacred and left until ripe until the war and the outsiders who invaded the area had their way.

The further topsy-turvyness of this world leads the reader to believe that chicks given the coconut to eat were transformed into plants. Yet, from the fruit a voice is still heard, a cry needing to be acknowledged. Couto’s prose in this fable is measured throughout as if his realization — the sacred must be observed, the human need to communicate must be answered — requires a slow reckoning from the reader.

Many of the stories offer a link, nearly broken, making it clear that the country’s history from colonial past to recovering modern present is a saga of a people creating a myth to live by — as all people must.

Couto spares no one, nor is anyone condemned — with the exception, in the Kafkaesque story Two Clowns, of the menace of unyielding hate itself. While this hate seems to present a battle of two wills, it leads not to the destruction of the clowns who jocularly fight, but rather of the towns they visit.

Nearly each sentence is astonishing in this riveting, challenging collection.

Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.

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History

Updated on Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 9:12 AM CST: Format fixed.

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