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Mia Couto: Africa is full of ‘Macondos’

Maybe Magical Realism ought to have been born, not in South America, but in Africa, due to the immense wealth of dream worlds maintained by the region.

 

Mia Couto – Photo Commons Wikimedia

Antonio Paneque Brizuela

 

These ‘Macondos’ are what inspired Mozambican author Mia Couto (1955) to utilise this source of interest in his first novel, “Sleepwalking Land” (1992).

Such things also remind us that Latin America came pretty close to Africa with one of the pioneers of the movement; Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier with his piece entitled “The kingdom of this World”.

Through his metamorphosis into vermin, the slave hero Mackandal is able to recall the yoruba rites and the ‘’journeys’ of his orishas. Although we perhaps now see Couto to be very distant from the year 1949 when the piece by Carpentier came about and was considered by some as the initiator of this literary movement, the African author travelled to the so-called “New World” and proved himself through his novel to be one of the great universal followers of magical realism.

The Mozambican poet also revealed in statements his affiliation to this trend of the twentieth century; that which portrays the unreal or strange as something everyday. “Africa is full of ‘Macondos’, of towns just like that, like Gabo’s”.

Cuoto recognised the role played by Gabriel García Márquez together with Miguel Ángel Asturias from Guatemala, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, Mexican Carlos Fuentes, Spaniard Álvaro Cunqueiro, Mexican Juan Rulfo, Chilean Isabel Allende and Pablo Neruda and of course Carpentier, who undoubtedly introduced the concept of ‘extraordinary reality’.

Cuoto’s practice of magical realism, a term created by German art critic Franz Roh to describe a painting with altered reality, lead to the creation of a piece that made him the most translated and celebrated author of his country.

“Sleepwalking Land” was classified amongst the region’s ten best novels of the twentieth century and shows magical realism by inserting the human anguish of war, crime and other forms of violence, poverty and catastrophe into a world of the living and the dead where fiction and reality cross over:

-You’re in good health are you not, father?

-Yes. Being dead suits me.

Sandra Quiroz, a specialist in African culture, states that, “In this, alongside other stories, Couto creates two parallel narratives that end up intertwined, mixing African heritage and its formulas of magical time with the dead who continue living, in an inexplicable dimension by western reasoning”.
Cuoto describes a universe where its inhabitants “filled the land with borders and loaded the skies with flags. But there are only two nations; that of the living and that of the dead”.

On the 5th July he will be 63 years old and his practical familiarity with the magical world of Gabriel García Márquez began in 2013 during his first visit to Colombia, an influence that he recognises in his earliest statements on the topic:

“Of course I’ve read Gabo, as he’s known here. I think all African writers have a debt to what is known as Latin American realism because I believe, in some way, that it encouraged us and allowed us to break from the European model. It was important and a real reference point for us”, he says.

Son of Portuguese immigrants, member of the Liberation Front of Mozambique in the 70s, journalist and professor, biologist and ‘a poet who tells stories’, as he puts it. Those who study his work suppose that his literature draws from oral tradition, ancestral stories, fables and street tales.

António Emílio Leite Couto, known as Mia Couto and considered amongst the greats of Portuguese literature and the best representatives of contemporary African literature, is the author to some twenty books, which also include tales and chronicles translated into English, French, German, Italian, Estonian and Spanish.

Another of his volumes, ‘Jerusalem’, was rated in France as one of the top twenty most important fictional books. After a literary career which began in 1983 with a book of poetry entitled “Raiz de Orvalho”, followed by his first book of stories ‘Vozes Anoitecidas’, in 1986, Couto won the Camões Prize in 2013, the Portuguese language equivalent of the Spanish Cervantes Prize.

Granting him the Camões Prize, the panel valued ‘his vast work of fiction categorised by stylistic innovation and profound humanity’; words that spiritually seem to ring similar to his own when he said of his country; ‘it is a son of mine and also a father and mother and a brother’.  (PL)

(Translated by Eleanor Gooch)

 

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