Under the Frangipani
by Mia Couto, David Brookshaw
In the edition I have, the short intro, entitled White body, black soul, is written by Henning Mankell. I found it interesting in general terms because having read Couto's work Mankell said he was then surprised on meeting him to find an African of European parents, because "one of the most challenging things about Mia Couto's work is how profoundly it manifests an African sense of how a good story should be told". He writes that African storytelling is characterised by an "absolute challenge to the chronological structure", describing Couto as a "restless drifter between the past and present", that African stories makes a less rigid distinction between the past and the present than is found in Western writings. The second point he makes is that Couto "explores the African spirit world, which not only allows the dead to meet and even inhabit the living, but also accepts metamorphosis between people and other living creatures because they are interrelated".
This novel is superficially a mystery surrounding the murder of Vastsome Excellency, the Director of the old people’s refuge at the fort of Sao Nicolau. Moreover the establishment of the police intend to kills off the inspector sent to investigate, the residents of the refuge do not trust this incomer into their midst and until they do they cannot help him either the solve the murder or escape his fate. The “pet of the dead”, the halakavuma or anteater, intervenes and encourages the dead carpenter, Ermelindo Mucango, to become a shipoco, a night spirit, and take up residence in the body of Izidine Naita, the investigating police officer. From the beginning there is uncertainty surrounding the death of the Director and Izidine is given conflicting accounts from each of the residents, all claiming to have killed the Director and variously portraying him as a cruel bully, sexual predator, corrupt official and generally all-round despicable character. Izidine struggles to gain their confidence as he tries to piece together the truth of the matter.
Initially we are told that Ermelindo died far from home and has not been buried according to the traditions of his people. Instead his grave is under a frangipani tree on the terrace of refuge. His body is being exhumed because the government want a national hero from his tribe. With no desire to be a hero, he consults the halakavima about what to do and becomes a shipoco to relive his death and to set the record straight. Likewise we are told that the Director had received a promotion and the helicopter coming to take him and his wife away from the Refuge saw his body on the rocks as they made their approach. But when the crew went to investigate, there was no body.
Izidine flies in, unbeknowingly carrying Ermelindo. His first interview is with Navaia Caetano, who volunteers that he murdered the Director. He tells how suffering from premature age, he was a child who grew old the moment he was born, which meant his mother never felt the present of her child and could not suckle him . To live he has to be a storyteller of lies. Finally he came to the refuge where the witch, Little Miss No, said she could help if he let his childhood run free allowing his mother to find solace in motherhood. As he did the fellow residents realised he would die and tried to revive and ensure the child’s salvation, in an exorcism like ceremony. The Director interrupted the ritual, but after he left, they finished the ceremony and extolling him to “kill that sonofabitch” helped Navaia to the door complete with dagger in hand. Curious, thinks the reader, shot or stabbed?
The second confession comes from the Old Portuguese, the white man, Domingos Mourao. who has been bullied by the Director and witnesses him hitting his wife. In the third confession, the Old Gaffer confess to having killed the Director by smashing his head in and smothering him after he witness an attempted/ assault on Marta. The fourth confession comes from Miss No who says she poisoned the Director. Marta, the refuge nurse, hands Izidine a letter written by Ernestina, the Director’s wife, who tells how the Director was corrupted by war, stole the inmates supplies and refused to let anyone leave the fort on the return helicopter. Party to this secretion of supplies in the storehouse was their now dead servant Salufo Tuco. Salufo had left the fort once for a period of two months, but disillusioned by the world he saw outside returned only to be beaten by the Director when he had tried to open up the storeroom where the stolen supplies were secreted.
The way Couto constructs the novel, using the confessions and ramblings of the old residents to confuse both the policeman and the reader, forces both to reassess their assumptions, to confront the question of what is the truth and to look at everything afresh. Without any real evidence for the murder, Izidine (African by birth, educated in Europe, with little practical experiences of his people’s culture and still an outsider to them) is in a position of having to rely on their testimonies, which at first are incomprehensible to him. Trying to find the truth (as defined by Western terms, namely who killed the Director and why) becomes less important with the realisation that “The crime that’s been committed here isn’t the one you’re trying to solve.” The residents’ confessions are mixtures of African spiritualism (such as a woman who turns to water at night, Little Miss No the witch; the storm snake or wamulamba), senile dementia (meandering through changes of topic, reminiscences of youth, reliving of youthful desires in dreams of seducing Marta and the Director’s wife), and joke playing on the gullibility of an outsider (dressing Izidine up in a woman’s dress in a false ceremonial ritual). All serving to confuse, and misdirect away from the real truth.
A closer read can reveal metaphors within the text and its characters. For example, the Old Gaffer relates an interesting encounter with the Old Portuguese. He has gone to cut down the frangipani and gets into a fight with the Old Portuguese who abhors this act, although the two end up laughing with and at each other. Their humorous banter is hugely metaphorical for the battle between Freelimo and the state. The Old Gaffer speculates that although the whites always thought they won by strength of arms, he doubts this, thinking it was due to the Mozambicans thinking the white man’s spirits were stringer than their own, their spells more powerful than theirs, and even their stories more enchanting. I wondered whether this last one is a reference to Christianity?
Marta, also educated by the Portugese, is a survivor. If we are to believe her story she had been sent to a re-education camp to mend her ways after being charged with being a loose woman. She is also the revealer, the unraveller, the waypointer for Izidine. She gives a different perspective on the Director as the man who saved many when the Infirmary burnt, as a man who had given the best years of his life to the Revolution only to feel betrayed when its utopian ideals become corrupted. For, as she finally reveals to Izidine, the culprit is war, implying the victim is Mozambique itself - the Mozambique tradition of magic, of family values of respect for elders (personified as the old residents at the fort) is dying as corruption spreads throughout post revolution, post war, black society challenging the revolution’s ideals and society’s traditional values resulting in the disillusionment of old soldiers (like Salufo Tuco), corrupting the judiciary (the Director), and the establishment (the police force). The writing of Marta’s confession resonated strongly with me “Violence changes priorities”, “War creates another cycle of time. Our lives are no longer measured by years or seasons. Or by the harvests, famine or floods.War established the cycle of blood. We start saying “before the war, after the war!” " War swallows up the dead and devours its survivors”.
SPOILER…The residents finally come to the decision to trust the policeman, believing him to be a good man working in a bad organisation. They confess that the store room covers a cache of arms, left over from the war. These had been traded by the Director to the helicopter crew who shot him after the residents had buried the weapons in attempt to stop another war. Finally, as the helicopter returns, Ermalindo re-emerges to get Izidine away and as they hide in the rocks by the shoreline he has a reawakening “ I had crowned myself with cowardice. When it was time to fight for my country I had refused. I had nailed planks when we were building a nation” instead of helping ”deliver a world in which a man could be respected just for living his life”. The havakavuma creates a great storm wamulambo, bringing down the helicopter. During this, the quay Ermelindo had built saved the residents, who emerge to find the refuge restored and rebuilt anew. Only the frangipani tree is a charred skeleton. Ermelindo, ultimately the hero, returns to the soil, renews the frangipani, and along with the old residents succumbs to a peaceful “slumber deeper then death itself” leaving the survivors Marta and Izidine in the new world.
ashramblings verdict 4* I’d loved to have read this with more than an internet search of Mozambican political history to help me along. That said, I still found it a fascinating and satisfying read, very reminiscent of the magical realism prominent in Latin American literature, complete with the political overtones