Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto (Mozambique)


Title: Veranda cu frangipani

Author: Mia Couto

Original title: A Varanda do Frangipani

Original language: Portuguese

Translation from Portuguese to Romanian by Mioara Caragea

Rating: 4 out of 5

“Astăzi știu: Africa ne răpește ființa. Și ne golește în mod invers: umplându-ne de suflet. De aceea și astăzi simt dorința să incendiez câmpia. Ca să-și piardă eternitatea. Să nu mă mai obsedeze. Pentru că sunt un exilat, atât de surghiunit, încât nu mă mai simt rupt de nimic, nici despărțit de cineva. M-am dăruit acestei țări de parcă m-aș fi convertit la o religie. Acum nu-mi mai doresc decât să fiu o piatră pe acest pământ. Dar nu una oarecare, dintre cele pe care nimeni nu le calcă niciodată. Vreau să fiu o piatră la marginea drumului.”

“Privind ploaia curgând toată luna ianuarie, mă întrebam: cum știm că acest miros e al pământului, și nu al cerului?”


Happy belated New Year dear reader! It’s been a while since I’ve posted something here. During these months I’ve read many books, most of them were unrelated to my “Reading the world” project. But I enjoyed every reading that I had.

I’ve started this year with a story from Mozambique by Mia Couto. And I have to say that this short book (around 150 pages) was the perfect “come back” for my project.

I apologize for not posting the quote in English this time. I read the Romanian translation of this book and didn’t find the English version anywhere. Couto has a very special use of language that I didn’t want to destroy with an inexperienced translation.

Mia Couto is considered one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. His works have been published in more than 20 countries. After studying medicine and biology, he worked as a journalist and, for several years, headed the Mozambique News Agency. He has been awarded several
important literary prizes like the Camões Prize for Literature 2013, one of the most prestigious international awards honoring the work of Portuguese language writers. In April 2007, he became the first African author to win the prestigious Latin Union Award of Romanic Languages. In 2013 he was
awarded the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2014.

His writing is heavily influenced by magical realism, a style popular in modern Latin American literature. He is also known for his creativity with language. Within his novels, each phrase is like a short poem.

In “Under the frangipani”, Mia Couto tells the story of a murder, but rather than a whodunnit, it’s more like a who-didn’t.

The story is narrated by a dead man, Ermelindo Mucanga. He has died while working on the restoration of an old Portuguese slave fort and his body is buried under a frangipani tree. His death doesn’t upset him in any way. He is not melodramatic about it, but rather content. He doesn’t dream, but the
frangipani tree above him sometimes dreams of him. He has a pet ant-eater that lives with him and speaks to him in a kind of inner monologue as if it were his dog. He doesn’t remember much of his life, but that doesn’t bother him.

Decades after being dead, with the independence of his country, he is now considered a national hero and his mortal body is unearthed to be given a State Funeral. But he doesn’t want to be a hero, and he knows that if his body is moved, he’ll have to exist forever as a ghost. He seeks advice with a
pangolin, an animal that in Mozambican lore has supernatural powers, and is advised to enter the body of a detective investigating a murder in the fort and wait for him to die. The detective’s death is foretold and Ermelindo only has to wait six days before his new host dies and he can achieve peace again.

Izidine Naita, a police inspector from the capital, arrives at the fort island in a helicopter, to investigate the murder of Vastome, a mulato who was the director of what it is now something between a refuge and a prison for old people. The novel follows the six days of investigation in which he questions six residents, each one claming responsability for the murder and each one lying. Through the testimony of the aged inmates, the author brings up many aspects of Mozambique’s rich oral tradition, its folklore and myth, the historical and political aspects with and without the European occupiers, and their own racial and regional issues.

From the start, his task seems hopeless. Though an African by birth, he is young, and because he was educated in Europe, he has little practical experience with the culture of his people, he is more of an outsider to his own kind. He wants only the truth (or what his westernized expectations define truth to be), but what he gets is something quite different. As the story progresses, finding out who actually killed the director becomes less and less important. As one of the inmates puts it, “The crime that’s been committed here isn’t the one you’re trying to solve”. The confessions are a combination of African religious spiritualism, senile dementia and a game of seeing how much the outsider can be made to believe.

Just as the inmates carry Naita on a wild ride to the limits of their imaginations, Couto challenges our expectations by making us constantly question the nature of truth. One message that the author is trying to send is that those who try to master life are missing the point. As an inmate puts it, “What we discover in this life does not come as the result of searching for it.” Naita’s revelation and salvation is to learn to listen and to explore, gently and with humility. Our realization should be the same.

This was my first reading of Mia Couto, but I have the feeling that many more will follow.