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A River Called Time, by Mia Couto trans David Brookshaw
War and peace in a house of the spirits
Friday 11 July 2008
Mia Couto from Mozambique has witnessed his country's tumultous struggle for independence, the drama of revolution, and a protracted civil war as a journalist and editor, a poet and novelist, and an environmental biologist. His novels bind national history to ancestral mythology. They are a vindication of how oral legends can be received in any language.
A River Called Time is the account of the death of an elder and the life of a spreading family, relayed from every vantage point, including that of the corpse. Time is not chronological but coincidental; objects possess individuals, as do spellbound states. Ancestors inhabit the between-world where the unborn, stillborn and zombies, like less-than-dead grandfather Dito Mariano, hold sway.
The principal narrative voice is that of grandson Mariano, recalled from his studies to bury his forefather. In an attempt to heal the raw wounds of civil war, the home is called Nyumba-Kaye, "house" in the languages of north and south. Mariano's mission appears to be reconciliation between branches of the family tree, where not even Old Man Mariano turns out to be quite the relative or corpse young Mariano assumed.
The two Marianos' voices alternate. Messages to the future appear in the form of letters and apparitions, each one bearing a fresh instruction. The need to combat the cupidity of Uncle Ultimio – hellbent on "progress" by converting Nyumba-Kaye into a luxury island hotel – is straightforward enough. Above all, the demands are to enter the life of the house itself, with its garret of ghosts and its roof open to the cosmos.
The story of the home is told in desperate cries, seductive whispers and childish laughter. The novel has much to teach about patriarchy and change in a pre-industrial, post- revolutionary society. It shares, with the best fiction, mystery and revelation. A River called Time transports the reader to an island in which past, present and future co-exist, and the dead retain a vociferous presence.
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