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Book review: The Tuner of Silences, By Mia Couto, trans. David Brookshaw

A story of family life amid conflict extends the range of one of Africa's most admired writers

“I was eleven years old when I saw a woman for the first time,” reveals Mwanito, the child-narrator of Mia Couto's novel. David Brookshaw's beautifully sparse translation from the Portuguese takes us to the end of the world. Mwanito lives in a deserted game-park, lost in the interior of a country ravaged by war. His father, the ironically named Vitalício, has declared “Over There” to be lost, his companions the sole survivors. The young boy's world is peopled only by his father, his brother, servant-soldier Zachary, a transitory uncle and the donkey, Jezebel. It is a lonely, violent and desolate existence. Until, as Mwanito veers towards puberty, a new arrival interrupts their isolation.

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Born in Mozambique to Portuguese parents, Couto is one of the lusophone world's most admired writers. Given his commitment to anti-colonial politics, it is tempting to read The Tuner of Silences as allegory: an imaginary world echoing the harsh realities of the Mozambican liberation struggle and subsequent civil war. But it is not a straightforward national critique. Instead, the parameters of the novel are both worldly and intimate. While Couto heads his chapters with poetry from both Latin America and Europe, the resounding focus of the narrative is the family unit. And, above all, the boundless resistance of the human imagination in the face of forgetting and loss.

Mwanito's father, desolate after his wife's death and furious with the world, seeks calm through controlling the lives around him. He beats the elder brother Ntunzi for violations of his rules and viciously enforces his own account of reality. His affection for his youngest son is a restrictive parody of love. Mwanito learns that he “was born to keep quiet” – his role, to calm his father as the eponymous “tuner of silences”.

It is a heavy vocation for a young child fascinated by the secrets of the world. The silence is broken by Marta, the unexpected Portuguese visitor. Mwanito sheds tears of surprise when he first sees her. He longs for her to become his mother while Ntunzi has designs on her as a lover. The outside world has come to the gate of the park and their childhood is heading to a close.

Mia Couto, who recently won the Camoes Prize for Portuguese-language literature, is often referred to as a magical realist. But the mystical remains stubbornly absent from this book. Instead, the other-worldliness of the novel is created entirely by the dreams and delusions of its protagonists. Lovers of African literature may find resonance here between Couto's writing and JM Coetzee's new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. Both turn away from the present to reflect on the ethics of our interactions with others and the parameters of our internal worlds. While Couto's work is ultimately more joyful, The Tuner of Silences remains a sad novel of poetic brilliance – haunting in its human landscape.