Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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Mia Couto
© 2001
Serpent's Tail, 160pp
$15 paperback

IT HAS all the trappings of a conventional murder mystery: there’s a corpse, a cast of colorful and suspicious characters, wily seductresses, a ghost from beyond the grave and a police investigator from the outside looking for answers. But under the sweet-scented flowers of a frangipani tree in the central courtyard of a crumbling fort in the hinterlands of Mozambique, nothing is as it first seems. Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani is anything but an everyday whodunit.

Though he has achieved a certain amount of deserved international acclaim, Couto is not well known in the United States. His first novel, Terra Sonambula (Sleepwalking Earth), named one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, is untranslated. And his two collections of short stories–Every Man Is a Race and Voices Made Night, both superb examples of African magical realism–have drifted out of print. At least part of the reason (for Africans writing in Portuguese face an uphill battle anyway) is that Couto doesn’t match the expectations of what an African writer should be. To be blunt, he’s white. It is fitting, then, that this novel will be most readers’ first introduction to Couto, for it is a novel which forces the reader to question preconceived notions, to take a second look at assumptions that normally go unnoticed and to try to look at the world with fresh, unspoiled eyes.

The novel begins with the arrival of Izidine Naita, a police inspector from the capital. The setting is an old colonial fort soaked in history, where Portuguese cannons once fired on Dutch ships and revolutionary prisoners were housed during the wars for Mozambique’s independence. In recent years it has faded into obscurity; it is now something between a refuge and a prison for old people. When the director of the refuge turns up dead, Naita is dispatched to investigate.

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. Since there is no physical evidence, Naita must rely solely on the testimony of the old people living in the refuge, testimony he cannot at first understand or appreciate, for his youth and Western attitudes make him an outsider to his own people. Everyone he interviews confesses to the crime and as he moves from suspect to suspect—helpless to do anything but take down each confession in turn—he is drawn further and further into a world as bizarrely foreign to him as to the average Western reader. He wants only the truth (or what his westernized expectations define truth to be), but what he gets is a different kind. As the story progresses, finding out who actually killed the director of the refuge 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.” Before the reader can find out what that crime truly is, he or she must also put aside previous expectations.

Couto’s writing is smooth and unlabored, but the simplicity of his prose is as deceptive as the seemingly straight-forward murder of the director. The novel is framed by the confessions of the inmates, but as Naita learns to listen to what the inmates are really saying, he (and we) realize that many of the events of the narrative have not actually occurred. The confessions of the aged inmates are a combination of African religious spiritualism, senile dementia and the old game of seeing how much the gullible outsider can be made to believe, but there is always a kernel of truth at their core. Since Naita is exclusively focused on the murder, it is only by confessing to the crime that the inmates can get his attention and draw him (and us) into a world that was previously unseen. 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 in vain the veracity of the narrative and the nature of truth itself until one is forced to question one’s own assumptions. Who, after all, can really say what is true?

Despite its author’s fair skin, the perspective of this novel is distinctly non-Western. Its central message 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. If we cannot put aside expectations of what an African writer should write, we will, like Naita, scare truth away and find only an unsatisfying mystery novel. Far better and more beautiful things lie in wait.



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