Mia Couto and the Case of the Dismembered Members

Mia Couto
The Last Flight of the Flamingo
Serpent's Tail

 

Norman Rush is a white man in Africa. J.M. Coetzee is too. Alexandra Fuller, the manliest literary figure of any nationality since Norman Mailer, is still a white woman in Africa. They're fine writers all, but their prose maintains a distance from the continent's black majority, that hint that something essential hides itself from white eyes and ears.

Mia Couto, a novelist, journalist, and scientist, is the first white writer I've ever read who, to my eyes, pierces that veil. The Last Flight of the Flamingo (Serpent's Tail), Couto's odd, dislocating novel about his native Mozambique, keeps tilting you this way and that. You finish it with the shaky uprightness of a sea voyage, an inability to rely on formerly reliable concepts like "reality" and "dreams." For the first time, a white African novelist has helped me see through black African eyes.

We enter the remote village of Tizangara on the heels of an Italian official, Massimo Risi, who has shown up to conduct an investigation. UN peacekeepers have begun exploding, leaving only their genitals behind. The investigator soon gets more than he bargained for--not in the typical thriller's sense of intrigue, but in a metaphysical manner. "The only facts [here] are supernatural ones," our unnamed narrator sort-of helpfully explains.

The facts on the ground are indeed murky and tendentious. And since the narrator--the town's translator--can't speak Italian, he's not going to be much help anyway. In the aftermath of a crippling civil war, a place that was once ravaged by ideology is now being ravaged by neoliberal economic policies. The old banners celebrating proletarian internationalism, however, can't be replaced by celebrations of capitalism. The paint to make new ones has "disappeared," and the cloth has been "stolen."

That's about as logical as things get. The narrator's father removes and hangs up his skeleton every night; his dead mother continually offers him advice and admonitions. I'm not sure I could explain precisely why the peacekeepers are exploding, or what happens at the end of this mystery. But plot resolution isn't really the point. Couto's animist distrust of everyday knowledge makes for an energetic, off-putting education in just how much of this planet remains for us First-Worlders to try to understand.

 
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