Couto, Mia 1955–
Mia Couto 1955–
Mia Couto is considered one of the leading writers of Mozambique. Though he writes in Portuguese, Couto has tried to forge a new literary style that blends the European language with the rich oral traditions of the country’s indigenous Bantu and Swahili speakers. “To read Mia Couto is to encounter a peculiarly African sensibility,” noted New Statesman critic Jason Cowley, who termed him “a writer of fluid, fragmentary narratives.”
Couto was born Antônio Emílio Leite Couto in 1955 in Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city. The nickname “Mia” dates back to his childhood. His literary ambitions were inherited from his father, an administrator for the railroad system who also wrote poetry and served as a newspaper editor. In 1971, at age 16, Couto began his studies at the Lourenço Marques University in Mozambique’s capital with the hope of becoming a doctor. At the time, the country was still an overseas province of Portugal, but a 1974 coup in that nation overturned a dictatorship that had lasted for nearly 50 years. Mozambique became independent the following year. As a result, Couto dropped out of school for a number of years, finding work as a journalist and then director of the Mozambican Information Agency after 1977. Between 1978 and 1981 he edited a weekly magazine called Tempo, and during the first half of the 1980s served as editor of the newspaper Notícias. Returning to his university studies at the newly renamed Eduardo Mondlane University, he earned his biology degree in 1989 and began teaching there.
Couto continued to write, however. His first book of poetry, Raiz de orvalho (“Root of Dew”), appeared in 1983, and a collection of stories titled Vozes anoitecidas, appeared in 1986. Taken up by Lisbon publisher Caminho, Vozes anoitecidas appeared in an expanded edition in 1987 and in English translation as Voices Made Night in 1990. Critics commended Couto’s prose for its mix of standard Portuguese with the fantastical hallmarks of the oral storytelling culture common to African peoples. Many of his tales featured spirits and macabre elements similar to those in indigenous folklore, such as “The Girl with a Twisted Future,” or “The Whales of Quissico,” in which a famished peasant imagines that the whales off Mozambique’s Indian Ocean coastline contain the wealth of consumer goods that he and other Mozambicans crave.
As David Brookshaw noted in an essay on Couto for African Writers, “Two threads bind the stories in the collection into a coherent whole. One is the concern to express some sort of integrated Mozambican identity, which Couto does by paradoxically invoking the country’s cultural and ethnic diversity,” which includes Arabs, Asians, and the Goans of coastal India. “The second thread that runs through Voices Made Night” Brookshaw continued, “is encapsulated in the author’s introductory note, which explains that the stories derive from a preoccupation with the power of fantasy and its ability to rule the lives of those who are all but destitute. Fantasy becomes a compensatory mechanism, but it is equally a destructive force, as Couto explains in the
At a Glance…
Born Antonio Emílio Leite Couto on July 7, 1955, in Beira, Mozambique; son of Fernando (a railroad-company administrator, newspaper editor, and poet) and Maria de Jesus Couto; married to Patricia; children: Dawany, Luciana, and Rita. Education: Studied medicine at Lourenço Marques University, 1971-74; Eduardo Mondlane University, Beira, degree in biology, 1989, graduate study in biology, 1990s.
Career: Writer, 1974-; Mozambican Information Agency, director, 1977-78; Tempo magazine, general editor, 1978-81; Notícias newspaper, editor, 1981-86, and columnist, late 1980s; Eduardo Mondlane University, lecturer and researcher in ecology, 1989-.
Awards: Inaugural national prize for literature, Mozambique, for Vozes anoitecidas, 1990; Mario Antonio prize, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, for O Ultimo Voo do Flamingo, 2001.
Addresses: Office —c/o Editorial Caminho, Departamento Editorial, Avenida Almirante Gago Coutinho, 121, 1700-029 Lisbon, Portugal.
foreword: ‘There exists in nothingness that illusion of plenitude which causes life to stop and voices to become night.’”
Couto’s second collection of short stories, Cada homem é uma raça, appeared in English as Every Man Is a Race in 1994. Some of these tales touch upon Mozambique’s ten-year struggle for independence prior to the 1974 coup and the lengthy, divisive civil war that followed. In “Rosa Caramela,” for example, the young narrator is fascinated by his town’s resident eccentric, a hunchbacked woman who talks to statues. When a new regime comes to power, its leaders mistake her rantings for political statements and briefly detain her. “Even in translation,” declared critic Gerald Moser in World Literature Today, “a hallucinatory world rises before the mind’s eye, peopled by real human beings tragically surviving for a while in an all-too-real country being devastated by a civil war… and simultaneously rendered crazy through the demands of party hacks and bureaucrats.”
Terra sonâmbula (“A Sleepwalking Land”) was Couto’s debut novel. The 1992 work is set during the Mozambican civil war, which decimated the country before its 1990 cease-fire, and is essentially a series of short stories that in the end bring two plotlines together. In one plotline, an old man and the youngster Muidinga find shelter in an abandoned bus in the war-torn countryside, where the boy finds a notebook that tells the story of Kindzu, a man who tried to find his lover’s son, Gaspar. At the end, Kindzu sees Muidinga and believes him to be the long-lost Gaspar. As Brook-shaw noted in African Writers, “one of the constant themes in Couto’s depiction of postindependence Mozambique is that the chaotic process of the country’s first fifteen years of independence has produced a nation of orphans in search of some integral wholeness. His Mozambicans look to some sort of Utopian ideal that was alive at independence but has been lost under the weight of civil war, of self-interest, and of timeless traditions that never sat easily with the imported European political model.”
Couto’s third collection of short stories, Estórias aben-sonhadas (“Dream-blessed Stories”), was followed by a foray into the detective novel genre in 1996, A Varanda do Frangipani. The work was translated into English and published as Under the Frangipani in 2001. The tree in question is situated outside an abandoned fort on the Indian Ocean that once housed slaves and ivory for overseas transport during Mozambique’s long colonial era. Its terrible history haunts the residents and staff of the nursing home for which it is now used. A former military officer, Ermelindo Mucanga, runs the nursing home with the cruelty he once deployed in the civil war, and when he is found dead, several people come forward to claim responsibility. The task of determining the true culprit falls to the police officer who arrives there to solve the case, and he finds an unlikely ally in Halakavuma, an anteater. A New Internationalist review called Under the Frangipani “a powerful and trenchant evocation of life in a society traumatized by decades of war and poverty.”
Couto’s 2002 novel Um Rio Chamado Tempo, Uma Casa Chamada Terra (“A River Called Time, A House Called Land”), again features two narrators: a young boy and his recently deceased grandfather. The members of the extended family who return to bury the patriarch each symbolize a different phase in Mozambique’s recent history: one son has never left the land; another spent years as an insurgent hero during the civil war; the third eagerly embraces capitalism. When the gravedigger puts the shovel to the earth, the ground refuses to give. Only when the old man recounts his own story will the ground accept him. African Review of Books reviewer Richard Bartlett called the novel “a story of personal emotion of national proportions, of a younger generation receiving the keys to the house and discovering how empty rooms become spaces of magical potential. It is a story of a young student learning the importance of family as he steps into the shoes of the patriarch.”
When the United States launched a war against Iraq in March of 2003, Couto wrote an open letter to U. S. President George W. Bush that appeared in the Mozambican weekly, Savana, and was reprinted in several other publications around the world, including on the African Review of Books Web site. “I am a writer from a poor nation, a country which has already been on your black list,” Couto asserted. “Millions of Mozambicans wondered what evil they had ever done to you. We were small and poor: what threat could we represent? Our weapon of mass destruction was, after all, targeted upon ourselves: it was famine and poverty…. The danger is not the regime of Saddam, nor any other regime, but the sense of superiority which seems to inspire your government.”
War and its aftermath continue to provide the themes in Couto’s fiction. In 2004, another one of his works, O Último Voo do Flamingo, appeared in English translation. The 2001 novel centers upon the landmines that still pockmark the Mozambique countryside and the work of a United Nations team which arrives to provide assistance in defusing them. The novel won the Mario Antonio prize from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and its title, Couto told the audience assembled for the ceremony, had been inspired by a walk he took on a beach one day in 1998. He found a feather, and local fishermen told him it was from the flamingos, who had not come that year. As he recalled, “an inexplicable anguish accosted me—and what if those birds never returned again?” the African Review of Books quoted him as saying about that day in 1998. “And what if the flamingos from all the beaches had been swallowed by distant shadows?” In his novel, the characters make a paper bird, “and they launch this simulated bird over the ultimate abyss, reinvesting in the word that magical rebirth of everything…. It is a limited response to the makers of war and builders of misery.”
Raiz de orvalho, Edições Tempo, 1983.
Vozes anoitecidas (short stories), A.E.M.O., 1986, expanded edition, Caminho, 1987; published as Voices Made Night, David Brookshaw, trans., Heinemann, 1990.
Cronicando (nonfiction essays), Edições Notícias, 1988, Caminho, 1991.
Cada homem é uma raça (short stories), Caminho, 1991; published as Every Man Is a Race, David Brookshaw, trans., Heinemann, 1994.
Terra sonâmbula (novel), Caminho, 1992.
Estórias abensonhadas (short stories), Caminho, 1994.
A Varanda do Frangipani (detective novel), Caminho, 1996; published as Under the Frangipani, David Brookshaw, trans., Serpent’s Tail, 2001.
O Último Voo do Flamingo, Caminho, 2001; published as The Last Flight of the Flamingo, Serpent’s Tail, 2004.
Um Rio Chamado Tempo, Uma Casa Chamada Terra (novel), Caminho, 2002.
African Writers, Vol. 1, Scribner’s, 1997, pp. 185-187.
American Imago, Spring 1998, p. 155.
New Internationalist, October 2001, p. 19.
New Statesman, June 11, 2001, p. 70.
World Literature Today, Autumn 1994, p. 866; Winter 2000, p. 227; July-September 2003, p. 81.
“A Grand Metaphor of Mozambique,” African Review of Books, www.africanreviewofbooks.com/Reviews/coutol.html (March 18, 2004).
“A Sun from the Other Side of the World,” African Review of Books, www.africanreviewofbooks.com/Reviews/essays/coutoflamingo.html (March 18, 2004).
“Our ‘Weapon of Mass Construction,’” African Review of Books, www.africanreviewofbooks.com/Newsitems/coutowmd.html (May 4, 2004).
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Couto, Mia 1955–