Mia Couto; Trans. David Brookshaw
Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw, is the first book in a forthcoming trilogy that tells the story Portugal’s attempt to colonize the southern Mozambique territory of Gaza in 1894. The territory is claimed by Ngungunyane, the last of Gaza’s leaders. He has raised an army to fight the colonizers, and as the novel opens, Ngungunyane and his warriors are making their way toward the border village of Nkokolani where the story takes place.
The narrative alternates between the voices of two individuals: Imani, the fifteen-year girl of the VaChopi tribe, hired to interpret for the Portuguese; and Sergeant Germano de Melo, appointed as captain of the garrison at Nkokolani to represent the interests of the Portuguese crown. Germano’s narrative takes the form of letters to his supervisor in which he assesses the current political situation. His letters gradually become increasingly personal and confessional with the passage of time. Imani, who learned to speak fluent Portuguese at the mission school, is conflicted. Her situation is fraught with tension: her father is an abusive alcoholic; her mother continues to mourn the death of her children; her two surviving brothers are on opposite sides of the conflict; and she and Germano gravitate between love and hate in their relationship.
There is much to admire in the novel. Couto skillfully depicts the clash of cultures, miscommunications, deceptions, and attitudes of the colonizers and the indigenous peoples. And as is frequently the case, the indigenous people are split between those who support the colonizer and those who want to rid the country from the yoke of foreign oppression. This split takes the form of internecine violence with one tribe perpetrating atrocities on its neighbors. The situation is multi-layered and riddled with a complexity that is reflected in the alternating voices of the narrators.
Stories taken from African folklore, superstitions, dreams and their interpretation, and the occurrence of bizarre events all thread their way intermittently throughout the narrative. Many of these are taken seriously and interpreted as warning signs by the indigenous population; many are summarily dismissed by Germano as the belief systems of a primitive people.
The weakest element in the novel lay in its characterization. The characters are flat and one-dimensional with a portrayal that is stereotypical. Imani’s voice and diction are not reflective of a fifteen-year old girl. Her forays into self-doubt and existential angst lack authenticity. Germano’s letters are self-indulgent and full of self-pity. And other than the difference in content, there is little to distinguish Imani’s diction from that of Germano’s. Having said that, however, if one is willing to forgo the dearth of characterization, the novel does tell a compelling story, a story that sheds light on a turbulent period in Mozambique history, a story that has been repeated many times over and in many different forms whenever and wherever the colonizer and colonized clash.