Friday, 23 May 2014

Interview with Mia Couto

[Translated from the original spanish version by Sara Estima. Thank you Sara!!]

- What can I do for you

The question comes as the sound of waves of a calm sea. This man of serene blue eyes and bright smile asks me this question. But it turns out that this simple man in jeans and short-sleeved shirt is one of the best living Portuguese language writers. So this straightforward question and equal treatment put a smile in my face that will not leave me during our entire conversation.

We start talking about magical realism, although “those who invented that word were not writers”, and he tells me that the major difference between African and Latin American writers is due to the greater influence of the Catholic Church in Latin America, because “here the deceased never leave”. Although people go to different churches, the vast majority still believes in their ancestors and keeps some of the traditional culture.

The problem lies in the rigid European rationalist system (I don't recall his exact words), although “back there people also believe in horoscopes, even over the internet”. I soon kind of forget that this was supposed to be an interview and we keep going back and forward on our theme, as if we were in the sand paths of Maputo’s surroundings.

I tell him next that I was impressed to know that a book so mature, so full of subtle, relaxing, deep images, so full of Mozambique, of all its stories was written before the end of the terrible civil war that devastated his country. Ignoring the compliments as if they hadn’t been told, he acknowledges that “I was also surprised. I did not want to write a book about the war and, if ever so, only much later. But it happened like that. I suffered a lot writing this book, because at night stories came to my mind, I was visited by friends who had been killed in the war. And I had to find a PLACE OF PEACE inside me. That is why I had to write this book.

I'm so delighted with his reflections that it is almost too hard to go on, but the characters slowly come to help me, like Virginia, the woman of Portuguese origin who reinvented her unknown Portuguese family “as my parents did; they used to tell stories of a Portugal to which they could not return to during the dictatorship. Their stories gave me an imaginary family and that seemed very important to me.” He will not give me any clue about which, amongst the stories, correspond to traditional beliefs and which ones are invented, though he maliciously smiles avoiding my question, telling me that “in the town where I lived the colonization was very difficult and the town was not easily controlled; so if I crossed the street I could play with black and Indian children. I learned their language and they told me their stories. Upon returning home I translated those stories to my family. That is when I began to realize that something was lost in translation.

And that is when you started twisting the language, I tell him, trying to pull some information. Again, he smiles maliciously. He is famous for not giving much information in interviews, although he admits that he loved One Hundred Years of Solitude, “it is a fabulous book”, he says. And he accepts the influence of Luandinho Vieira, “but only in the way of treating language”, he explains. And I don't get any more influences from him.

But we go back to our matter of interest, the poetry that is everywhere in his book. I tell him that I do not agree with Francisco Noa (with whom I spoke and who is a lovely person) in that “the water has, in his work, an anthropophagic dimension”; on the contrary it seems to be an optimistic, fertile element, the symbol of the power of imagination or of the unconscious mind... His smile indicates that he will give it little importance, but he acknowledges that “water and more exactly rain is an element of change and also regeneration in traditional cultures”. I do not quite recall the words that followed, because he seems to talk more with his sea coloured smiling eyes. But, when his smile spreads to his lips I understand that I must say something.

I ask him the first question that comes to my mind. “You are a biologist, aren’t you? Because I am a doctor.” I am instantly ashamed of the familiarity and of the plainness of my question, but since my face is already red from the Sun, he does not notice it and answers “I see no contradiction; biology is to me a passion rather than a profession. I like it because it tells a story, the one of human beings, which, to me, couples well with poetry and literature.” As I keep silent, he goes on, “I wanted to be a doctor as well, a psychiatrist, but as I sided with Frelimo in the fight for Mozambique’s independence I had to quit medical school and then, when I went back to school, I realised, looking at my wife who is also a doctor, that I would not have time without remorse to literature, so I studied biology instead.” But before that you were a journalist, I say, actively returning to our conversation.

Unfortunately the Party made me head of a newspaper. I really enjoyed journalism but, being a government newspaper, I started realizing the difference between theory and practice. So I started growing apart from the newspaper and later the party.” I insist on that point. “The thing is that, in the so-called ‘civil war’, there was a very strong religious component, because Frelimo tried to banish traditional beliefs labelling them as ‘superstition’. That is the only thing that may explain the enormous emotional component, the level of harshness of the war.” In the book’s final speech - I ask him - when you talk about the danger of being ruled by others, are you referring to South Africa’s control over Renamo? “No, I meant a more general idea” he answers, intentionally brief. And now, the beast being dead - as stated in that speech - is the danger of civil war in Mozambique gone? “Yes, I think so”, he answers with moderate conviction, “but the beast does not die, you know, it gets smaller, tamed. That is something unpleasant about humans and wars make it visible. The friendly people you have found on your trip are the same that reached the level of savagery seen during the war.

Although he keeps giving me his attention, as people keep calling him I understand that I must end. So I give it all: And now, do you still believe in the power of literature, of imagination to make the world a better place? We had previously discussed that when he was younger he was more naïf, he believed that things could quickly change in a single generation, and that he now believed that social changes had a different timing, but he still found hard to believe that peace agreements had been signed in the time between the delivery of his finished book, his cry for hope, and the publishing of the book. So much hope and so much death. As I watched his clear and smiling eyes I was eager to hear his response.

- Yes – he answers, bluntly. And his next words dissolve as in Sleepwalking Land, turning into air, poetry and again into something physical, a book, a gift to me.

-Happy birthday – he told me. And so it was ;-)

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