You probably haven’t heard of Mia Couto. There’s no reason for you to have done, but this absolutely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek him out immediately. Couto is one of the better post-colonial authors that I have read, being born in Mozambique to Portuguese parents, and writing through a particularly troubled transition period in the country’s history. Last year he won the Neustadt prize for literature, and he is just starting to be recognised on an international stage, after having been an important author in the Lusophone world for a number of years.
Couto is in a unique position in that he was born and raised in a country that was attempting to make its way back into democracy. He lived through the revolution, the civil war and the ultimate peace that exists in Mozambique today, and he uses his mix of experiences to his utmost advantage in his literature.
Couto gives a view of Africa as experienced from within it. Of course, he cannot tap into the continent’s consciousness in the way that an author whose family has lived there for generations might be able to, but it is certainly no Conradian approach to the often-misrepresented continent. Couto exhibits both sides of the coin, and gives tremendously powerful accounts of a country that is struggling to define its own identity in times of change. Orality, the traditional method of storytelling in the country, plays a huge part in his novels, and is a subtle showing that perhaps the established ‘European’ way is not always the best way.
His best-known work is probably Sleepwalking Land, and it is one that exhibits his style almost perfectly for a new reader. Set just after the Civil War began, it is a novel of clashes; the old versus the new, the traditional versus the revolutionary, and the oral versus the written. One of Couto’s major themes is memory, and particularly the role of memory in the collective consciousness, in how society deals with traumatic events through manipulation of experiences. This novel is the perfect example of that, and a fantastic portrait of a country in turmoil.
Couto is perhaps best, however, as a short story writer, and Voices Made Night (Vozes Anoitecidas) is as interesting a collection of stories as you are going to find. It is heavily influenced by magical realism, as are many of his books, and is an excellent introduction to his work. If you speak Portuguese then of course it is better to read it in the original, but be warned that Couto has an interesting way of melding the African with the Portuguese and creating new words, so it may be tricky to understand even for a near-native speaker.
Couto, then, is well worth a read, and other recommendations include Under the Frangipani Tree and The Last Flight of the Flamingo. He is an author of growing global renown and an artist who represents a fascinating time period around the end of the colonial world, and how this affected the countries that had been occupied. His novels span decades of fascinating history that is perhaps not as studied as it should be, and as such is a great introduction to an absorbing continent that has not had enough of the positive attention that it deserves.