A RIVER CALLED TIME by Mia Couto

Book Quote:

“At long last I’m free of that slumber that tied me to the sheet on the big table. You can’t imagine how much I wearied of that room, how tired I was of the visitors who kept arriving, feigning sadness. Where were they when I was alive and kicking, and in need of support? Why were they now assembled together in a show of tears and prayers? Didn’t you think it too much fuss for such limited ends? Well, let me give you the answer: it was fear. That’s why they came. It wasn’t death that they were scared of, but the dead man I am now. They feared the powers I gained by crossing that last frontier.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (SEP 26, 2009)

Author Mia Couto was born in Mozambique to white Portuguese settlers during a period when Mozambique was a Portuguese colony. In a country destined to change radically in his lifetime, Couto has lived through a military coup in 1974 and survived the Mozambican Civil War which left close to a million dead. In 2003 following the invasion of Iraq, Couto–understanding the first hand results of the devastating effects of civil war on innocents–wrote an open letter to President Bush criticizing American foreign policy. With that information in mind, it should come as no surprise that Couto is a writer whose novels carry global, social significance. Couto is a writer who cares about the world humans tend to trash, and he’s a writer who believes in taking a stand.

Couto’s novel Under the Frangipani (translated and published in English in 2001), while ostensibly a detective novel set in a nursing home, blends Mozambique’s colonial history of slave trading with the death of a former military man guilty of many crimes hidden by the social upheaval of the civil war.

Similarly in A River Called Time–a 2002 novel translated from Portuguese by David Brookshaw and published in North America by Serpent’s Tail in September 2009, Couto’s characters cannot be separated from the country’s turbulent past. The novel begins when main character Mariano is summoned back from his studies in the city to the island village of Luar-do-Chao to attend the funeral of his grandfather, family patriarch, Dito Mariano. There’s an immediate sense of mystery mingled with bad omens in what should be a simple–albeit significant–family event.

A River Called Time is an inventive and often playful blend of family politics, African mythology, and magical realism as Couto explores one family’s history against the larger backdrop of a troubled country split by the taint of past colonialism and divisive civil war. Even the name of the family home reflects the country’s divisions:

“The house is named “Nyumba-Kaya” in order “to satisfy relatives from both the North and the South. ‘Nyumba’ is the word for ‘house’ in the Northern languages. In Southern tongues, the word for house is ‘kaya.’”

Mariano’s large, extended family descend on the grandfather’s simple home. According to tradition, the roof has been removed from the living room as “mourning ordains that the sky must penetrate all the rooms, to cleanse them of cosmic impurities.” With the corpse still in the house, Mariano’s grandfather’s presence is as strong as ever, and then Mariano begins to receive messages from beyond the grave. Dito Mariano, it seems, has not yet completely departed. He has “died badly” and lingers in the space between the living and the dead. In order for Dito Mariano to complete his journey to the world of the dead, something must occur….

Dito Mariano’s three sons are each locked into a different phase of Mozambique history: Mariano’s father was “a guerrilla, a revolutionary, opposed to colonial injustice,” Uncle Abstinencio is frozen into tradition and one day “went into exile in his own home,” while the youngest, Uncle Ultimo, wants to eradicate the house and build a luxury resort hotel–thus effectively erasing the last vestiges of the past. With older generations split along lines of different political beliefs and against the open, fetid sores of a recent civil war, Mariano appears to be the person who can possibly fuse old disagreements, and then he discovers that his grandfather wished him to assume the responsibilities of running family affairs. But family affairs are impossibly entwined with the past, and even the island itself still bears the scars of the recently concluded civil war:

“There were coconut palms, the crows, the slowburning fires coming into view. The cement houses were in ruins, exhausted by years of neglect. It wasn’t just the houses that were falling to pieces: time itself was crumbling away. I could still see the letters on a wall through the grime of time: ‘Our land will be the graveyard of capitalism.’ During the war, I had had visions that I never wanted repeated. As if such memories came from a part of me that had already died.”

Couto explores the African concept of death; there’s no clear dividing line, no before and after, no mutually exclusive concepts of life and death, but just one long continual journey in which death only causes a change in the physical condition. Using the strong oral traditions of African culture, the novel fluidly alternates narratives between the younger Mariano and his grandfather. The two communicate as they never did in life, and Mariano gradually discovers just who his grandfather was.

I tend to be drawn to Serpent’s Tail books for their superior crime titles–they publish some of the best new crime books on the market, so A River Called Time is a different side of Serpent’s Tail for this reader. Couto–considered one of his country’s foremost writers is largely unknown by North American readers due to the unavailability of his books in English. It’s always impressive to see a publisher champion an author, and bravo to Serpent’s Tail for facilitating access to Mia Couto.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Serpent’s Tail (September 1, 2009)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Mia Couto
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Our review of:

Other books set in Africa:

Partial Bibliography (translated works only):


September 26, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Family Matters, Mystery/Suspense, Translated, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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