THE TUNER OF SILENCES by Mia Couto

Book Quote:

“I was eleven years old when I saw a woman for the first time, and I was seized by such sudden surprise that I burst into tears.”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe В (FEB 3, 2014)

The above opening line pulled me immediately into Mia Couto’s novel, The Tuner of Silences; it raised questions for me from the beginning and these didn’t let me go until the end. Mwanito, the narrator, reflecting back on the early years of his life, recounts his experiences while living in the company of three men and his slightly older brother in a remote campsite in a semi-desert. Couto, an award-winning Mozambican author, has written a novel that is part coming of age story, part family drama and part a kind of love story.

Mwanito’s mature voice recaptures covincingly the innocence of his childhood, his gradual awakening to a life that may be different from the one prescribed by his father, whose trauma and loss keep haunting him. In the tradition of African story telling, Couto’s narration moves with ease from realistic depiction of people and scenarios to fantasy, symbolism, mythology and the rich imagination of dreams. Set against the early years of post-Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique, Couto touches on questions of race and identity, of long held beliefs and traditions, and the uncertainties in the newly independent country.

After the sudden death of his wife, Mwanito’s distraught father takes his sons and flees the city for an abandoned game reserve far away. For him life as he knew it has ended and, he explains to his sons, “Over There,” beyond their camp, the world has seized to exist; it is a total wasteland. He declares the camp an “independent” land, names it “Jezoosalem”. Yes, the religious connotation is intended. Following the “renaming ceremony” of place and people, he, now Silvestre, rules “his land” dictatorially, his strict discipline not to be questions. The children live in fear of their father. No books are allowed or anything to do with writing; Mwanito is forbidden to learn: he is to be the Tuner of Silences. “I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence…” he recalls his early experiences. Only he can calm the father’s anxieties. The family is accompanied by a raggedly looking ex-soldier who acts as a servant, security guard, hunter for essential meat supplies and, sometimes, friend to Ntunzi, Mwanito’s brother. Lastly, there is “Uncle Aproximado”, who lives at the edge of the game reserve, far away from the camp. He turns up from time to time to bring other essential supplies from “Over There.” His arrival is welcomed by the boys, who also wonder whether he steals, whether the father has escaped a crime, whether there is really a “wasteland” beyond the perimeter they are allowed to explore…

Mwanito, too young to remember his mother or anything from “Over There,” is a docile and dedicated follower of his father’s instructions. However, influenced by his older brother’s stories about their mother, Mwanito feels her presence in his vivid dreams, yet cannot define her features. Ntunzi, old enough to have been to school, pressures his younger brother to go against the father’s rule and learn to read, one letter at a time. “I already knew how to travel across written letters, as if each one were an endless highway. But I still needed to learn how to dream and to remember. I wanted that boat that took Ntunzi into the arms of our dead mother…”

Eventually, after years in isolation, Marta, the woman from the novel’s opening sentence appears, inadvertantly disturbing the life of each of the camp’s inhabitants and challenging the father’s enforced order. Marta’s presence is not quite as coincidental as it may seem at first, although some readers might find her involvement with the family and their secrets a bit too convenient. Still, she represents an important new conduit to the world outside, essential for the boys in coming to terms with their understanding of identity and other needs.

Mia Couto’s writing is engaging, his sense of place evident and with it the description of the abandoned game reserve in the semi-desert environment evocative. I found the story’s narrator Mwanito totally believable and in his childhood observations, his dreams, desires and wonderments very endearing. While his father may need him as the Tuner of Silences, the boy is a very astute observer of his surroundings. In his musings his language is gentle, poetic and rich in imagery. Silvestre, the father, by contrast, comes across as a tragic figure. In his inability to communicate, he isolates himself increasingly from his children. Unable to recover from his personal trauma, his clinging to a happier past with pseudo-religious rituals alienates his children and, rather than protecting them from the “wasteland Over There,” pushes them towards planning their escape if there is a chance. Given the place and the time frame the novel is set, I sense that Couto while personalizing his story very effectively, his novel also explores the deeper societal traumas and challenges that people in Mozambique have faced in their recent history. For me, this has been a thought provoking read.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Biblioasis (February 26, 2013)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Mia Couto
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Partial Bibliography (translated works only):


February 3, 2014 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  В· Posted in: Africa, Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Family Matters, Neustadt Intl Prize, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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