Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book 67, Mozambique: "The Last Flight of the Flamingo" by Mia Couto

Given what I've read of Portuguese and Brazilian literature, I've come up with a theory that all Lusophone writers are CRAZY. Reading Couto does not disprove my hypothesis. The guy's been called a "white man with an African soul" (he's born and bred in Mozambique anyway, where he works as an ornithologist), and indeed he's utterly different from white South African writers like Coetzee and Gordimer - his form of magical realism outweirds even García Márquez.

Y'see, The Last Flight of the Flamingo's set in Tizangara, one of those imaginary towns in the middle of bumfuck-nowhere where supernatural stuff happens. Shades of Macondo, no? But unlike Hundred Years of Solitude, the tale's limited to a single mystery of a contemporary age: the bizarre epidemic of UN peacekeepers exploding into thin air in the town, leaving behind nothing but their blue helmets and their weiners.

Thus we join Massimo, an Italian peacekeeper, and a local translator (our nameless narrator) on a quest to solve this mystery. And there are many clues, and many promises of explanations, but every speech is so wrapped up in the colourful zoological idiom of the town dialect that there's barely any headway made: between the revelations of the medicine man and the town prostitute and the administrator and his wife and the hotel receptionist and the cursed 19 year-old old lady Temporina and the narrator's boneless father (seriously, there's a sequence where he removes his skeleton and hangs it on a tree), we're left with at least two different answers to what happened, the impossible answer more credible than the probable one.

Oh, and the ending is even more pessimistic and nihilistic than that of Hundred Years, if you can believe it. Still thoroughly recommended, though its weirdness really messed with my post-holiday mood slump. I'm wondering if Couto's inspiration was the Czech surrealist vampire novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. That's the only novel I can think of with the same kind of blessed illogic and fantasy - though Flamingo one-up's that book by making the story a metaphor for post-independence corruption and the nation's uneasy relationship with well-intentioned foreigners. I also wanna plagiarise his strategy for narration: have some well-meaning cipher who's witness to everything and promised son etc describe everything that's happened, though he ultimately proves capable of zero action.

Incidentally, the Zimbabwe Book Fair actually chose Couto's first novel, Sleepwalking Land, as one of its top 100 African books of the 20th century. But alas, the library didn't have a copy in stock.

Mai phen rai. Flamingo's has just been made into a movie! Prosthetic penises and all. Beat that, minho amigo.

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Representative quote:
"Take care, Massimo Risi, sir: the mouth is big and eyes are small. Or as we say here: a donkey eats thorns with its smooth tongue. The problem is that what's happening here is more dangerous than you think. Why is it dangerous? You'll find out like a duck. Yes, like a duck that only discovers how hard things are after it has broken its beak."

Next book: Soeuf Elbadawi's Moroni Blues, from Comoros.

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