Shepherding Sadness: The Fiction of Mia Couto

July 24, 2013 | 8 books mentioned 3 6 min read

coverThe Mozambican writer Mia Couto has been having a great year. Last week, he was nominated for the 23rd Biennial Neustadt International Prize for literature, his fellow nominees including César Aira, Edward P. Jones, and Haruki Murakami. And a mere six weeks before that, Couto won a major international literary award: the Camôes Prize for Literature (which includes a tidy 100,000 euro take-away).

The Camões Prize, which honors a writer working in the Portuguese language, serves a similar function in the Portuguese-speaking world that the Man Booker Prize does in the English-speaking world. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese built an empire that ranged from Brazil in the western hemisphere to Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique in Africa, Goa in India, Macau in China, and East Timor in the Indonesian archipelago. That empire largely dissolved in the previous century, but out of the over five hundred years of an empire’s usual cruelties and tragedies there also developed a pan-Portuguese culture, the language serving as a midwife for remarkable literary and musical invention. Mia Couto, long regarded as one of the leading writers in Mozambique, has now been recognized as one of the greatest living writers in the Portuguese language.

So, why all this recent success for a writer that you’ve probably never heard of? Well, Couto is no new kid on the block. He is the author of over twenty books: novels, short story collections, and poetry have been adapted into films, plays, even a musical, and have sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide. Yet despite David Brookshaw’s fluid translations of Couto’s work into English, those sales come mainly from the eight countries spanning the globe where Portuguese is the official language.

coverAs if on schedule, two new editions of Couto’s work have been published in English recently, the collection of stories The Blind Fisherman, and his latest novel, The Tuner of Silences.

The Blind Fisherman is actually a compendium of Couto’s first and second story collections, Voices Made Night, and Every Man Is a Race, books that established his literary reputation. I remember coming upon that first collection while visiting London in the early 1990s. Here’s the beginning of the first story, “Fire”:

The old man approached slowly as was his custom. He had shepherded his sadness before him ever since his youngest sons had left the road to no return.

That arresting phrase about shepherding one’s sadness, an image both local and universal, kept me reading. Still standing there in the bookstore by the third story, “The Day Mabata-bata Exploded,” I was not only hooked but caught when I read a description of a cow that, while being led by a young cowherd, steps on a landmine:

Suddenly, the cow exploded. It burst without so much as a moo. In the surrounding grass a rain of chunks and slices fell, as if the fruit and leaves of the ox. Its flesh turned into red butterflies. Its bones were scattered coins. Its horns were caught in some branches, swinging to and fro, imitating life in the invisibility of the wind.

This passage is typical of Couto’s strengths as a writer: terrible things remain terrible but are transformed into strange beauty by the power of language, which describes the world and alters it at the same time. He is a master at inverting reality, reversing the order of the world with a swift aphoristic grace that leaves us puzzling over our normal assumptions. “Life is a web weaving a spider,” he writes in another early story.

Perhaps language is a survival skill in the face of so much violence and turmoil in his country’s recent history. Mia Couto frequently writes of Mozambique’s long war of liberation from Portugal, its subsequent civil war that lasted nearly two decades, and the tragic aftermaths of so much destruction on the lives of ordinary people. Couto, born into a privileged white Mozambican family, himself dropped out of medical school to engage in the liberation struggle, until Mozambique gained its independence in 1975.

covercoverHis first novel, Sleepwalking Land (named by a jury of the Zimbabwean International Book Fair as one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century) depicts a bleak world of shattered lives, and yet this world, transformed by violence, is transformed by Couto into something else, more hopeful, perhaps — certainly more magical. Though so many of his compatriots have been stunned into a kind of sleepwalking in their lives, Couto declares that we are all kin, that each of us resembles a “sleepwalker strolling through fire.” Above all, from the beginning he has been a poet of the disenfranchised, and in the author’s forward to Voices Made Night, he wrote, “The most harrowing thing about poverty is the ignorance it has of itself. Faced with an absence of everything, men abstain from dreams, depriving themselves of the desire to be others.”

While Mia Couto has won the premier literary award of the Portuguese-speaking world, he would be the first to admit that the former colonies of Portugal also have their own vibrant indigenous languages, which in turn are influencing the development of written and spoken Portuguese. The aphoristic strength of Couto’s prose seems particularly touched by the tradition of proverbs, a form of African oral literature that spans the continent. Ruth Finnegan, in her comprehensive Oral Literature in Africa, observes that, “In many African cultures a feeling for language, for imagery, and for the expression of abstract ideas through compressed and allusive language phraseology comes out particularly clearly in proverbs.”

The power of Mozambican proverbs like “A reflection does not see itself,” or “When you live next to the cemetery, you cannot weep for everyone,” have clearly worked their way into Couto’s writing. His prose can often pause a story as a reader contemplates the richness of sentences such as “love is a territory where orders can’t be issued.”

This aphoristic strength remains in full force in Couto’s latest novel, The Tuner of Silences. The narrator of the novel, Mwanito, is the son of Silvestre Vitalício, a man who attempts to escape the Mozambican civil war by transporting his two sons to a remote and desolate corner of the country. There, he creates his own “country”: Jezoosalem, “a land where Jesus would uncrucify himself,” a land where “God will come and apologize to us.”

But the civil war is not the only tragedy Silvestre has run from. The death of his wife has altered him, created within him a need for silence. Mwanito, too young to remember the brimming world left behind, apprentices himself to his father’s stillness: “Some are born to sing, others to dance, others born merely to be someone else. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence.”

Because their Father refuses to discuss the cause or details of his wife’s death, Mwanito and his older brother Ntunzi can’t help speculating that perhaps their father killed her himself. Whatever the real story, the uncertainty over the truth creates a distance between the boys and their father.

Another citizen of Jezoosalem is Zachary Kalash, a former soldier and friend of Silvestre’s who now hunts to provide food for everyone. To this end he presides over a cache of weaponry in a shed that Mwanito can’t help visiting, as it offers him an escape from silence: “[S]trangely enough it was the war that taught me to read words. Let me explain: the first letters I learnt were the ones I deciphered on the labels that were stuck on the crates of weapons.”

Though Silvestre has tried to create his own small world “far from everything, far from wars,” one that was “governed by obedience,” with the sudden advent of Marta, a damaged and naive Portuguese woman in search of the husband who deserted her, the emotional structure of Jezoosalem is upended, and unhappy truths can no longer be contained, and only language, and stories, might offer redemption.

Each chapter of The Tuner of Silences begins with an excerpt from a poem, almost always by the Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, or the Brazilian poets Hilda Hilst or Adélia Prado. Here we find a striking example of the international ties of literature in the Portuguese language. Though perhaps unknown names to most of us in the English-speaking world, they are well-known poets to an educated reader of Portuguese. This literary tradition is only slowly beginning to become visible to us in the U.S. The Portuguese writers Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago are now widely acknowledged as world-class writers, the Cape Verdean writer Germano Almeida’s reputation is growing, and Benjamin Moser has been heroic in his efforts to build a wider audience for the great Brazilian modernist writer Clarice Lispector, both through his biography of Lispector, Why This World, and his project to re-translate and reprint her entire oeuvre. Nightboat Books has begun a project to translate the work of Hilda Hilst, beginning with her novella, The Obscene Madam D.

So, The Tuner of Silences not only offers a reader an example of a great writer’s most recent work, but with those chapter epigraphs it also cracks open a welcoming window onto a vast world of literary pleasures that has for too long remained under the radar in the English-speaking world.

is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, including the story collections The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language. He is also the co-author, with his wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, of two volumes of a memoir of Africa, Parallel Worlds (winner of the Victor Turner Prize) and Braided Worlds. His travel memoir, The Moon, Come to Earth, is an expanded collection of his McSweeney’s dispatches from Lisbon. Graham’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Washington Post Magazine, Los Angeles Review, North American Review, Ocean State Review and elsewhere. He was a co-founder and is the current Editor-at-Large for the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter.  A Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he now lives in Rhode Island. Graham’s blog posts on the craft of writing can be found at