Wednesday 19 March 2014

Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto

Coming back from the dead, the narrator turns into a night spirit and inhabits the head of a Mozambican police inspector who is investigating a surreal murder. But could the true victim be traditional African beliefs and a way of life ravaged first by Portuguese colonialism, then by civil war, and finally by Western materialism? Using both fable and allegory, Mia Couto creates a mysterious and surreal epic that brilliantly captures the spirit of post-independence Africa.

Why is it that you go for ages without a magic realist detective story and then two come along within a month? But Under the Frangipani is very different from Burning Angel. Couto plays with the detective story genre in this book, stretching it and distorting it. For starters the inspector has people queuing up to admit to murdering the oppressive Excellency Vatsome, but then many of the confessions include magic - such as a woman who turns to water at night and a man who will die if he cries - so can they be believed?

Then there is who or what is murdered? As one of the elderly suspects says, the crime that's been committed here isn't the one you're trying to solve.

There is Vatsome's death of course. But there is also the death of the Ermelindo Mucanga, the dead narrator who takes up residence in a corner of the inspector's mind. As the detective uncovers something of the truth about Vatsome's murder, so Mucanga begins to remember how he too was murdered. And lastly there is the detective's death. We know that he is due to be murdered at the end of the book and so we are looking for the future murderer.

But as the nurse Marta points out what is being murdered is the old Mozambique, the Mozambique of magic, family and humanity. For this book is also an examination of the corruption of individuals, such as Vatsome, and of black society following the revolution. Vatsome fought against the white Portuguese colonists, but he is corrupted by the war. Again Marta puts her finger on the truth when she says: The culprit you seek, my dear Izidine, isn’t a person. It’s war. The war’s to blame for everything. The war killed Vatsome… War creates another cycle of time. Our lives are no longer measured by years or seasons. Or by harvests, famine or floods. War establishes the cycle of flood… War swallows up the dead and devours its survivors. 

Although he is black the young detective is a city dweller and European trained. He is naive in this world, where traditional beliefs mix with the old people's mockery of him. He is naive too about what is to become of him - not analyzing the motives of his superiors in sending him there. 

As has been noted so many times on this blog, magic realism often comes from two cultures rubbing up against each other. In a recent review in the Paris Review the author says: For an African writer it would be very difficult to think of realism and magic as two pillars of the same concept, because the way we feel and think results from the permanent crossing of those frontiers. This very African magic realist novel reminds me most of Pedro Paramo. Both are short, both have a dream-like and poetic quality. I am not sure that it works as well as Pedro Paramo, because I wanted more substance in the plotting and because Pedro Paramo has to be one of the most impressive books I have ever read. Nevertheless Under the Frangipani is impressive.
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