African Library: Luuanda – Short Stories of Angola by Josè Luandino Vieira

Luuanda: Short Stories of Angola
 Josè Luandino Vieira

First published in 1964, in Portuguese, and later in 1980 (the Heinemann English translation by Tamara L Bender with Donna S Hill appearing in the same year), Vieira’s Luuanda is a collection of three “tales” set in the musseques (densely populated, sprawling slums) of Luanda. Considered a literary masterpiece, Luuanda was written in a Portuguese liberally sprinkled with (untranslated) Kimbundu expressions and tinged with the rhythms of that language. The author, although the child of Portuguese settler parents, grew up in the musseques, and identified with the poor and colonially oppressed inhabitants of the slums. His stories allow us to comprehend the intricate complexities of human relationships among a people (mostly) of indigenous descent, but with a sprinkling of Cape-Verdians, mulattos, and "white" Portuguese: the majority of them poor and struggling to make ends meet, harassed by police and soldiers and exploited by shopkeepers, employers and landlords. It is set in colonial times.

Luuanda has as its epigraph a wry expression in Kimbundu: mu ‘xi ietu Luuanda mubita ima ikuata sonii … , which means: "In this our land of Luanda painful things are happening …". Vieira declared that he wanted his stories to have the flavour of oral tales, and to be comprehensible in the first place by the people of whom he wrote. Indeed, the Heinemann cover photograph by George Hallett fittingly shows two men, one of whom is gesticulating and speaking, the other raptly listening – perhaps in a pub, over drinks. But the Kimbundu expression has further relevance to the author’s own situation, since Vieira had been imprisoned for distributing ‘subversive’ pamphlets (forbidden by the colonial Portuguese government) at the time the text was published. Fully embracing the anti-imperial cause of the indigenous Angolans, he had been active in the MPLA (as the popular liberation movement of Angola was called) and was kept in jail for eleven years of his young adult life – mostly in a notorious jail, "the infamous Tarrafal in the Cape Verde Islands" (vii). When the Portuguese Writers’ Society, despite the author’s imprisonment for political causes, awarded Luuanda its Grand Prize for fiction in 1965, the Salazar government was so infuriated that they closed down the Society! Of course the same government also promptly banned the text, even though Vieira’s stories are so subtly contrived that the political critique they contain is never overt and in fact communicated only by implication, since what has been called the "slow violence" of poverty is the main topic. When the Portuguese regime was toppled, Luuanda was republished and again acclaimed. Vieira and his family returned (after his release) to Angola, where he became the first Secretary General of the newly formed Union of Angolan Writers and had eight of his own texts in print.

The first story in Luuanda is titled "Grandma Xíxi and her Grandson Zeca Santos". In it, the opening sentences charmingly celebrate new life, but quietly show the political stranglehold and poverty of the slum dwellers, which they refuse to allow to cow them:

For more than two months the rain would not fall. All around the musseque small children of the November grass were covered with red dust spread by the patrol jeeps speeding down roads and alleys all tangled up by the confusion of shanties. This is how it was when Grandma began to feel like in the old days the burning heat and the winds refusing to blow and the neighbours overheard her muttering some rain was going to fall maybe even before two more days passed. [….] When the first thunderclap burst above the musseque, shivering the weak walls of mud and wattle and loosening boards, cardboards and straw mats, everyone closed their eyes, frightened by the blue brilliance of the lightning born in the sky, a great spider web of fire. (2-3)

Indeed, the weather’s onslaught becomes something of a political metaphor, as Vieira writes of how "the shanties [were] invaded by the red, dirty water rushing towards the tar roads Downtown or stubbornly staying behind to make muddy pools for mosquitos and noisy frogs" while "some of the shanties had fallen down and the people, not wanting to drown, were outside them with the few things they could save" (3). Like slum dwellers all over the world, poverty intensifies precariousness of life and vulnerability to disasters of natural or human creation.

The story proper opens as the young man Zeca Santos rushes into his grandmother’s shack, crying out for food, of which they have had not a morsel since the day before. His grandmother in turn mocks and scolds him for expecting her to prepare a meal without having found a job or earned any money with which to buy them food. The youth has, we learn, been fired from his job as a petrol attendant for (once) oversleeping and arriving late at work, while the boy’s father is "way off in prison and no one else to bring home the money" (4). As their altercation intensifies, Zeca Santos insists that he has tried to find employment, and reveals to his grandmother (on the edge of tears he is ashamed to shed) that a shopkeeper they had supposed sympathetic to their plight and even friendly towards their family, had screamed abuse at him, calling his father a "terrorist" and given him a vicious blow across the back with a whip – quite unprovoked, as the shamed and bewildered youngster indicates.

Gradually relenting, Grandma Xíxi slowly unwraps a parcel. Triumphantly, she reveals the contents (evidently fished from the bins Downtown): mostly rotten oranges and some roots she claims are manioc, but which Zeca Santos identifies as dahlia bulbs. The boy rushes out again, screaming in fury and disgust. While he is gone she will, driven by her own hunger, boil and eat these roots, becoming ill in consequence. In a disconnected passage we see Grandma dreamily recalling her past, revealing that the family was once prosperous and that this old crone was once a grand lady, "Madame Cecília de Bastos Ferreira" (9): "nothing was lacking at home, plenty of food and clothes and no need to talk about money" (11). But nostalgia is a useless emotion, she knows, and she moves outside to sit in the sun where a neighbouring woman (whose husband is another imprisoned shanty dweller) stops by to chat to the old woman. The two of them chuckle about a mutual acquaintance who has just (to her husband’s fury) given birth to yet another daughter; a child so pale skinned that the neighbour says one "could be thinking maybe some whiteman went to the wrong shanty door …" (13). About this possibility, the friends share a hearty laugh.

As the scene shifts to Zeca Santos’s perspective, we see him (with much trepidation) entering the grand glass doors of an impressive building closer to the city centre, clutching a torn-out newspaper advertisement for a job. His less than sleek appearance immediately puts him at a disadvantage and he is interrogated as to his area of origin – a point of seemingly neutral information which becomes the excuse for the man in authority to scream abuse at him: “‘From Catete, huh? Icolibengo? Uppity lazy good-for-nothing thieves! And what’s more, terrorists now! Get out of here, you son-of-a bitch. Out, son of a whore! I don’t want Catetes in here!’” (18). Terrified and profoundly humiliated, Zeca Santos beats a hasty retreat. But the scene shifts again to a tree closer to the township, where the young man has arranged to meet Delfina, the young woman with whom he is in love (she works in a nearby factory). The description of the tree confirms the resurgence of hope; the narrator marvelling at its growth: “How was it that the tree still had the courage and strength give good shade, to grow its dirty green leaves, even to ripen the soursops which always held the freshness of cottony flesh, the pleasure of spitting far the black seeds and even of tearing off the thorny skin?” (18) he asks. We learn that Zeca Santos has (with a friend’s help) managed to find a job loading bags of cement for 10 hours a day; heavy work for which his presently frail frame is unsuited, and from the meagre salary for the job he’ll have to hand over 25% to the foreman for ‘allowing’ him to join the team. Though Zeca is relieved at the prospect of employment, he is too ashamed to tell Delfina that it is a mere low-paying labourer’s job. So he divulges no detail to her, but leads her off the path to a sheltered spot.

Delfina has another, persistent suitor: a fairly wealthy young man who, although (compared to the quite good-looking Zeca) he is not very prepossessing physically, has his own car and makes Delfina promises of marriage and a prosperous future. It is clear, though, that Delfina finds Zeca Santos almost irresistible, and that she tries to hide her tender feelings for him, from Zeca. At first he is tongue tied but they start chatting more happily as they lie down beneath a tree. Plagued by his own disadvantages vis-à-vis the rival boyfriend, Zeca’s thoughts darken with anxiety, worsened by his nearly empty belly.

Suddenly, with the eyes of a frightened animal and hands reaching out in defence, he sought Delfina’s body [ – ] clutching at a last refuge against the hurt of that day and all the days before. Maddened by the fear of vomiting, he felt her small breasts pressed beneath his fingers, then her thick black thighs no longer covered the her dress. (24)

But this moment of existential crisis appears in the moment to Delfina to be a disrespectful assault on her body and her virtue, and she runs off, screaming abuse at Zeca, after hitting out at him and catching him on the eye with her fist. Later on, when Zeca Santos gets home to his grandmother’s, he finds her lying in the dark, still unwell from the dahlia roots she ate to still her hunger. Replying to her inevitable question, Zeca is too ashamed towards her, too, to tell her about the lowly and taxing job he has found. As he undresses, Grandma spots his swollen eye and, with her uncanny instinct, connects this to an unexpected visit earlier, to her shack, by Delfina: who had come asking after Zeca Santos and run off when told he had still not returned. “A smile started and very slowly ideas began to gather in her old head, gathering together the meanings […]” (27).

So, the story concludes inconclusively, with the signs registered of a possible love relationship that might bring firmer commitment and greater steadiness into Zeca’s life, and the uncertain hope as to whether he’ll be able to keep up the taxing work in his new job. For the time being, and maybe in the expectation of improvement coming soon in their home circumstances, Grandma plays an ill-timed practical joke on the nerve stretched Zeca – much tougher than her grandson as she is. She tells him that a favourite dish, “yesterday’s fish”, is available and when he asks to eat, tells him that he’ll get it once he provides today’s money! The story then ends quite sadly, with poor Zeca Santos breaking into tears and leaning his head on his grandmother’s shoulder for succour, but there are faint and lingering hopes in the reader’s memory of Delfina’s inclinations, Zeca’s friend who helped him find the job, and the strength of old Grandmother Xíxi.     

The second story in Luuanda is “The Tale of the Thief and the Parrot”; an intriguing title that turns out to be perfectly appropriate to the story that follows. In this story, too, Vieira employs the technique of free indirect narration, i.e. writing as if from within a character’s mind, but with occasional switches among the characters that are depicted in the tale. This story seems to have been imagined as recounted by a slightly peripheral figure whose role in the story is to struggle for and achieve reconciliation between two members of an unlikely, age-mismatched township gang; both residents of the Sambizanga (or perhaps the Lixeira) musseque. The two quarrelling parties are Lomelino dos Reis (popularly known as Dosreis), a middle-aged, married father of two working sons, and Garrido Fernandes, a young man who is lame in his one leg and as a result crippled by insecurity – especially sexually. Because of this he is still a virgin although perhaps 19 or 20 and has been given a cruel nickname: Kam’tuta (which means something like ‘masturbator’). The reconciliation happens in jail, where all three the above-mentioned characters find themselves: the narrating character Futa whose full name is Xico Futa being in for some unknown theft; Dosreis after being caught with a large sackful of ducks that he stole for sale, and Garrido (initially) because he was falsely implicated by Dosreis (who assumed the youngster had betrayed his theft to the police) and also because he stole an old parrot loved by the fickle flirt Inácia, with whom Garrido is hopelessly in love.

The narrating figure, Futa, is a huge but kindly fellow, whose first act of humanity is to save Dosreis, belligerently protesting at the sleepy “assistant” (jail keeper) Zuzé who is manhandling him towards the cells, from earning himself a whipping for insubordination:

Futa grabbed him under the arms, laughing towards Zuzé to make excuses, putting his finger at his forehead to explain. Then, slowly walking around the large cell while sleep was covering the bodies grouped three by three on each bench, Futa talked to Dosreis like he was the younger one and wanted to hear the wisdom of his elder, but really it was Futa who was doing the advising. […] They sat down on the edge of a wooden bunk, Futa’s thick arm protectingly around Dosreis’ shoulder like the wing of a hen covering her chick. (35)

Pacified now, Dosreis explains his outrage: “‘Lomelino dos Reis doesn’t get beat on without giving it back, brother Futa! And in the face? Not even my mother, may Christ our Lord preserve her!’”(35). Still, Futa warns Dosreis against indulging his temper and avenging his pride: “‘Butting with your head, no, brother Dosreis! Just using your head. The fellow’s okay’” (36). And to show the sense of behaving more tractably towards Zuzé, Futa tells Dosreis that Zuzé allows the prisoners to eat and even take to their cells “all the bread and meat and other food left over from dinner” (37) and hands out cigarettes (filter or unfiltered as they prefer) to the prisoners. Moreover, keeping on his right side will prevent one from being chosen for the abhorred task of being sent, as a black inmate, “to go out with the pails of disinfectant and rags to wash the cells of the white prisoners” (36) – clearly standard Portuguese colonial penal practice, and profoundly racist. As Futa shows, the jailer merely wants to be shown respect and that it is foolish not to do so, while to do so is not ingratiating.

Dosreis tells part of the story of the duck theft to Futa, expressing his conviction that it could never be by chance that the police came upon him with the stolen creatures upon him; it ‘must’ have been that Garrido had betrayed him. Wise as he is, and with some knowledge of Dosreis’s wounded vanity and the nature of the youth, Futa cautions Dosreis to “‘think about it; don’t be accusing the boy just like that’” (38). As Dosreis thinks back to how he’d told the police who arrested him that he had committed the theft because his sons’ earnings and his wife’s -from taking in other people’s washing -weren’t enough to “round out his budget”, he recalls how on a previous occasion too he had gone to jail while the white man raking in the main profits as ‘organiser’ always stayed out of jail, having a cousin in the police force corruptly protecting him. One gathers that although he cannot quite admit it to himself, he is becoming aware of who the real betrayer is in his situation – for the police would never listen to him were he to tell them the name of the big man ‘behind’ the thefts he commits. Futa prompts Dosreis to talk on, because he senses there’s something that his friend has not yet admitted:

He felt some words were still missing, things Lomelino didn’t want to tell. Because he knew him so well, he didn’t like his ways right now, so agitated, angry, like a cat backed up to the wall […] and that wasn’t how Xico Futa knew this man always so straight in his talk and in his work, even in his petty thieving or things like that. (41)

So at last, shamefaced and laughing with embarrassment, Lomelino’s “words came slowly, full of sadness” for “it was hard to confess even when it was a friend who was listening, even a friend from the same line of work” (as he matter-of-factly refers to stealing) as he at last admits that it could not be Garrido who had given him away; the boy (usually their look-out) having been left out of that night’s job. His arrest, in other words, was just (his) bad luck, and he had falsely, afraid and angry at having been caught, implicated Garrido. Soothingly, Futa explains to him that during interrogation he must simply admit that he’d lied about Garrido, and that is what Lomelino proceeds to do, yet as he says, since he has set the police on Garrido as an accomplice, they might find something else that has been stolen at the youngster’s premises. Which is exactly what happens, and where the parrot comes in!

“Garrido Kam’tuta came to the [police] station […] because he had stolen a parrot. That’s the truth. But how can you really know the beginning, the middle, the end of that truth?” (44). This profound question, like several other beautifully written, musing passages that later turn out to have stemmed from Futa’s humane perspective on the portrayed events, and their complex, terrible, ridiculous and sad aspects, makes this tale of petty thieves an encounter with the human capacity for conduct that ranges from the viciously mean and weak to the heroic and admirable. The portrayal of Garrido (or Kam’tuta) that predominates in the second part of the story is probably one of the richest portrayals of the effects of disability on character and on a disabled person’s life chances in African literature. We learn first that the young man, already on edge because of the cruel way Inácia, whom he loves and tries to woo, plays fast and loose with him, often mocking and humiliating him by allowing her mistress’s ugly old pet parrot liberties with her body in Garrido’s presence, when she knows how he longs to touch her, happened to overhear that his two fellow gang members were not going to take him with them when they went to steal the ducks. A serious quarrel ensued, with Garrido for once standing up for himself, reproaching his friends and announcing that he was no longer going to allow anyone to mock or insult him. And that situation, we surmise, was what made Garrido resolve to go and steal the parrot that Inácia so doted on, so that he could wring its neck and have his revenge on the mangy old bird – whom Inácia had taught to recite insulting rhymes about him – and on the girl herself. So on the very same night that Dosreis stole the ducks, Garrido captured the parrot. Tracing the strange interconnectedness between different characters’ divergent acts and feelings, Xico Futa comments that this is how “the thread of life” gets woven from different strands. Tracing origins and ultimate outcomes remains elusive, though, since “people who live it [life] can’t go on always fleeing backwards […] nor can they keep running ahead for very long” so therefore “A beginning must be chosen: it usually begins”, he adds, “with the root of things, with the root of events, of arguments” (46).

Garrido goes softly, softly into the dark yard of Inácia’s employer’s home, gets hold of the parrot and tucks it under his coat. But as he begins his withdrawal from the premises, his lame foot touches a soft bundle. Startled, the young man yelps in fear and this disturbs all the household’s animals, as the barking dogs, cackling hens, screeching geese (etc,) create an unholy din, amidst which he flees with the parrot, but not before overhearing Inácia mockingly telling the man with whom she is lying under the tree (the soft bundle Garrido’s foot had touched) that she knows who it is and what he’s doing. She even shouts after him “‘Kam’tuta, Kam’tutè, sleep with Jacó [the parrot], make him a baby!’” (80).

Luckily, when Garrido (who has learnt from the police who came to arrest him that Lomelino Dosreis had implicated him in the theft of the ducks) arrives at the police station and is brought to the cell, Dosreis is away being interrogated and the peacemaker Xico Futa is there to ‘receive’ him, explaining that Lomelino is taking back his false accusation and that “‘you don’t solve anything by being angry’’ (81). Garrido is as resistant as Dosreis had been to letting go of his righteous indignation, stating that what had really hurt and insulted him most was that Lomelino could even (ever) think that his old and trusted friend  Garrido would snitch to the police about a “job.” And he persists and insists that he is going to fight Dosreis when he gets back, for all his puniness and his disability, since his pride in his manhood is at stake. Suddenly, Futa bursts out laughing, “first slowly, shaking, trying not to let it all out, then with big white horselaughs until tears came into his eyes” (83). Upon being asked why he is laughing, he explains to Garrido that the thought of the slightly built young man’s “proceeding with great courage just to steal a parrot” is vastly amusing to him, as well as startlingly admirable. Of course this is just the right note to strike and little by little, Garrido is mollified so that, when later on Lomelino returns from interrogation, offering an oblique but sincere apology to Garrido, he cannot remain aloof too long. In fact, Dosreis has brought along a delicious home-cooked meal provided by his wife, who is particularly fond of young Garrido. The youth has seen Lomelino’s “sad, repentant face when he came in”, so he takes the older man’s impatient words “‘Kam’tuta, man! We’re not going to get on our knees, you know! Come on over here and eat, dammit!’” (86) the right way, and he sits down smilingly to the meal with Dosreis and Xico Futa.

The final story in Luuanda is called “The Tale of the Hen and the Egg” –  an amusing narrative that confronts the reader with one of those Solomonic imponderables to tease the legalistic mind – set here in the musseque and involving two neighbouring women, but drawing most of the surrounding neighbourhood into the dispute. One of the neighbours, nga (Mrs or ‘Missus’) Zefa, owns a fine hen charmingly named Cabiri; a creature endowed with a hen-like personality of her own and treasured for the daily egg she delivers to the family. The story begins when Zefa’s son Beto comes to report that Cabiri has been trapped under a basket in the yard of the next-door shanty, where Zefa’s younger, pregnant neighbour Bina lives. Bina’s husband is another of the musseque men jailed on suspicion of terrorist activities – how fairly we never learn. The two women take to blows: Zefa has for long suspected Bina of harbouring a plan to lure Cabiri into her yard so that she will lay her egg there, putting out corn for the hen to peck; whereas Bina argues that, having fed the hen for so long, and as a temporarily single woman in advanced pregnancy and subject to irresistible cravings for nutritious foodstuffs, she is entitled to eat the egg that Cabiri has now, eventually, laid in her yard.

The story begins by telling us that “the tale of the hen and the egg happened in the musseque of Sambizanga, in this our land of Luanda” and it continues as follows, dramatically stating that

The hour was four.

Sometimes, where the sun ends its day in the sea, a small, fat, black cloud appears and it starts getting bigger and spreads out arms, arms which become more and more arms, each one getting thinner and less black than the one before, until the hurrying spread of the arms of the clouds across the sky looks like the leafy branches of an ancient mulemba tree with its whiskers of multi-coloured leaves dried up by the brightness of the sun; and finally when no one knows any more how they were born or where they began or even where they end, these crazy daughters of the cloud rushing over the city release the hot heavy water they carry, laughing with long twisted lightning flashes and speaking in the deep voice of their thunder. In this way did the confusion begin on a quiet afternoon. (88)

In this way the interconnected complications of daily life and human relationships, in the slums like everywhere else, is once again highlighted by Vieira.

The battle between the warring women took on epic proportions, for the narrator writes: “What a fight! There was scratching, hair-pulling, name-calling like thief, goat, witch” (90). Zefa’s boy Beto and his older friend Xico went to hide in a corner, but when bystanders and onlookers arrived and the women were separated by some who wanted to help settle the argument and re-establish peace, the children crept closer, curious to see what would transpire.

Nga Zefa, hands on her waist, her eyes flashing with rage, stretched the thin bones of her body towards her neighbour, ‘You think I don’t know you, Bina? That’s what you think? With that face of yours looking so smart. But we know! We know you’re nothing but a thief!’

The plump young neighbour rubbed a flat hand on her swollen belly, her face breaking into a smile, then calmly turning to the others, she said: ‘Ay, look at that! She’s still going on at me. You came into my house, you came into my yard, you even wanted to fight! And me with this belly! Don’t you have any respect at all?’ (90-91)

Grandma Bebeca is appealed to as the person who can be the wise judge to resolve matters and, both women having been given a chance to testify, she is asked: “‘Well, Grandma? Say something, you’re our elder’” (93). She explains her dilemma in being confronted with an intractable conundrum by means of a local proverb: “‘My friends, the snake is rolled around the water jug. If I grab the jug, the snake bites; if I kill the snake, the jug breaks!’”. Each woman has a convincing argument and she’s unable to resolve the dispute, so “‘Better we ask Zé [described as “the scrawny one-eyed shopkeeper”] … he’s white’”, she says (93). The shopkeeper, the local ‘boy genius’ (self-righteous and full of false piety), the pompous slumlord (a local) and the prostitute’s husband who as a former law clerk has a mouth full of legal terminology, get asked in turn to judge the case, but all try to twist the case merely to their own benefit. The neighbours start drifting away; it is getting late and there’s dinner to prepare, but then the fight erupts again with renewed fury. At which moment, the military patrol arrives and the Sergeant accuses those present of constituting an illegal gathering. He, too, attempts to "resolve" matters by confiscating the hen, clearly intending to have himself a lovely meal of roast chicken. At this point, the little boys Beto and Xico take a hand – Beto sneaking off to his mother’s yard to imitate (perfectly) a rooster’s “song for wooing the hens” (108). Elated, Cabiri the hen swoops out of the Sergeant’s grasp and, as Zefa soon realises, is safely received in her own roost. The soldiers having left empty-handed, mocked by the gathered women, Grandma Bebeca asks Zefa’s permission (impossible, at this point, to withhold) to give Bina the disputed egg to eat. The story is concluded with the boy Xico suddenly seeing Bina’s pregnancy as resembling “a big, big, big egg …” (109) and the narrator dubbing the entire narrative “My tale”; to which he adds: “If it’s pretty, if it’s ugly, only you know. But I swear I didn’t tell a lie and that these affairs happened in this our land of Luanda” (109). How poignant to think that, when he wrote these words, Vieira was in jail, far away from his beloved city.

I strongly recommend that all readers encounter for themselves the charming, humane, by turns hilarious and profound tales contained in this collection, of which I hope to have afforded them a glimpse in this brief profile of the text, permeated as it is by Vieira’s unsentimental compassion and respect for the people of the Angolan musseques.  

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