Mia Couto’s Sleepwalking Land

By Rob Packer

In that place, the war had killed the road. Only hyenas hauled themselves along the trails, snouting among ashes and dust. The landscape was mixed with never seen sorrows, in colours that stuck to the mouth. These were dirty colours, so dirty that they had lost all delicacy, their daring to raise their wings into the blue forgotten. Here, the sky had become impossible. And the living had grown used to the ground, resigned to the apprenticeship of death.

"Sleepwalking Land" by Mia Couto

This sparse and evocative paragraph (my translation) is the start of Terra sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land) by Mia Couto (1955-), drawing you into this fascinating novel, set during Mozambique’s long civil war (1975-1992). The book tells two stories: that of two refugees, Muidinga the child and Tuahir the old man; and that of Kindzu, another boy caught in the war, whose magical story written in notebooks Muidinga finds in a suitcase on a roadside close to the burnt-out bus that becomes the pair’s shelter: “if it’s already burnt, it won’t catch fire again”.

The breakdown of society suffuses the book over the long course of a war that has left everyone “alone and dead and alive”, where children become adults before their time and mothers stealing blankets from their babies to teach them how to survive. Meanwhile, the characters sleepwalk through the country, visitors who used to have good intentions now “bring death of the tips of their fingers”, and even the cows are desperate to become herons and fly away.

Hemingway-like, this breakdown also creeps into the language in its sparseness, especially early on in Muidinga and Tuahir’s story, where not even the narrator uses conjunctions: life seems too senseless to say and. It is Kindzu’s quest-like, more fluid story that brings the two to life and Muidinga, whose memory has been wiped by a witch doctor, reads Kindzu’s story as a bedtime story to the old man in a reversal age roles. At the same time, the road begins to move transporting Muidinga and Tuahir across the country, through a ruined landscape where it’s never clear if the people they meet are actually people or spirits.

The Portuguese of the book feels hugely innovative, at times comically, with strange mixtures, like “blood filled our fears”, and invented portmanteau words, like brincriação (playcreation), sonhambulante (dreamwalking) or administraidor (administraitor). Some of the book’s highlights are its funny but depressing aphorisms, like “You can’t have a clean war at the bottom of the latrine” or “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man ends up without it”.

Sleepwalking Land paints a depressing picture of a war that has gone on so long that even the people’s dreams have been stolen and the only options are “to leave or go mad”. There are plenty of mad people in the book, but none manage to escape however hard they try. But at its heart, there is an incredible linguistic inventiveness that drives narrative in the midst of desolation. It is narrative that has the power to create bonds between people and it is touching to see this in the way that Tuahir and Muidinga to look forward to their ‘bedtime story’ or Kindzu dedicates himself to a woman trapped on a ship after hearing her life story.


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