Mia Couto has made his reputation as a novelist, but prefers to describe himself as a poet who tells stories.
His tales are told in a distinctive idiom, bringing in elements of Mozambique’s predominantly oral culture and peppered with invented proverbs, riddles, legends and fables.
While the country’s 16-year-long civil war and its consequences form the backdrop to many of his stories, he says his books are not really about the war, but about human traits that can be revealed in extreme situations.
One of the foremost writers from Portugal’s former African colonies, he has gained growing international recognition, and his books have been translated into more than 20 languages. But while he has reached the point where he might earn a living solely from book royalties, he says he also loves his other career – as a biologist.
Having been a university lecturer and researcher, he runs a consultancy carrying out environmental impact assessments. An unassuming man, he chats in English in his Maputo office about his development as a writer, coinciding with the beginnings of Mozambique’s history as a nation. Now 54, he was turning 20 at independence.
He was born and grew up in Beira, Mozambique’s second city, where his parents moved to from Portugal.
His father, a railway administrator, has also been a poet and journalist. But it is more to his mother that Mia Couto – who uses his childhood nickname rather than his real name António Emílio Leite Couto – traces his talent for spinning stories. He had his first poems published at 14.
At the time of the build-up to Portugal’s 1974 revolution, which led to Mozambican independence the following year, he was a medical student in the capital, Maputo (then called Lourenço Marques), and an activist for the Frelimo liberation movement. At Frelimo’s request, he ditched his studies temporarily to become a journalist. “For me it was a dream, serving with guerrilla forces,” he recalls. But the ideals of the period were a far cry from the poverty of today.
“We were fairly naïve,” he admits. “I had a very simplified idea of the world, what it was possible to do.” The dream evaporated with the shock of his first visit to the Soviet Union and East Germany.
He became director of the newly founded Mozambique Information Agency, ran a weekly and later edited the government newspaper, Notícias.
The experience of Marxist government in Mozambique fed his sense of the surreal. He was given a card giving access to a special shop for the ruling party élite. “The special shop just had two things to sell: toilet paper, which we probably didn’t need at the time [we had nothing to eat], and liquid soap to do the dishes [but we had no dishes to clean].” He gave back his card.
He is now distanced from Frelimo, still the overwhelmingly dominant party. “They pretend I don’t exist, and I pretend they don’t exist.”
He has published 22 books – collection of poems, volumes of short stories, novels, essays and children’s books.
As a white Mozambican, he sees himself as belonging to a mix of cultures. The characters he creates are mostly black.
Ranging from the comic to the lyrical, his writing has a dream-like quality, drawing the reader into sometimes fantastical stories, in which mythical and real worlds overlap and the supernatural is interwoven with ordinary events. “There’s no such thing as realism in Mozambique,” he says.
His narratives, while carefully structured, have a flavour of spontaneity, brought out by surprise effects.
One early short story starts, irresistibly, with the sentence: “Suddenly, the ox exploded.”
Although the comparison is frequently made, he does not much like being lumped together with Spanish-American novelists such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende under the tag of “magical realism”.
He feels closer affinity with Brazilian writers of the last century, such as Mário de Andrade and João Guimarães Rosa, who broke from Portuguese literary norms to find a specific voice.
“They also have this condition of being from another culture, using the language of another culture and wanting to express the differences within the language.”
His favourite among his own works is his début novel Sleepwalking Land, published in 1992, the year the civil war ended.
It is about an old man and a boy who take refuge in a burnt-out bus, with a second story-line from a diary account in notebooks that they find next to a corpse, telling of the search for a lover’s lost son.
All his writing reflects his attachment to his country. He has no desire to branch out and use different settings for his fiction.
“If I were to live from now on in Russia, or somewhere else,” he says, “I would always write about Mozambique.”
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