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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Neighbours – The Story of a Murder by Lília Momplé

Annie Gagiano - 2006-10-31

NeighboursThe Story of a Murder by Lília Momplé was first published in 1995; translated from Portuguese by Richard Bartlett and Isaura de Oliveira, and published in 2001 by Heinemann in the African Writers’ Series.
In this skilfully constructed novel the author (a former president of the Mozambican Writers’ Association) gives us a glimpse of the cultural variedness of this society: a wealthy but unhappy Indian Muslim family; a struggling indigenous couple starting life in a borrowed flat in the capital; a Mauritian resentfully married to a refined mulatto woman, and a gallery of rogues consisting of three Mozambicans, a Portuguese and a (briefly glimpsed, unnamed) Boer - all of whom are linked through the dramatic events of a single night in Maputo (the capital city of Mozambique).
The narrative moves among three households – two flats close together where the first-named families live and the home of the childless couple where the villains gather to plan the logistics of the murders they have been contracted to commit.
The novel takes us along in a countdown to the atrocity and its immediate aftermath while depicting the background histories, recent experiences and present circumstances of the nine Mozambicans mainly involved in the event. This in turn allows Momplé to refer to certain events central to recent Mozambican history – especially its painful decolonisation process and the deliberately destabilising activities of the neighbouring apartheid-era South African government.
The clever title of the novel refers sarcastically both to this period of malign South African intervention in Mozambique and the “international cooperation” by means of which it is achieved, and to the closely contiguous dwellings of the main murder targets and the woman who is killed as “collateral damage” – this brutal expression being appropriate to the military nature of the “operation”.
The narrative voice in the text has a contained fierceness as it exposes the ruthlessness of the main villains, but Momplé is as aware of postcolonial power corruption, marital abuse, local forms of racism and cultural or class/caste snobbery, entrenched gender prejudices and uncontained, violent criminal mayhem as she is of the long fingers of the misnamed South African security force activities of this time in Mozambique.
The interrogation of “neighbourliness” hence draws a wide circle in Momplé's text with its almost laconic references to many kinds of anguish and oppression. This is offset by Momplé's portrayal of (especially) three fine young women: the sensitive and politically outspoken youngest daughter in the Muslim family (a medical student), the young wife and mother in the nearby “borrowed” flat, and the intelligent and dignified maltreated wife of the Mauritian catspaw in the murder plot.
Another very admirable character is the poor, idealistic night-school teacher who is one of the three victims in the flats. It is the extermination of the latter and his wife that we are led to perceive as the main tragedy of the narrative, as if the backbone of the new nation bears the brunt of power abuse.
The young man is called Januario; he is the only surviving son in a dreadfully poor family of subsistence farmers in the interior, sent away to the city for his own good by his mother. Initially employed as a house-servant by a kindly Portuguese matron, he works so well that she ensures him employment in a city firm before she leaves Mozambique for Portugal soon after this former colony achieves independence. (This outflow of Portuguese, Indian and mulatto Mozambicans at this time – due to mistrust of or political resentment against the post-independence government or to fear of loss of privilege - is referred to several times in the narrative.) Januario has managed to improve his education by attending night-school classes and becomes a teacher of Portuguese in such a school, even organising a creative writing competition that is (sadly) hijacked by a pretentious journalist. Still so poor and lacking in “influence” that he and his strong, cheerful wife, Leia, can find no place to stay in the city, they have to crowd up in her parental home in an outlying area until a friend of his wife’s offers them temporary dwelling in a flat she is vacating for a time. The author draws our attention first to malign favouritism and “patronage” in post-independence housing allocation practices as a minister demands sexual favours from a decidedly non-provocative Leia. She runs from his office full of indignation and shame after his shameless proposition. In the sparsely furnished borrowed flat they achieve happiness and precarious prosperity, living with their little daughter of two and expecting another child soon. It is this home that will be devastated as this couple is targeted in the bizarre lottery that requires the killing of the occupants of a flat next to (neighbouring) one in which South African ANC refugees are known to live. The political logic of this South African instigated crime is to intimidate the Mozambican government into ending its practice of giving shelter to such refugees, assuming (correctly, as it turns out) that ordinary Mozambicans will clamour for the removal of such “targets” that can draw any local into the firing line. Even though the murderers are captured and two shot dead, the “operation” is, therefore (bitterly), a relatively successful one, the gunning down of the older Muslim woman who shouted for help from a nearby flat balcony as she witnessed the young couple’s assassination in fact intensifying the intimidation value of the event.
The young couple placed their little two-year-old daughter in a safe place when the assault began; our last glimpse of the shot-up flat is of the parents’ shattered bodies on the balcony with the little girl – traumatised into silence – clinging to the corpses.
In contrast with this image of local devastation because of the South African intrusion, we are shown (early in the text) in what awe the Mozambican “hosts” who are complicit in the crime hold the South African operatives. Romu, who is already in the pay of the South Africans, recruits Dupont inter alia by claiming that he would be "just helping with the ‘liquidation of certain individuals’ who had
proved inconvenient to their South African neighbours and friends, who just wanted to help Mozambique …" (55)                                           
Dupont, the conspirator of Mauritian extraction, tells his wife that when she prepares dinner, “[e]verything must run smoothly. These are posh people, white South Africans. So watch what you do” (20). Ironically, the South African guests not only arrive late for the sinister “dinner date” at Dupont and Mena’s home, but behave as brutishly as the two local “guests” do, once they arrive. Mena, who is resented for her “racial inferiority” by her abusive but sexually captivated husband (Dupont), a weak and repellent person, shows her innate dignity in sensing the nefarious purpose for which the meeting at her and Dupont’s home has been set up, eavesdropping on the post-prandial discussion (from which she is, of course, excluded) and attempting to save the victims by alerting the police. At first met by drunkenly asleep officers answering her desperately urgent telephone call, she is eventually given a proper hearing and the police do at least arrive in time to shoot two of the assailants (including the despicable Dupont) and to capture the others. Interestingly, one of the most sinister assailants is (like Januario) a Mozambican of poor rural origin, but unlike the latter he rose to power as a police chief in a town where he tyrannised over the local population with such blatant cruelty that his corrupt practices eventually led to exposure and imprisonment.
“Formal” historical allusions in the text refer to “white” Mozambicans’ fury at the pastoral letter written by the Bishop of Nampula, Dom Manuel – a document titled “Rethinking the War” and stating that the colonial government’s “war against the Mozambicans, who want only to be masters of their own land” was, in his view, “nothing but an unjust and cruel war” (40). For his pains, the local “settler” population demanded his expulsion and went around in mobs beating up civilian blacks, incensed by one of “their own people” siding with the indigenous cause.
In a footnote on p 81 the author reminds those who have forgotten that the overthrow of the Salazar government in Portugal (the so-called “Carnation Revolution”) on 25th April 1974 led to the independence of its five African colonies. On September 7th in the same year, the author informs readers in another footnote, “reactionary Portuguese settlers” attempted a coup in the capital – one that nevertheless failed. One of the conspirators, Rui, takes pride in the fact that “[h]e alone killed eighty-two blacks, whom he counted coldly, one by one as he picked them off” (104–5).
But the author also recognises the extent to which a war-devastated country and a traumatised population will throw up its own aberrations: in several places she describes or refers to atrocities committed by youngsters who move about the country in bands; Januario’s elderly parents, for instance, are deliberately burned to death in their own hut for no understandable reason, as their village is razed and other villagers are kidnapped at gunpoint to carry supplies for the crazed, drugged child soldiers (43). Later, a group of “well-armed” males, actually “children between twelve and sixteen years old”, murder at least thirty “men, women and children” and in the mayhem kidnap a further indeterminate number of unarmed civilians travelling on a bus (85, 95).
Another focus of the novel is harsh post-colonial economic inequality in this society: the well-off family depicted in the opening pages celebrate Eid with an abundance of food, while the poor subsist on cheap and tasteless vegetables, occasionally alleviated with a bit of tinned mackerel. There is a mouth-watering list of the food served at the luxurious first wedding of the Muslim matron (90-1), but the marriage is short-lived and even unhappier than the second.
Although the author’s main focus in the text is not on gender issues, she leaves us in little doubt as to the extent to which many women in this society are abused, exploited or thwarted in their aspirations.
Something else to which the author alludes is the way some of the businessmen who emigrate from Mozambique to Portugal after independence set up as entrepreneurs, capitalising on others’ wretchedness: they not only fleece the poorer refugees but exploit the whole refugee system by embezzling and misappropriating funds. As Muntaz, the young medical student says of some of these men (her relatives by marriage): “[I]n the end they are just thieves” (30).
The novel ends on a minor hopeful note as Mena (who informed on her husband Dupont and the other conspirators’ plot) walks out of her home with a sense of being a free woman at last.
The grotesquely beautiful, vividly appropriate cover image comes from a painting by the Mozambican artist Malangatana, who at one point in the text is admiringly referred to and ironically contrasted, in the humility of his conduct, with the swaggering behaviour of the fat-cats of the new government (100).