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

No facile moral binary between colonists and indigenes in José Eduardo Agualusa’s My Father’s Wives

Annie Gagiano - 2009-06-25

Title: My Father’s Wives
Author: José Eduardo Agualusa
Publisher: Arcadia Books
Translator: Daniel Hahn
ISBN: 9781905147786
Publication date: June 2008
Pages: 382

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This fascinating novel by the Angolan author José Eduardo Agualusa was translated from the Portuguese original, As mulheres do meu pai (2007), by Daniel Hahn, appearing in English in 2008. It is Agualusa’s fourth novel, the author’s skill having been recognised internationally by major European literary prizes for his second and third books.

My Father’s Wives is a novel of the southern African present, an interesting challenge taken up by Agualusa in constructing his text as a highly unusual, poetically impressionistic sort of travel journal – but a double journal, with both a fictional and an autobiographical stream, the two trips running parallel. The main journey is that of Laurentina, a young woman of Angolan origin who grew up in Portugal and is a documentary film maker. Her travels retrace the nomadic life of her recently deceased purported father, the famous Angolan musician Faustino Manso. Faustino married seven times in a nomadic existence that took him from Luanda south to Cape Town and up along the opposite coast to Mozambique. From his marital connections alone, eighteen children are "ascribed to" Faustino. Laurentina meets most of the widows and children (plus other former partners and friends of Faustino’s) along the way, besides having other encounters, while having a complicated love life and struggling with additional existential issues of her own. The second, simpler journey that runs through the text is that of Agualusa himself, who has been engaged as scriptwriter on another film-making undertaking that is meant to combine a focus on southern African women’s issues with a focus on the region’s music: Laurentina’s story is, then, Agualusa’s script for his friend (British-born but Mozambican by affiliation), musician and filmmaker Karen Boswall.

Because of the intricacy of its design and its massive cast of characters, plus the fact that Agualusa does not signpost the identities of the constantly shifting narrators in the large number of quite brief sections that make up the text, the novel requires attentive reading. It is nevertheless possible – so vivid, unusual and often enthralling are the descriptions – for a reader to enjoy the text despite a state of what might be called "plot bewilderment".

My Father’s Wives is a brilliantly detailed portrait of the complex southern African situation. It emphasises the vitality and the immense cultural diversity of the region as a result of its intermingling and juxtaposition of the many indigenous cultures and the addition to these of admixtures of immigrants, settlers and visitors from all over the world. The text celebrates diversity and mestiçagem (the mixing of races), but in no naïve fashion, since Agualusa is cannily aware of power plays, power shifts and the ironies of misunderstandings, secrets and manipulations as much as of the richness of human interchanges and shared enjoyment. The authorial ethos which infuses the entire text is articulated in its final two sentences, spoken to the author by a woman who may or may not be a ghost: “'You should take dreams seriously,’ she whispered. ‘There’s nothing so true that it doesn’t deserve to be invented’” (356). This statement explains that while the invented part of the novel seems quirky and teeming with characters compared with the "real" journey and experiences, it is really the same trip, differently seen, more fully reported and but slightly rearranged. “Life is no less incoherent than dreams,” muses one of the characters in the novel, “it’s just more persistent” (263).

The novel is, from the start, about the undermining of certainties and stereotypes that occurs naturally as life proceeds, while suggesting that certainty is overrated and emotional security seldom a reliable condition. Living with loss without losing one’s appetite for the world’s surprises and new opportunities seems to be implicitly advocated as the attitude that will allow one to live and grow. Laurentina’s narrative begins in destabilisation when her supposed mother, who dies near the beginning of the novel, leaves her a letter explaining that another woman had given birth to her (Laurentina) – and that her father had been Faustino Manso. This information prompts Laurentina to go and find her “roots” in southern Africa. While her boyfriend Mandume insists on accompanying her and offers to film all her encounters with her supposed father’s wives and offspring, he is not impressed. Mandume, equally of Angolan origin, considers himself Portuguese. His Eurocentric attitude is contrasted throughout with the strong African commitment of Laurentina’s handsome "nephew" Bartolomeu, a novelist and a somewhat flamboyant personality (compared with the reliable, but rather conservative Mandume). Laurentina’s existential uncertainty is mirrored in the bitter rivalry of the two young men for her love.

Laurentina and Mandume arrive in Luanda too late to meet Faustino, but in time for his funeral. She is warmly welcomed into the family. Bartolomeu, hearing of the plan to retrace his "grandfather’s" journeys around the southern African coastline, offers to join them – since his mother was one of the oldest daughters of Faustino, and Laurentina his youngest child, he addresses her playfully as “Auntie”. Only near the very end of the text will Laurentina learn that the beloved and multiply married Faustino was in fact impotent; he left his first wife (Bartolomeo’s formidable grandmother) because she slept with his brother so as to have children – returning to her near the end of his life. All the other wives, then, fondly as they recall Faustino, actually had their children by other men, although the myth of his fatherhood was maintained by them all. This bureaucratic fact, as one might term it, is not allowed to cancel out the real connectedness of the web of wives and lovers, children and friends of Faustino that Laurentina encounters and is enriched by.

Throughout the novel Agualusa mocks all types of puritanism, compartmentalisation of people, or intellectual and emotional rigidity. He cites a piece he had previously written about the origins of Luanda: “Thus began a splendid confusion of races, languages, accents, whistles, horn-honks and African drums, which as the centuries passed just got better. The chaos engendering even greater chaos” (33). Elsewhere, a Portuguese woman (a minor character in the main, fictional plot), enraged by a racist incident, refers to the struggle to make that country “what it was for many centuries, a place of meetings and mixtures” (94). One needs to recall that Portugal was the earliest of the European colonisers of Africa and that Agualusa is intimately aware of both the destructive and the enriching effects of the intermingling that resulted from the colonial encounter with Africa.

At various points in the text Agualusa depicts encounters between members of the small Angolan group around Laurentina and a young white South African named Brand who was brought up in the bush in southern Angola, where he lives with his father. Even though at one point Brand seriously offends them by naïvely welcoming the group to South Africa (as they cross the border) as “‘the most civilised country in Africa’” (125), Laurentina corrects him quite gently instead of fiercely criticising him – as the hot-headed Bartolomeu does. She suggests that Brand should draw a distinction between the notions of “civilisation” and of “development”; she also comments that apartheid will prove to have damaged its perpetrators more deeply and with more lingering consequences than it did its victims. Agualusa elsewhere cites an actual white South African named Harry who explains to him that “Boer children are educated very strictly … because it’s the only way of ensuring that they’ll survive in hostile territory.” With this remark he dryly juxtaposes the information that even though he had to live through and as journalist observe the terrible Angolan war from close by, “I still don’t think of my country as hostile territory” (100).

Never is there a facile moral binary between whites/colonists and indigenes in this text, however. Indeed, one of the most impressive characters in the fictional section of the text is the white South African Seretha du Toit, who defied the Immorality Act by taking Faustino as her lover. An argument comes about between Seretha and Bartolomeu, which ends as follows (with Seretha’s words in the first, third and fifth cited paragraphs, as Laurentina records the exchange:

“Any moment now you’re going to tell me that denouncing corruption in African countries is just a manifestation of racism.”

“To a lot of Europeans the only good black man is a poor black man.
They don’t accept that a black man can be rich. First they attack us for having allied ourselves with the socialist bloc. Now they attack us for being good capitalists …”

“You don’t shock me.”

“Sorry, I got carried away. I don’t mean to say that you think like that ma’am; I know your story.”

“No. You know nothing. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

You’re a boy, drunk on your own impertinence. Accepting that you can’t criticise someone because that someone is black, that’s called paternalism. Paternalism is the elegant racism of cowards.”

Knock-out. The bell rings.

Bartolomeu slunk out of the café. (157)

The above passage can be linked with another subtle and carefully balanced section in the text, where the defrocked priest Albino Amader (known as the driver Pouca Sorte, "Bad Luck") ironically observes the tendency in profiteers, from all sectors or population groups in the African continent, to justify their ill-gotten gains as “just a matter of recovering what was stolen from us”. He adds: “Respectability is the name rich people give to forgetfulness” (330). He himself hopes, by smuggling Angolan diamonds for Brand’s father, whom he refers to as Señhor Malan, to buy himself a sea-view property in Cape Town, where he will be able “to begin forgetting, and being forgotten” (331). Seretha, on the other hand, states that “in our countries”, in these “convulsed” parts of Africa, even if “memory is not considered a staple necessity”, no society can be (re)built “without investing in memory”. She writes to Laurentina that she sees her “as a sort of constructor of memories” (318). This type of construction is also what Agualusa is engaged in in the composition of this novel.

Notions of construction and composition are rather too monumental to be appropriate to the timbre of this text, however. Agualusa wants, one might say, to jam with the various bands and music types encountered across the southern parts of the continent, as he wishes to absorb and celebrate the rich admixture of influences that went into the creation of local cultures. With some impatience he reminds us that “they say, you have to respect traditions. What traditions?” He proceeds, truculently and passionately, to declare:

The people who brought Carnival to Angola, it was the Portuguese, along with the language. Jesus Christ, salt, cod, cassava, palm oil, corn, guitars, accordions, football and roller hockey. The Portuguese also brought syphilis, tuberculosis, chigoe fleas and even The Devil. They burned witches in autos-da-fé, giving rise to a tradition that exists to this day. They set up the slave trade, and from this another set of massively respected traditions was born. Tradition. Just the word gives me the shivers. (243)

In Cape Town, Laurentina’s group notices the juxtaposition between a “calmer” bar where they see only middle-aged white couples and another where there is “a noisy press of young people of all colours”. As Mandume observes of Long Street: “You get the twentieth century right next to the twenty-second on this street, in a space of less than fifty metres” (129). Bartolomeu declares that in Africa, Carnival lives “in Luanda, Benguela, Cape Verde, Cape Town and Quelimane” because these are centres of Creole culture. The most beautiful and haunting expression of this idea comes, however, from “one of the last songs composed by Faustino Manso in Mozambique”. In it, the Angolan musician refers to a traditional southern Mozambican dance danced by couples and celebrating love and valour. The song goes (in part): “The mouth says yes, the heart refuses. My heart refuses/ Both lash and leash,/ Insult or affront./ Dance, dance the Xingombela” (236).

Mozambique Island, the third main location of the two filmmakers’ journeys, is as lovingly described as are Luanda and Cape Town. It was, we are told, Mozambique’s capital until 1898, “peopled by Arabs, Portuguese, Indians, as well as the African peoples come over from the [mainland] coast”. So, “over the centuries it accumulated a rich embroidering of memories”. To these evocative words of his own, Agualusa adds that “few places of such limited dimensions can have thrilled so great a number of poets” (219). One of these poets, Jorge de Sena, wrote as follows of what Agualusa calls “this small piece of ground where Mozambique began”: “In those days people wondered/ at this little civic village/ of whites, blacks, Indians and Christians,/ and Muslims, Brahmins and atheists./ Europe and Africa,/ Brazil and the Indies,/ it all crossed paths here, in this heat as white/ as that of the lime fort on the patio, and so crossed/ as the elegance of simple ribs/ of the little bulwark chapel” (221).

Agualusa’s rich text teems with amazing and vividly evoked characters, from the “first” widow, the dignified Anacleta who at Faustino’s funeral begins to sing “in a fragile thread of a voice, then taking flight, in a language without edges that must surely have been devised especially to be sung” (23) to her terrifying son, General N’Gola, who was “for many years … one of the most powerful and most feared men” in Angola. N’Gola is said to resemble “a triumphant war tank”; around him, “the world shrinks” and “the air runs short” (283). There are Westerners such as the ex-sailor (an expatriate American musician) who becomes a wealthy dagga cultivator in the Luandan slums and the white South African haunted by the fact that he allowed himself to shoot Bartolomeu’s father in the war; a bar tender from East Timor, a non-ageing "girl" prostitute who lives on the beach with her pet chicken; a Mozambican medicine woman and diviner; and Laurentina’s gentle mother, Alima, whom she meets near the end of the text. Even further on, Laurentina works out that the man who brought her up so lovingly, and whom she had latterly thought her adoptive father, was in the fact the man who had seduced a teenage Alima while married to his equally young wife (the woman who dies at the beginning of the novel and whom Laurentina had until then believed to be her mother).

All the delightfully zany and convincingly sad and surprising twists and turns of the plot cannot be reported here. I conclude this piece as Agualusa does, with his description of an evening swim at a beach in Benguela. As the phosphorescence of a certain type of plankton shimmers on his skin, he quietly informs us that in southern Portugal this phenomenon is named “agualusa” – like his surname! The coincidence is not pointed out, but as the author describes himself cavorting in the sea, “enjoying [him]self, like a little inclement God, creating and unmaking constellations” (355), an attentive reader might notice that the latter description could very well apply to what the novelist has been doing in the text that we have been reading with such pleasure up to that very point of its conclusion.