‘A Espada e a Azagaia’ by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

Being the second book in the trilogy As Areias do Imperador (Sands of the Emperor), A Espada e a Azagaia continues to delve into similar topics to those put forward in Mulheres de Cinza (Woman of the Ashes in the English translation). It explores not only how characters dealt with one another within the constraints of colonialism, but also how they faced their own personal tribulations, desires and doubts. Overall, it paints a believable social and psychological portray of various inhabitants of Mozambique.

At the end of the first book (about which there will be spoilers ahead), Imani, a young African woman from the VaChopi tribe, fired a weapon at the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, hurting his hands, in order to save her brother Mwanatu. So, this novel, which is set in 1895, starts with Imani taking him to the only hospital in the Gaza region. With them were her father, her brother and the Italian Bianca Vanzini.

On their way to the hospital, they stopped at a church. The priest there, Rudolfo, had seen so much violence that he neither performed masses anymore nor believed that praying was useful. An African woman who lived there insisted on doing a ritual that according to her would turn Germano into a fish, so he could return to the sea. Throughout the book there are, in fact, various depictions of African rituals and superstition.

The narration is divided into various parts. Some are narrated by Imani in the first person, while others consist of letters sent by Germano and Ayres de Ornelas to one another. Ayres de Ornelas had read the missives that Germano had sent to Councillor Almeida in the first book. Through his replies, we learn about the negotiations between the Portuguese and Ngungunyane, leader of the VaNguni and ruler of the State of Gaza. He believed that a war between the two was close to break out.

But Ayres de Ornelas also gave advices. He counselled Germano not to stay more time than the necessary at the hospital of the Swiss Georges Liengme, because he had been inciting people to revolt. He expected to be promoted soon. And, when that happened, he would make sure that Germano would be allowed to return to Portugal. Imani, however, would have to stay in Mozambique. Ayres de Ornelas believed himself to be great at his job, despite needing Germano to be his informant, in order to have knowledge that none of his colleagues and competitors did.

With great difficulty, Germano managed to reply to Ayres de Ornelas. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to return to Portugal without Imani. He was plagued by doubts and uncertainty. He wasn’t concerned about whether Imani had really shot him or not anymore, though. He was ready to accept the Italian’s version that it hadn’t been her. Bianca was lying to Germano about what had happened, because she wanted Imani to work at her establishment. If she refused, Bianca would tell him the truth.

Mia Couto continues to explore the topics of identity and belonging in this novel. Imani, particularly, seemed to be at a crossroads between two cultures and communities. For that reason, people believed that she would never be fully accepted by any of them. Interracial relationships were not well regarded by either black or white people. Those couples had to face many adversities. The way in which she expresses her feelings and emotions is compelling and vivid. The text written from her point of view is filled with meaningful comparisons and metaphors.

“Não conheço mais eficiente triturador da alma: o ciúme é um moinho de vento que gira sem que haja nenhuma brisa”

“I don’t know a more effective soul crusher: jealousy is a windmill that turns without a breeze”. [translation my own]

Racism is also a major theme throughout the book. It illustrates how many Portuguese soldiers addressed Africans with disdain and didn’t respect their traditions. Germano loved Imani, but even that didn’t free him from his prejudices. He started to show a better understanding of life in Mozambique, though, in comparison with the first instalment of the trilogy.

During the time that the characters were forced to stay at the church, the narration is occasionally too repetitive. It’s more than halfway through the book that new, important events for the development of the plot take place. That didn’t completely diminish my reading experience, however, as we get to learn more about the past of the characters, which makes them feel authentic.

Contrary to the first book in the trilogy, A Espada e a Azagaia hasn’t been translated into English yet. But it’s a worthy follow-up to the Woman of the Ashes.

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