‘O Bebedor de Horizontes’ by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

O Bebedor de Horizontes is the last instalment of the trilogy As Areias do Imperador (Sands of the Emperor) by the Mozambican author Mia Couto. One of the main differences between this book and the previous two, Mulheres de Cinza (Woman of the Ashes in the English translation) and A Espada e a Azagaia, is that it gives more prominence to some historical figures, although Imani continues to be the main character. The novel is at its best, in fact, when it focuses on her more personal experiences.

Set in 1895 and 1896, mainly in Mozambique, it explores the aftermath of the Portuguese offensive against Ngungunyane, the emperor of the State of Gaza. The narration in the first person by Imani, a young woman from the Vachopi tribe, is complemented by a variety of letters sent to her not only by Germano, but also by other characters, such as Bianca. We learn that within the Portuguese military there’s a conflict between Mouzinho de Albuquerque and Álvaro Andrea. Germano believes Andrea to be a much better person overall. But it’s Imani who has to deal with both of them.

The style of the prose changes slightly depending on what is being conveyed. When Imani is reporting on what other characters did, the writing style is more straightforward, less embellished. On the other hand, when she is being more introspective or recalling her own experiences, words come together more graciously and metaphors abound.

As in the previous books, Mia Couto takes the opportunity to explore significant topics: racism and the dire consequences of colonialism on identity. Imani is already aware that she is at a crossroads between two different cultures and may not be accepted by neither of them. However, one character that she meets along the way, Zeca Primoroso, wrongly believes that he is fully accepted by the Europeans, because he dresses like them and always speaks in Portuguese. Even when he is beaten by a white man, he finds a way to excuse him. Imani believes that the colour of their skin will always be used against them.

“Será um eterno estivador carregando o peso da sua própria pele.”

“He will forever be a docker carrying the weight of his own skin.” [translation my own]

The myth of the “good colonisers” is also delved into throughout the book. Sergeant Júlio de Araújo wrongly considers that Portugal is not like the other European colonial powers. They are not cruel, he says. Their punishment of the Africans is as those of parents. He thinks that colonialism is a necessity, as Africans need the guidance of a more civilised people. Germano seems to be now considerably more aware of the evils of colonialism and how Europeans use it to compete with one another. But, in other ways, he is definitely a man of his time.

Some of the last chapters are excessively fast-paced. I would have liked some of the occurrences to be more detailed. The ending itself, however, is extremely powerful and emotional, albeit in a subtle way.

This is a worthy, but not perfect, closure to the Sands of the Emperor, a trilogy full of the traditions, tales and superstitions of the people of Mozambique. It raises thought-provoking questions on colonialism and doesn’t shy away from revealing the violence endured by black women.

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