My rating: 4 stars
Magical realism elements are ubiquitous in Mia Couto’s work. In O Último Voo do Flamingo (The Last Flight of the Flamingo in the English translation), the Mozambican author mixed local superstitions and folklore with social and political denunciations, while presenting various distinctive characters.
The narrator of this novel is a translator from Tizangara who at the time of the events was at the service of the village administrator. In the first years after the civil war, five of the UN Blue Helmets who were overseeing the peace process exploded. Their bodies weren’t torn to shreds. They just disappeared, their penises being the only body part that could be found. As an Italian man was to arrive to investigate what had happened to the soldiers, the administrator, Estêvão Jonas, called on the narrator to be his translator.
Although the narrator didn’t speak Italian, Jonas didn’t consider that to be a problem. He just needed to have a translator as all important people. Thankfully Massimo Risi had a basic grasp of the language. What he couldn’t understand was the people, their local customs and superstitions. The beliefs and behaviours of the inhabitants of the village were puzzling. He became particularly interested in Temporina, a woman with a young body and a much older face. He was eager to be successful on his mission, however. He was seeking a promotion after all.
Throughout his account, the narrator remembers his family. He had a sweet connection with his late mother, who sounded like a wise woman. His father, Sulplício, has an interesting back story, which I wish had been further explored. It could, in fact, be the backbone of another book. He had been a police officer when Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and, for that reason, his neighbours saw him as a “traitor”.
The book is full of metaphors and similes, particularly when the narrator is recalling his relationship with his family. Though at times there are too many of them in a row, some are striking and meaningful.
As the story progresses, the magical elements gradually take over. However, the criticism about foreign interference and local politicians is always present. Officials looked down on their countrymen, felt more important than they were, and got involved in cases of corruption. The Last Flight of the Flamingo is, in fact, an incisive and occasionally funny political novel under the guise of magical realism.