Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences, trans. David Brookshaw (Biblioasis, 2012 (2009))

… such a fragile place as the world.  (Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, p. 199)

Life wasn’t made to be fleeting and of little consequence.   And the world wasn’t made to have boundaries. 201

To live? Surely, to live is to see dreams fulfilled, to look forward to receiving news. 20

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Fear dilates distances. (57)

Fury is just a different way of crying. (66)

Jesusalém, or Jezoosalem, the original Portuguese title of this book, is an isolation ward, or camp, inhabited by three men, two boys and a donkey.

This little cluster of humanity, joined like the five fingers on a hand … (13)

Silvestre, father of the boys, creates this escape-space to cope with the horrors of his former life, including those perpetrated by himself. The ‘Tuner of Silences’ is Mwanito, the younger of two brothers, growing up in a refracted place where things that enable knowledge of or contact with the outside world are forbidden.  Silence, however, is permitted, and Silvestre relies on his small boy to help him be quiet.

Family, school, other people, they all elect some spark of promise in us, some area in which we may shine.  Some are born to sing, others to dance, others are born merely to be someone else. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence. It was my father who explained this to me: I have an inclination to remain speechless, a talent for perfecting silences. I’ve written that deliberately, silences in the plural. Yes, because there isn’t one sole silence.  Every silence contains music in a state of gestation.  (p. 13)

In Book I, these five men and the donkey constitute a severely circumscribed humanity. Even their uncle, one of the five, doesn’t live with them, but on the periphery of Sylvestre’s self-demarcated reservation: ‘From where we lived to his hut was a farness full of hours and wild animals’ (p. 12). The father’s inevitably futile if brutal attempts to quarantine the boys from truth and knowledge is also a signal of their young life force and its impulse towards freedom:

You don’t help a bird to fly by holding onto its wings.  A bird flies when it’s quite simply allowed to be a bird.  (46)

The darkened wall was covered with thousands of tiny stars that Ntunzi had scratched every day, like the work of a prisoner on the walls of his cell.  This is Ntunzi’s sky, each star represents a day. (58)

Silvestre, at one level insane, also has flashes of enlightenment. His son asks if the two boys are of a different race, being lighter skinned than the three men around them:

My father replied: – No one is from one race alone. Races – he said – are uniforms we put on. Maybe Silvestre was right. But I learnt too late that the uniform sometimes sticks to the souls of men. (13)

He wanted to make sure we had witnessed the sunrise.  This was the first duty of living creatures: to watch the creator’s start emerge. (33)

Book II sees the world outside begin to impinge on their isolation and the blanket of silence smothering the past, and with it a growing awareness in Mwanito, partly through the intervention and courage of his older brother Ntunzi.  The unexpected arrival of one woman leads indirectly to the boys’ learning more about the fate of another, their mother.

One of the first and greatest acts of rebellion by the boys is when Ntunzi takes it upon himself to teach Mwanito to read and write, a secret tunnel they dig together out of the prison of the mind Silvestre tries to lock them in.  One of the most moving testimonies to the power of reading and writing and the freedom it can give:

In Jezoosalem, no books were admitted, nor notebooks, or anything at all associated with writing.

– Aren’t you scared we’ll get caught, Ntunzi!

– You should be scared of not knowing anything. After reading, I’m going to teach you how to write.

Scribbling in the sand of the yard with a little piece of kindling wood, I was fascinated, and felt the world was being reborn, like the savannah after the rains.   I gradually came to understand Silvestre’s prohibitions: writing was a bridge between past and future times, time that had never existed in me. (37-38)

I already knew how to travel across written letters as if each one were an endless highway. (39)

I left my room and armed with a stick, I began to write in the sand all around the house.  I wrote and wrote, feverishly, as if I were set on occupying the entire landscape with my scribbling.   The ground round about gradually became a page upon which I sowed my hope for a miracle. (43)

Later on, a book is referred to with utmost love:

If you caress a book like this, you’ll know what a grandfather is like. (94)

Ntunzi also uses a map to help him navigate the world beyond his father’s strictures:

First thing in the morning, with the same case resting on his feet, Ntunzi would sit engrossed in an ancient map that Uncle Aproximado had once given him in secret.  With his index finger, he roamed again and again over the print, like a canoe drifting drunkenly down imaginary rivers.  Then, he would scrupulously fold the map again and place it in the bottom of the suitcase. (53)

Couto writes sparingly in limpid language awash with original and arresting phrasing and metaphors.  He also prefaces chapters with beautiful quotations from poetry unfamiliar to an Anglo-Saxon reader (this one, anyhow). His writing spills over with gentle wisdom, pared and plain, on living and memory and the links between them. What does it mean to be alive? That your vital organs are ticking over nicely? Or that your spirit is alive, or the memory of a person physically dead is alive in the mind of a living person? Couto questions ‘living’ as just a binary biological divide between being physically alive or dead.

The dead don’t die when they stop living, but when we consign them to oblivion. (52)

Old age isn’t about one’s years: it’s fatigue.  When we are old, everyone seems the same. (21)

Not living is what I find most tiring. (57)

Life only happens when we stop understanding it. (200)

And there are beautiful references to stories, written and told, embedded in the ordinariness of streets and lives, the stories that Silvestre wants to suppress:

What story can be conceived without a tear, without song, without a book or a prayer? (48)

Now I know one thing: no street is small. They all hide never-ending stories, they all conceal countless secrets. (192)

And human life as a story gone wrong:

You were once a good teller of stories, Father.  Now you’re a story badly told. (58)

This marvelous book is about being fully alive or semi-dead, about truth and lies, silence and stories, reaching out and closing down, memory and forgetting.  Remember this, if nothing else: looking at the sky, both the blue and the cloud of it, will give you a glimpse of full-spectrum living, from here to eternity:

He who seeks eternity should look at the sky, he who seeks the moment, should look at the cloud. (124)

Let’s do both.

We already cheat at cards. Now, we’ll cheat at life.

So that’s how I began my first diary. It was also how aces, jacks, queens, kings, deuces and the seven of hearts began to share my secrets. My minute scrawl filled hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. Into those fifty-two little squares of paper, I poured a childhood of vexations, hopes and confessions. In my games with Ntunzi, I was always the loser. But I lost myself in my games with writing.

Source: The Tuner of Silences, trans. David Brookshaw (Biblioasis, 2012 (2009)), pp. 38-39

Top soil on a veranda

Mia Couto’s metaphors are wonderful. This one conveys the dead weight appearance of a body slumped unconscious.

‘It certainly was a body, lying there on the veranda like top soil.’

Source: Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences, trans. David Brookshaw (Biblioasis, 2012 (2009)), p. 99

A compass upheaval

This captures the erratic blusteriness of storms. Although this book is set in Africa, the metaphor reminds me of the description of Arctic storms I am reading in Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams.

‘The storm was like the upheaval of all the compass points at the same time.’

Source: Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences, trans. David Brookshaw (Biblioasis, 2012 (2009)), p. 98

As happy as...

Surely this deserves to enter common usage:  ‘… as happy as Adam before he lost his rib.’

Source: Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences, trans. David Brookshaw (Biblioasis, 2012 (2009)), p. 79

Time as oil

A remarkable description of time passing, which makes it sound slow and cloying.

‘The following weeks flowed over us like a thick oil.’

Source: Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences, trans. David Brookshaw (Biblioasis, 2012 (2009)), p. 68

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