Saturday, 28 August 2010

My Father’s Wives

by José Eduardo Agualusa

Here’s one more book which I picked up in the library solely because I liked the cover art. The drawing of a black man hugging a double bass. This is Faustino Manso, the “father” of the title. I never heard about this novel (or its author) before. And a good thing too: if anyone were trying to explain me what it is about, I would choose something else for my summer reading. The truth is, it is easier to read than summarise. I’ll try anyway.

Like Maja, the heroine of The Opposite House, Laurentina endeavours to visit her native country in search of her roots. Unlike Maja, she actually does it. Her boyfriend Mandume is not so keen on the idea.

Right away Laurentina got into her hard head the idea that she had to meet her biological parents. I was horrified when she told me she meant to go back to Africa.
‘Have you gone mad? What are you going to look for in Africa?’
Roots. She wanted to look for roots.
‘Roots are what trees have,’ I shouted to her, ‘neither one of us is African.’
Still, Mandume follows Laurentina to Angola and even suggests to make a documentary about her reunion with the family. The story (or stories) are told, in turns, by Laurentina herself, Mandume, her newly-found nephew Bartolomeu, and Albino Amador, aka “Pouca Sorte”, the mysterious driver of Malembemalembe. Following the trail (of numerous wives and children) left by Manso, the four embark on an epic journey from Luanda to Namibia to South Africa to Mozambique and back to Angola. The short chapters are interspersed with the author’s notes which are not chronologically ordered. You see, the author is also travelling throughout the southern Africa in search of his heroes.

Miraculously, this seemingly convoluted structure is a joy to read. The novel is full of warmth, love and gentle humour. And there are a few surprises in the end. But does Laurentina learn the truth about her parents? In words of Faustino Manso’s widow, Dona Anacleta, ‘The truth is a recourse for people with no imagination’. A masterful work by Agualusa and his translator, Daniel Hahn.

‘You know I nearly died here in ’99? It was this baobab that saved me.’
‘You would have died in an ambush?’
‘No ma’am, it was my wife who almost killed me.’
‘Your wife?’
‘Affirmative. I was inside the car fooling around with a Benguela girl called Mil Flores — a thousand flowers — a fair mulatta girl... like this girl here... I was already completely — how should I put it — fully operational, when my wife appeared. As I learned later the person who’d given us away was another girlfriend of mine, severely afflicted by jealousy, by the name of Anunciação. Maria Rita, my wife, appeared armed with a katana. I didn’t see her coming. I only realised she was there when the driver’s-side window smashed. Mil Flores opened the door on the other side and ran off, stark naked — a lovely sight to see — towards Lobito. God made me as you see me now — thin and agile — like a little goat, but I’m old, my wife is much younger, not so quickly out of breath, and it was only a matter of time before she caught me. And if she caught me — yikes! — there I was, unarmed, so I climbed the baobab.’
‘It’s not possible! How did you do it?’
‘How do cats fly?’
‘Cats don’t fly!’
‘They don’t fly over there in Europe, miss. Here they do fly! Put a greyhound behind a cat and see if it doesn’t fly.’

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