La Trobe University, Melbourne
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||Postcolonial studies have now reached the stage when their most coherent
theorists feel the need to point out the danger that the Western academy's
recent interest in literatures previously considered marginal or non-canonical
could be seen as "a new form of cultural imperialism that now appropriates
instead of silencing post-colonial literary productions" (Brydon: 1989: p.1).
As a corollary to this fear, it is time to investigate whether in similar
fashion the literature of a once-powerful colonising nation is automatically
assumed to promote imperialist ideology simply because it comes from that
country. This study concentrates on Portuguese fiction of the late 1970s and
1980s relating to Portugal's colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique; its
purpose is to show that there is an equally undesirable risk of ignoring strong
anticolonialist elements in the literature of a country such as Portugal,
because of its being too quickly labelled as colonialist literary production.
This paper thus aims to shed new light on the discussion of relations and
interaction between coloniser and colonised, and how such mutual relations
shape the work of these Portuguese authors.
In a review article caustically entitled "African History without Africans" Basil Davidson chastises the authors of recent books on the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa for not taking into account the African side of the story, despite the availability of Africa's own records. I am well aware of the similar perils involved in investigating the memory of the colonial war which has haunted contemporary Portuguese literature, and of claiming the presence of conciliatory gestures in such literary texts, without devoting the equivalent amount of attention and detailed analysis to African literature with the same thematic focus. However, the words of one leading historical figure in the African liberation movements encourage the pursuit of this one-sided analysis. Luís Cabral, the brother of murdered PAIGC (Guinean) leader Amílcar Cabral, once said: "we have fought our way for national independence without hatred for the people of Portugal, and we are ending it now without hatred."
Almost twenty-five years after Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique gained their independence from Portugal, Portuguese fiction continues to evoke the memory of the colonial wars in those countries, in what has become a clearly defined sub-genre within contemporary Portuguese literature: the novel of the colonial war. Such persistence is the measure of the depth of the trauma that the colonial wars inflicted on a generation of young men and women, some of whom returned to write one single novel or memoir of the war, others who were to establish themselves as prolific writers with the circumstance of the colonial war resurfacing as either a major or a secondary theme in several of their novels. Such is the case with António Lobo Antunes, whose 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas [the arsehole of the universe] immediately became a best-seller.
The narrative present of Os Cus de Judas is 1979 but the extensive flashbacks upon which the novel is constructed return us to the war in South East Angola in 1971. The horror of the war, "o gigantesco, inacreditável absurdo da guerra" (61) [the gigantic, unbelievable, folly of war], continues to harrow the narrator, a surgeon conscripted to two years' war service, so that he can say eight years later that he is still in Angola: "eu continuo em Angola como há oito anos atrás" (147) [I am still in Angola as I was eight years ago], "O Leste? Ainda lá estou de certo modo" (152) [the East? In a way I am still there]. Curiously, immediately after the first comment he recalls taking leave of a "soba-alfaiate junto à máquina de costura pré-histórica" (147) [a tribal chief-tailor with his pre-historical sewing machine]; after the second one, he remembers sitting next to the driver of a military column "a pular pelas picadas de areia a caminho de Malanje ... aldeias de leprosos" (152) [jerking along the dirt roads on the way to Malanje... lepers' colonies]. It is not the havoc wreaked on African society and on the young men in his medical charge that he cho0ses to recall here. Rather, it is the human details which constitute an immediate indictment of the evils of colonialism that he remembers: first, the humiliation of the African tribal chief, whom the colonial administration has not only disempowered but also ridiculed by making him sew military trousers. Likewise, the second recollection includes the glimpse of a lepers' enclosure in what should be mainly the recollection of a military column in motion. As Paul Fussell observes about the literary expression of events involving those who participated in the Great War, "the art of memory organizes [such events] into little ironic vignettes" and those authors "use the pattern of irony to achieve their 'strongest recollections'" (Fussell: 1975: p.32). In these passages, too, it is the narrator's unexpected recalling of ironically pathetic human details that underlines the tragic persistence of his memory of the war -- and at the same time betrays his guilty conscience about it.
It would be wrong to claim that the narrator of this novel expresses overt sympathy for the Angolans whose plight he witnesses. Rather, he presents himself and his fellow soldiers as too immersed in self-pity and despair about their own situation as soldiers sent to hell in Angola to be able to pity the condition of the Africans around them upon whom they too are inflicting hell: "o desejo comum de não morrer constituía ... a única fraternidade possível" (75) [our shared desire not to die constituted the only possible fraternity]. But a sense of fraternity does emerge in some passing remarks about sharing the manioc diet of the guerrilla fighter. Here, the use of the word "guerrilheiro" [guerrilla fighter] should not go unnoticed, for the African independence fighters were called "terroristas" or "turras" [terrorists] in the official military and colonialist language; they were "guerrilheiros" only for those who recognised at least partly the validity of their cause.
But a more overtly conciliatory gesture comes expressly from the Angolan guerrillas, as the novel reminds us:
[Desert shouted the MPLA pamphlets, Desert Desert Desert Desert Desert DESERT, the radio announcer from Zambia asked Portuguese soldier why are you fighting against your brothers but it was against ourselves that we were fighting.]
The reference to the radio broadcast from Zambia brings to mind Fanon's famous analysis of the role of radio in the Algerian liberation war. Initially rejected by the Algerians as an instrument of transmission of colonialist ideology, the radio became a powerful purveyor of new hope to the Algerian liberation movement when Free Radio Algeria began to broadcast from Tunis. In this novel, too, the narrator acknowledges a form of interaction between MPLA resistance fighters and the Portuguese soldiers, in which the latter are at least subliminally exposed to the influence of the former. Not that many Portuguese soldiers deserted to join the MPLA, but by means of the radio broadcasts they were exposed to the Africans' view of the conflict, and presumably began to experience at least the basic form of solidarity which comes from mere acquaintance with the other side of the story, an acquaintance which would not have been available to most people in Portugal, where news of the colonial wars were highly censored by the regime.
The conciliatory gesture extended by the MPLA, suggesting that the Portuguese soldier desert and join his African "brother", acquires redoubled significance when contrasted with the lack of support from Portugal itself. The narrator of Os Cus de Judas mentions more than once that there is a conspiracy of silence surrounding the colonial war. At the officers' mess in Calambata, a sign reads in huge letters: "É PROIBIDO DIZER QUE HA GUERRA" (144) [it is forbidden to say that there's a war on]. In The Conquest Of America, Tzvetan Todorov identifies the ability to control all means of communication as a key factor for colonial domination (Todorov: 1984: pp.168-182). Colonialism silences and censors the colonised. In this novel, colonialism has managed to silence the Angolans to some extent - their ability to speak out from neighbouring Zambia is already a sign that such colonial control is crumbling. But more importantly, the Portuguese soldiers, too, feel gagged and silenced, a situation that inevitably creates an interesting form of solidarity and ironic coincidence between the colonised and the colonisers' army. It is as if the war itself were responsible for the awakening in the soldiers of a feeling of solidarity toward their official enemy, given that they find themselves in the same situation as the Africans.
Another essential text of Portuguese colonial war literature is João de Melo's Autópsia de um Mar de Ruínas [autopsy of a sea of ruins]. Here the desire for reconciliation is expressed at a much more obvious level: the linguistic one. The novel's chapters focus alternately on the daily routine of a unit of Portuguese soldiers serving at the front in Northern Angola, and on that of the native Angolans living in a nearby enclosed village (sanzala). Both the Portuguese battalion and the Angolan people present their stories in parallel. It is never exactly clear who the narrator of the chapters relating to the Portuguese soldiers is: the narrative shifts from first to third person, sometimes within the same paragraph; most often it seems to follow the point of view of the soldier Renato, other times that of the quartermaster nurse, sometimes the narrative voice is omniscient, and at other times it speaks in the first person plural. Although initially disconcerting, this polyphony is a very effective literary device, in that it allows these chapters to become a collective narrative, the record of the entwined lives of a group of men thrown together by war. The narrative voice of the chapters about the lives of the Angolans is more homogeneous, but the focus is equally plural, and falls on the activities of the sanzala's families as well as on its decrepit local chief.
More drastically even, the very language of Autópsia de um Mar de Ruínas changes as the narrative alternates between military and native chapters. Those relating to the Portuguese soldiers are in standard Portuguese; those by the Angolan narrator (who happens to have a female voice) are told in the local variety of Portuguese, with its emphatically oral and "ungrammatical" traits, which to a Portuguese reader immediately give an impression of foreignness.
Autópsia adopts the Angolan variety of Portuguese consistently, side by side with the European standard. This is a radical narrative device, in that it attributes the same literary prestige to both languages, rather than simply using the African variety to give authenticity to African characters included in a European narrative, as is often the case in colonial war novels (as well as in other novels with a colonial setting). The fact remains that even the adoption by a Portuguese writer of the Angolan variety of Portuguese as a literary medium is only possible as a consequence of colonialism, as much as the adoption of Portuguese by African writers is the inevitable cultural heritage of colonial contact over the centuries. But the important point that Autópsia de um Mar de Ruínas adds to the debate about linguistic use of colonial languages by postcolonial writers is that linguistic borrowing can be a two-way process: that if Angolan postcolonial writers can use Portuguese as a literary language without feeling that they are perpetuating colonial domination, so too can a Portuguese writer choose to use Angolan Portuguese in a novel that presents itself on the one hand as a record of the haunting memory of the colonial war, and on the other hand as a gesture of reconciliation with the people that the colonial army once oppressed.
Lídia Jorge's A Costa dos Murmúrios [the murmuring coast] is a different sort of colonial war novel in that the narrative focuses not on war service, but on the experiences of a woman living in Beira, Mozambique's second city, as the wife of an army officer. The novel incorporates a short story, which appears first in the book and tells in thirty pages the same events that the novel proper reexamines and fully elaborates in two hundred. The short story's setting is the wedding reception of Evita and her military groom at the officers' mess in Beira. It reduces the time span of all the novel's events to that particular day and evening. It is a disconcertingly romantic story with touches of magical realism. Its title is Os Gafanhotos [the locusts], but it could easily bear a cinematographic subtitle such as "The discreet charm of colonialism" or "White mischief," so glamorous and carefree is the colonial society it portrays. The fictional author of the short story reappears in the novel proper as the interlocutor of the narrator, whom he has come to ask what she thinks of the short story. The narrative is mostly in the third person, but many paragraphs finish with the repeated explanation: "Evita era eu" [I was Evita], which identifies the narrator as Eva Lopo, the bride of the short story, known as Evita as a young woman.
Because the protagonist is a woman, i.e. not directly involved in the war, she has the time (and in her case the intellectual curiosity) to learn something of the new city and the new circumstances in which she finds herself. And she is too intelligent to remain oblivious to the falsehoods around her. The novel narrates the way in which the protagonist's perception of the colony and of the nature of the Portuguese presence there progressively changes, as a result of her observation of three social groups: her husband and the other military men; the Portuguese army officers' wives waiting for their husbands to return from the front; and (as she gets increasingly bored by the latter's company) the Africans living in the city of Beira.
About her husband and his Captain, the two of whom are constant companions, she realises that what she first perceived as military zeal and lust for heroism amounts to a sadistic love of killing, impaling and inflicting pain. Of the other officers' wives, she comes to understand that their lives are terribly circumscribed by selfish domesticity and an unwillingness to question the prevailing wisdom: their children, their hairstyles, the savings to take back to Portugal after the overseas commission, and the rhetoric of empire as regurgitated by the odd visiting General set the limits of their imagination. After she finally decides to contact a local press journalist to ask him to denounce a mass poisoning of black people by methyl alcohol, she gradually looks through a window on to a new world: that of the journalist, a mulatto whose personal and professional life is characterised by fear, but who is prepared to take some risks.
The portrayal of the fears and contradictory impulses in the life of this well-intentioned but hand-tied Mozambican journalist reveals great sensitivity on the part of the narrator, and an unusual ability to slip into someone else's skin -- someone who happens to be male and African. The narrator's capacity for human empathy manages to reduce the social distances created by colonialism. The mulatto journalist here portrayed is a living example of the doubleness that postcolonial scholars recognise as eventually becoming a source of creative energy in postcolonial societies: he is an "assimilated" mulatto, an educated man, torn between denouncing colonialism and his desire to accommodate himself to its impositions in order to better his life.
When the book appeared, the author was criticised for her use of scatological details. Nevertheless, the narrator's identification of the smell of shit -- the smell of a human being shitting himself with fear -- as the smell of colonialism and of the human degradation it entails, has a precise structural function in the novel: it marks the point when the narrator has managed to step into the shoes of the African other. By means of her attention to the small, unpleasant, human detail she achieves a perception of universality which reduces the distances created by colonialism between the European and the African:
[I understood the significance of that smell... How could the journalist imagine that I disapproved of him? It was at that moment that he became the true brother of all of black Africa of his time ... In a few years, three, to be exact ... that will be the smell that will rise from Wiriamu, Juwau, Mucumbura ... That's what always united us - the same understanding of suffering.]
Furthermore, it is the structure of the book itself that constitutes a reparation for colonial wrongs, so to speak, a move towards reconciliation in itself. The novel proper begins with the homodiegetic narrator's conversation with the fictional author of the short story. The same events are now presented from her point of view. Her first comment, which she repeats at various points throughout the novel, is that everything in the short story was "exact and truthful" ("exacto e verdadeiro"). By the end of the novel, quite to the contrary, we discover that everything had been a rosy distortion of the truth. Gradually, Evita awakes to the ugly reality of this colonial society. She moves among the officers' wives but she never really fits in with the group. She focuses her attention on the contradictions the others fail, or even refuse, to see. She never openly derides the colonialist oratory, but the sarcasm of her camera-like observations of the goings-on around her amounts to an unstated full denunciation of such rhetoric.
Tension between illusion and reality permeates the novel and functions as a narrative device. Reality emerges out of, and in contrast to, the romanticism of the short story. Eva Lopo keeps adding details which contradict the "exact and truthful" recital of the short story, while actually telling the fictional author of The Locusts that it was right not to mention them, so as not to shatter the magical atmosphere of the story. She never asserts that it was all a lie. It is the juxtaposition of the various characters' differing accounts of what they perceive as reality, as much as Eva Lopo's highly ironic tone throughout, that give the lie to the supposed truth of the events narrated in the short story, "Devolvendo, anulando Os Gafanhotos" [handing back, annulling The Locusts], as the novel's last line rightly explains. Such a subtle denunciation is in fact more effective than a tirade against the evils of imperialism might ever be.
The structure of the novel thus mirrors the only possible way to point out the errors of colonialism at the time of the colonial regime's severe policing and censoring: denunciation could never be overt, so literary language too had to learn to say without saying. Needless to say, the three novels here studied were published well after the end of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, at a time when censorship no longer existed. But to keep true to the ambience of the fictional setting, the pretence must be maintained. A Costa dos Murmúrios is a postmodernist novel in its handling of several conflicting truth-claims. But above all its structure -- with the body of the novel constantly revising the supposed truth of the short story and showing it to be false, at the same time as it claims that everything in it was "exact and truthful" -- constitutes an affirmation of solidarity across colonialist barriers, for it shows the falsehood inherent in any situation of colonial domination.
While gestures of solidarity between the Portuguese and the Africans are but tentative in Os Cus de Judas, in Autópsia de um Mar de Ruínas the spirit of reconciliation is patently expressed at the linguistic level, by the use of the Angolan variety of Portuguese in parallel with the standard variety. Finally, in A Costa dos Murmúrios, the desire to cross the barriers between colonised and coloniser informs the very structure of the book. "By the end of the twentieth century," B. H. New points out, "with the end of Empire expected (rather than just dimly imagined), the character of colonial literature was changing" (New: 1996: p.106). Portuguese colonialism lasted longer than that of other countries, which no doubt allowed Portuguese writers more time and the benefit of some historical hindsight with which to formulate their fundamentally anticolonialist view of the colonialist phenomenon in a manner sympathetic to, and to some extent inclusive of, the African perspective. Unlike French colonialism in Algeria, for example, it produced several novels of great literary quality, in which we can recognise unmistakable gestures of reconciliation. Such novels are written in the language of colonial trauma, which no doubt hurt Africans the most, but hurt also those Portuguese who had strong anticolonialist feelings, either in Portugal or in Africa, as they were forced to participate in the colonial wars.
Carlos Jorge has recently emphasised the need better to evaluate the relations and interaction between coloniser and colonised, and to weigh how that dimension of inter-relation has shaped the emergent African literatures in Portuguese. The novels here studied show, in small scale, that such mutual relations also shaped the work of Portuguese authors most directly affected by the colonial wars. Linda Hutcheon has, in any case, on several occasions, equated the postcolonial with the anticolonial. Although it would be wrong not only ideologically but also in terms of formal literary analysis to try to read these novels as postcolonial, the anticolonial element in them is strong enough to allow us to read them in terms of an expression of solidarity with the African victims of colonialism, of which these Portuguese authors feel also to have been the prey.
 Quoted by Davidson, p.28.
 António Lobo Antunes. Os Cus de Judas. Lisboa: Dom Quixote, 1979. All quotations are taken from this edition and indicated in the text by page reference [my translations]. English translation: South of Nowhere, transl. Elizabeth Lowe. London: Chatto & Windus, 1983; also New York: Random House, 1983. The title itself might have been rendered less coyly as "the arsehole of the universe," a phrase which does appear elsewhere in the body of the translation.
 See Fanon: 1965, chapter 2: 'This is the Voice of Algeria'.
 João de Melo. Autópsia de um Mar de Ruínas. Lisboa: Assírio & Alvim, 1984. All quotations are taken from this edition and indicated in the text by page reference [my translations].
 Lídia Jorge. A Costa dos Murmúrios. Lisboa: Dom Quixote, 1988. All quotations are from this edition and indicated in the text by page reference [my translations]. English translation: The Murmuring Coast, transl. Natália Costa and Ronald W. Sousa. Minneapolis-London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
 Cf. C. J. F. Jorge, 1999: "um vasto campo de investigações, sobre as representações literárias da guerra colonial travada entre o salazarismo e os movimentos de libertação, ganharia muito em ser perspectivado numa posição teórica que acentuasse a dimensão de relação."
 See, for example, her comments in the Introduction to PMLA, 110 (1995), pp.7-16.
Antunes, António Lobo. Os Cus de Judas. Lisboa: Dom Quixote, 1979.
Brydon, Diana. "Commonwealth or Common Poverty? The New Literatures in English and the New Discourse of Marginality" in Stephen Slemon and Helen Tiffin (eds.). After Europe. Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1989, pp.1-16.
Davidson, Basil. "African History without Africans" London Review of Books. 18 February 1999.
Fanon, Frantz. Studies in a Dying Colonialism. Transl. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1965.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. London-Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Hutcheon, Linda. "Introduction to Colonialism and the Postcolonial Condition" special issue of PMLA. 110. 1995, pp.7-16.
Jorge, Carlos J. F. "Literaturas africanas, colonialismo e pós-colonialismo. Repensar o problema da relação: inevitáveis contactos ou dominação cultural?" Paper presented at a conference on History of Comparative Literatures at the Catholic University of Lisbon, 12-14 November 1999, as yet unpublished.
Jorge, Lídia. A Costa dos Murmúrios. Lisboa: Dom Quixote, 1988.
João de Melo. Autópsia de um Mar de Ruínas. Lisboa: Assírio & Alvim, 1984.
New, W. H. "Colonial Literatures" in Bruce King, ed., New National and Post-Colonial Literatures; An Introduction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, pp.102-119.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America. Transl. R. Howard. New York, Harper Perennial, 1984.
Isabel Moutinho is a lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese at La Trobe University, Melbourne. She has published articles on Portuguese and Brazilian literature in the Romance Languages Annual (USA), and in various collections of essays. She is currently working on her PhD on contemporary Portuguese fiction. Latest publications comprise "A Crónica segundo José Saramago" in Colóquio/Letras no 151/152, 1999, a special issue to commemorate the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature to José Saramago;, pp. 81-90; and "Images of Africa in contemporary narrative in Portuguese" in M.A. Seixo, ed., The Paths of Multiculturalism. Lisboa: Cosmos, 2000.
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century