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
But a more overtly conciliatory gesture comes expressly from the Angolan
guerrillas, as the novel reminds us:
Deserta gritavam os papéis do MPLA, Deserta Deserta Deserta Deserta
Deserta DESERTA, a locutora da rádio da Zâmbia perguntava Soldado
português porque lutas contra os teus irmãos mas era contra
nós próprios que lutávamos. (126)
[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
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:
Eu conhecia o significado desse cheiro... Como podia o jornalista imaginar que
eu o reprovava? Esse foi o momento em que ele se fez irmão verdadeiro de
toda a Africa negra do seu tempo ... Dentro de poucos anos, exactamente
três ... será esse o cheiro que se desprenderá de Wiriamu,
Juwau, Mucumbura ... Foi isso que sempre nos uniu - a mesma compreensão
do sofrimento. (pp.250-51)
This shared "understanding of suffering" amounts to "the imaginative ability to
see strange people as fellow sufferers" that Richard Rorty considers the first
step to a changed view of the world and towards an ideal capacity for empathy
with other people (Rorty: 1989: pp. xiii-xiv). The privileging in the novel of
this mulatto character, who is now seen as "the true brother of all of black
Africa", for whom the narrator in the end shows more respect and understanding
than for any of the European characters, is a major literary gesture of
reconciliation. The narrator recognises the key role that this character and
others like him play in the social changes that she perceives in the air -- even
at a time (diegetically the late sixties) when the end of colonialism still
seemed too remote a possibility.
[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
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
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
 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,
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. Translated by 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,
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge and New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America. Translated by 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:
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