Cheerful rain tunes on the tip of a beak in ash
the rainy season by José Eduardo Agualusa is not easy to conquer as a novel. The work was written in 1996, but has only now been translated into Dutch. That it is somewhat unruly is not only due to the large amount of complicated, often (triple) double names of the characters, who also regularly have an alias, but also because of the complicated political situation in which these characters find themselves. Ultimately, it is the style and the special form in which the novel is cast that convinces.
When the Portuguese colony of Angola is declared independent on 11 November 1975 after a bloody struggle, one of the three liberation movements, the MPLA, which is supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union, takes power. A power struggle soon ensues between the MPLA and the other two movements supported by the West and China. The poet Lídia do Carmo Ferreira is a co-founder of the MPLA, but ultimately opposes the course the movement is taking. A year and a half later, she ends up in prison with a diverse group from the extreme right to the extreme left, as the government arrests all internal and external opponents. Tens of thousands of prisoners are brutally tortured and murdered. The poet and a young, radical journalist both survive the massacre.
It quickly becomes clear that the political situation is so complicated that even for the various fighters it is not always clear who can be trusted. It therefore regularly happens that, in order to survive, a character chooses to leave his past behind and take on a new identity. This requires a lot of concentration from the reader. The afterword by Harrie Lemmens gives some more insight into the background of the ongoing civil war.
The story is told fragmentarily, sometimes using parts of interviews or dialogues between different characters. On the one hand, this structure requires even more concentration and especially attention from the reader, but on the other hand, it also provides some air and variety. The dialogues also make the characters’ characters more compelling through their peculiar way of speaking, such as the narrator’s grandmother fearlessly yelling at a UNITA commando crawling through her yard: “Get out of there! You’re ruining my roses!’ The captain immediately apologizes. While Grandma’s old cook calls her a lioness, she tells her grandson: ‘I am like the grass of the savannah, I bear no fruit and give no shade. It is a good thing in this country. No one sees us.’
In the end, Agualusa conquers the reader with his humor and poetry. As dire as the situation is, from people being thrown from planes alive to a Portuguese colonel burying innocent villagers alive up to the neck and then beheading them with a tractor-loaded harrow. the rainy season is at the same time full of subtle observations that could even be called poetry due to tropes, imagery and particular word choices. For example, one of the characters describes a forest that was consumed by the fires of napalm bombs used by the enraged Portuguese:
Near Nova Caipemba, he told me, they found a small forest consisting entirely of ash, and in that forest a few huts, also made of ash, and in the huts mats, mortars, and other implements, all made of ash. Hundreds of little birds, even those that had turned to ashes, sat on the branches of the trees, their cheerful rain tunes crystallized on the tips of their beaks. In time the Portuguese bombs had bounced over the forest, that moment of need locked in a glass bell of ash.
The translator also deserves some credit, because it is no small thing to translate this form and style into Dutch. In two places he breaks the time frame for me for a few seconds, namely when he makes a character exclaim ‘shit’ and in another moment ‘cunt’. Those cries don’t belong between ‘you, blind batraf’ and ‘Here you, you piece of shit’ from the twentieth century.
But you will not soon forget such a beautiful and at the same time terrible image of the forest covered in ash, and it is to Agualusa’s credit: for a moment he stops time and calls attention to all the innocent deaths in this inhumane civil war in Angola.
Jose Eduardo Agualusa – the rainy season. Translated by Harry Lemmens. Copernicus, Amsterdam. 264 pages €24.50.