Sleepwalkers Strolling Through Fire

I read this week in the Portuguese newspaper Público that the Mozambican writer Mia Couto has been awarded the 2013 Camões Prize, a major international award that honors writers from the Lusophone world—those eight countries where Portuguese is the official language.

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I’m delighted by this news, because ever since I first read Couto’s work back in 1990, the story collection Voices Made Night, he has been one of my favorite writers. I was immediately struck by the strength of his poetic prose, which reminded me in some ways of the prose of the poet Rilke, writing that somehow describes the world and alters it at the same time.

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Couto, though, writes of his African country’s war of independence, civil war, and the tragic aftermaths of so much destruction on the lives of ordinary people. Here, from the story “The Day Mabata-bata Exploded,” is a description of a cow that, while being led by a young cowherd, steps on a landmine:

“Suddenly, the cow exploded. It burst without so much as a moo. In the surrounding grass a rain of chunks and slices fell, as if the fruit and leaves of the ox. Its flesh turned into red butterflies. Its bones were scattered coins. Its horns were caught in some branches, swinging to and fro, imitating life in the invisibility of the wind.”

This passage is typical of Couto’s strengths as a writer: terrible things remain terrible but are transformed into strange beauty by the power of language. Perhaps language is a survival skill in the face of so much violence and turmoil in his country’s recent history. In his first novel, Sleepwalking Land, Couto writes,

“They should invent a gentler, more affable gunpowder, capable of exploding men without killing them. An inverse powder, which would generate more life. And out of one exploded man, an infinity of men inside him would be born.”

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Couto is a master at inverting reality, reversing the order of the world with a swift aphoristic grace that leaves us puzzling over our normal assumptions. “Life is a web weaving a spider,” he says in another story in Voices Made Night, while in this passage from the novel Under the Frangipani he takes his time setting up this conceit of inversion:

“The tide was out and had left stretches of sand and rock uncovered. The gulls could be heard, screeching in a melancholy way. Before long, one would be able to hear the plovers, those white-fronted little birds that summon in the tide. The tide rises and falls in obedience to those birds. Just a short while ago, it was the sandpipers that had ordered the waters to ebb. Curious how such a gigantic creature as the ocean is so attentive to the commands of such insignificant little birds.”

This same novel is notable for the way it reverses the normal detective procedural. A Mozambican police inspector investigating a murder has to work his way through the baffling stories of multiple suspects: rather than deny, they all confess to the murder.

The world, transformed by violence, is transformed into something else, more hopeful, perhaps—certainly more magical. Though so many of his compatriots have been stunned into a kind of sleepwalking in their lives, Couto declares that we are all kin, that each of us resembles a “sleepwalker strolling through fire.” But language, and stories, may save us.

Mia Couto’s most recent novel translated into English (by David Brookshaw, wonderfully as always), is The Tuner of Silences. It sits near the top of my Must Read pile.

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May 29th, 2013 by admin

That Opening Paragraph

Ever wonder why you can find your way to a distant location in town, even if you only know a few, if any, of the names of the streets on the way? Erik Jonsson, in his book Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, claims that we all create “cognitive maps.”

“Navigation is knowing where you are and how to get to where you want to go. In an unfamiliar area this means that you have to use a map and compass to find your way. But if you know the area you need no such help. You know where you are, and you know how to get to where you want to be next. It is all in your head: you have a ‘map in the head,’ a cognitive map to go by.”

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Once we come to know a place, we develop an “inner compass,” that turns with us, so that no matter where we’re facing we don’t get disoriented and can find our way.

I remember how hard it was, at first, to memorize the grid of New York City when I worked nights as a cab driver in the summer of 1972. Street by street I learned to orient myself, memorize the names and numbers of streets and avenues, the direction of one-way streets, the entrances and exits through Central Park. Soon enough, though, when a rider slipped into the backseat and named an address, I could see in my mind’s eye alternate routes, could quickly pick the one I thought might get us there faster. Yet I couldn’t say exactly how I had come to know this. Practice, yes, but something else was at work.

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Jonsson claims that this is “another neural system that operates at a level below awareness, the one that keeps us in balance as we stand and move around. It is automatic: we rely on it unthinkingly, taking it for granted, but when something goes wrong with it, we get in big trouble.”

And it can indeed go wrong. When the Vermont College of Fine Arts administrative offices were moved to the top floor of College Hall, I first visited the new digs by walking up the stairs on the west side of the building.

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Once there, the floor’s space imprinted itself on me, without my knowing it. Entering by the west stairs, however, was an unfortunate mistake, since the more convenient entry is from the stairs on the east side, an entry that I’ve usually taken ever since.

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And when I climb the eastern stairs, once at the top I feel disoriented for a moment, everything seems in the wrong place, because my initial mapping of the floor came from a western approach. I have to turn the floor around in my head before continuing.

First impressions, spatially, indeed count. And this reminds me of that crucial moment in any short story or novel: the opening paragraph.

Those first words serve as a crucial orientation, of the physical and emotional landscape of what is to follow. A reader begins a story as if opening a door to a new room: is that initial view inviting, intriguing, does it promise a path to perhaps more interesting rooms, does it encourage a step forward?

Here is the opening paragraph to Debra Eisenberg’s story “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” (from her story collection of the same name), which deftly defines the physical terrain and intrigues with unanswered questions:

I had lit a fire in my fireplace, and I’d poured out two coffees and two brandies, and I was settled down on the sofa next to a man who had taken me out to dinner, when Ivan called after more than six months. I turned with the receiver to the wall as I absorbed the fact of Ivan’s voice, and when I glanced back at the man on the sofa, he seemed a scrap of paper, or the handle from a broken cup, or a single rubber band–a thing that has become dislodged from its rightful place and intrudes on one’s consciousness two or three times before one understands it is just a thing best thrown away.

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We see the fireplace and sofa, we can imagine the type of cozy living room that contains them, the brandies, even the poor hapless man who has been so trumped by the unexpected call from Ivan that his value has plummeted to a near worthless bit of nearly nothing. We see the narrator, her back to him, phone by her ear. And yet much remains unanswered: who is this Ivan, why has he been silent for six months? And is the narrator reliable, is Ivan worthy of her so easily recharged devotion, or is she clinging to the promise of a man who hasn’t treated her well in the past and won’t in the future?

Eisenberg gives us details that allow us to create a cognitive map of the living room, and the likely social class of the narrator those details hint at. Yet we’re no sooner settled in this room than Ivan calls, and we realize that we won’t be hanging around here for long, the wider world outside beckons, as well as stretches of the narrator’s as yet unrevealed past, and some explanation for Ivan’s sudden reappearance. In one short paragraph Eisenberg has guided us beautifully into her story, blending concrete detail with emotional mystery.

Here’s another opening paragraph, one that orients us in a different way. It’s from “The End of the World,” by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, from his Restless Nights: Selected Stories:

One morning about ten o’clock an immense fist appeared in the sky above the city. Then it slowly unclenched and remained this way, immobile, like an enormous canopy of ruin. It looked like a rock, but it was not rock; it looked like flesh but it wasn’t; it even seemed made of cloud, but cloud it was not. It was God, and the end of the world. A murmuring, which here became a moan, there a shout, spread through the districts of the city, until it grew into a single voice, united and terrible, rising shrilly like a trumpet.

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This rather frightening image catches a reader’s attention: if the end of the world does come, it might look something like this, and those voices in the city below convey humanity’s understandable terror. So, who wouldn’t read on to the second paragraph?

Buzzati doesn’t continue in this monumental vein, though. The setting established, he then floats down to the city’s street level, showing the reactions and fears of first crowds and then individual people, finally focusing, until the end of the story, on the plight of a single priest who must decide, in the short time remaining, whom to absolve among the supplicants crowding around him. Yet even though the perspective has long shifted from the hand of God to a single individual below, that threatening fist still hovers in the mind, its clenching like some terrible ticking clock. Buzzati can depart from that arresting initial image because it never really leaves the imagination of the reader.

Writers take great care with the opening paragraph, because the reader, however unconsciously, is looking for clues of what will follow. A false move—either an excess of detail, or not enough; contradictory metaphorical language; or a passive narrative voice—can jar a reader’s “inner compass,” and delay the entry into the fictional world. When writers begin the construction of those first crucial steps, we would do well to remember the words of the novelist Allan Gurganus, who says of the writing process, “You have to maintain your critical sensibility and not just assume, because it was an extraordinary dream for you, that it will be a dream for other people. Because people need maps to your dreams.”

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May 13th, 2013 by admin