Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto1 blends two stories of seeking one’s identity in the midst of war-torn Mozambique. In the first, an old man and a young orphaned boy have fled a refugee camp and seek shelter in a burned-out bus on the side of the road. Near a corpse, they find a set of journals written by Kindzu. These journals, which tell Kindzu’s story, form the bulk of the novel by portraying life during the Civil War2 in a fantastical magical realism setting.
I tend to enjoy reading magical realism because it mixes fantasy into seemingly realistic settings and gives a story a very different feel3. In Sleepwalking Land, that not-straightforward feeling was perfect in providing me, a reader unfamiliar with both Mozambican history and life during a civil war, with a dream-like introduction to life in a confusing political and violent setting. I struggled to understand the reasons behind various violence and betrayals, and yet I realized that understanding the context absolutely did not matter: Couto’s book instead illustrated how life (such as it was) continued for the people in the land, and the confused tone of what was real or not provided a perfect atmosphere for the hopelessness of the era.
The two travelers on the road begin their story in a realistic setting and with a realistic tone. In the beginning, we learn:
Their destination is the other side of nowhere, their arrival a non-departure, awaiting what lies ahead. They are fleeing the war, the war that has contaminated their whole country. They advance under the illusion that somewhere beyond there lies a quiet haven. (page 1)
Because their story forms little of the novel and instead seems more of a frame for Kindzu’s story, I don’t want to reveal too much about them. Suffice it to say that the young orphaned boy suffers from amnesia and has recently returned to life thanks to the ministrations of the old boy. As he reads Kindzu’s story, he searches for his own identity. As the old man listens to Kindzu’s story, he also reflects on his past. Kindzu’s friends and the fantastical setting blend in with the travelers’ own understanding of their identities, as they gradually starve in the deserted bus on the side of the road. The future remains blank for these two; it is clear that they are simply “sleepwalking” through the motions of living.
Just as the boy and the old man search for their own identities, Kindzu, the one I’d consider the main character of the novel, sets off on a journey to find himself after his father’s death. His life is a mix of magical realism from the first pages of his first journal, in which his younger brother is confined to the chicken house (for his safety) and subsequently becomes a chicken. As Kindzu begins his journey, he seeks guidance from a medicine man who tells him,
It’s not your destination which counts but the route you take” (page 25)
And then we come to the part of this post when I admit I can’t make sense of it all. Kindzu’s journey did seem pointless both in its lack of destination and at least the inability to have a destination and the routes he followed on his journey. I believe, like the two travelers, he is seeking for himself, trying to find answers to give to the ghost of his father and to himself as the world erupts in the Civil War around him for unclear political reasons. Like the two other travelers on the burnt-out bus, Kindzu seemed to lack any degree of hope for the future. He keeps trying to have hope, and he promises Farida the impossible with that attempt towards hope, but it is clear that life will continue to be delirium for him.
Although I did not fully understand the big picture in which Kindzu “found” his identity and how he related to the other characters, like Farinda and Carolinda, I did really appreciate the writing style with the aspects of magical realism. The ending of the story (the last chapter of the novel) was beautifully written. Especially as I finished, I felt the poignant hopelessness that these people felt living in the midst of violence and war.
Sleepwalking Land was not a favorite book for me, nor was it a pleasant book to read, but I’m glad I gave it a try. It’s certainly not one to easily forget.
- First published in 1992 in Portuguese as Terra Sonâmbula; translated by David Brookshaw and published in English in 2006. ↩
- According to Wikipedia, the Mozambique Civil War lasted from 1977 (upon freedom from colonialism) until about 1992) ↩
- I must point out, however, that as in most magical realism, there is a fair amount of sex in this book. I personally didn’t find it very tastefully written this time… ↩