Mia Couto’s novel, The Tuner of Silences , is a highly original and totally engaging story. Its narrator, Mwanito, is reflecting back on the early years of his life; he recounts his experiences while living in the company of three men and his slightly older brother in a remote campsite in a semi-desert in what one assumes is Mozambique. António Emílio Leite Couto, Mia Couto for short, is a Mozambican scientist, and a prolific award-winning poet and writer, whose work is increasingly becoming available in English. His 2009 novel, The Tuner of Silences , translated in 2013, is part coming of age story, part family drama and part a kind of love story. Mwanito’s mature voice recaptures convincingly the innocence of his childhood, his gradual awakening to a life that may be different from the one prescribed by his authoritarian father, whose trauma and loss keep haunting him. Keeping close to the tradition of African storytelling, Couto’s narration moves with ease from realistic depiction of people and scenarios to fantasy, symbolism, mythology and the rich imagination of dreams. Set against the early years of post-Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique, Couto touches on questions of race and identity, of long held beliefs and traditions, and the physical and emotional uncertainties in the newly independent country.
After the sudden death of his wife, Mwanito’s distraught father takes his sons and flees the city for an abandoned game reserve far away. For him life as he knew it has ended and, he explains to his sons, “Over There”, beyond their camp, the world has seized to exist; it is a total wasteland. He declares the camp an “independent” land, names it “Jezoosalem”. Yes, the religious connotation is intended. Following a ritualistic “renaming ceremony” of place and people, he, now “Silvestre”, rules “his land” dictatorially, his strict discipline not to be questioned. Mwanito and the renamed “Ntunzi” live in fear of their father. No books are allowed or anything to do with writing; Mwanito is to be the Tuner of Silences. “I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence…” he recalls his early experiences. Only he can calm the father’s anxieties. The family is accompanied by a raggedly looking ex-soldier who acts as a servant, security guard, hunter for essential meat supplies and, sometimes, friend to Ntunzi. Lastly, there is “Uncle Aproximado”, who lives at the edge of the game reserve, far away from the camp. He turns up from time to time to bring other essential supplies from “Over There”. His arrival is welcomed by the boys, who also wonder whether he steals, whether the father has escaped a crime, whether there is really a “wasteland” beyond the perimeter that they are allowed to explore…
Mwanito, too young to remember his mother or anything from “Over There”, is a docile and dedicated follower of his father’s instructions. However, influenced by his older brother’s stories about their mother, Mwanito feels her presence in his vivid dreams, yet cannot define her features. Ntunzi, old enough to have been to school, pressures his younger brother to go against the father’s rule and learn to read, one letter at a time. “I already knew how to travel across written letters, as if each one were an endless highway. But I still needed to learn how to dream and to remember. I wanted that boat that took Ntunzi into the arms of our dead mother…” The more he learns the closer he feels to his mother.
After years of isolation, Mwanito at eleven years old sees a woman for the first time. Marta, whose future arrival is presaged in the novel’s opening, inadvertently disturbs the life of each of the camp’s inhabitants. Marta’s presence is not quite as coincidental as it may seem at first; she represents an important new conduit to the world outside, essential for the boys in coming to terms with their understanding of identity and other needs. The realities from “Over There” spill over into the camp.
Mia Couto’s writing is captivating, his sense of place evident and the description of the abandoned game reserve in the semi-desert environment evocative. I found the story’s narrator Mwanito totally believable and in his childhood observations, his dreams, desires and wonderments very endearing. While his father may need him as the silent helper, the boy is a very astute observer of his surroundings. In his musings his language is gentle, poetic and rich in imagery. Silvestre, the father, by contrast, comes across as a tragic figure. In his inability to communicate, he isolates himself increasingly from his children. Unable to recover from his personal trauma and his clinging to a happier past with pseudo-religious rituals alienates his children and, rather than protecting them from the “wasteland Over There”, pushes them towards planning their escape if there is a chance. Given the place and the time frame the novel is set, I sense that Couto while individualizing his story very effectively, his novel also explores the deeper societal traumas and challenges that people in Mozambique have faced in their recent history. For me, this has been a thought provoking read.