PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Salazar's forty-year dictatorship in Portugal and that country's colonial wars in Africa cast their long shadow over Teolinda Gersao's The Word Tree. This is the first of Gersao's novels to be translated into English. As the Mozambican Laureano reflects,' the men crossing the sea from Lisbon didn't want that absurd war either'. Laureano's wife Amelia had come to the country from Portugal in search of a better life, but mentally never leaves her homeland, whereas her daughter Gita loves the country and grows up to resent the colonial presence. There are lush descriptions of the country, while the racial order is starkly spelt out: Amelia 'clings to the belief that fair-skinned people are the very top of the racial hierarchy, and that dark-skinned Portuguese people are almost at the bottom, just above the Indians and the blacks'.
This is the only one of Teolinda Gersão's 12 novels available in English, and it has just been chosen as the best novel translated from Portuguese in the last three years. You can see why:: it's as acute about childhood as it is about adults, and the writing is as sensuous as it is sad.
Amélia has left Portugal for pre-independence Mozambique, escaping her family and a failed relationship. She answered a newspaper advert from a man who 'seeks a decent young woman aged 25 max'. He promised her beaches with pale sand. She got a lonely life as a dressmaker instead. The section of the novel dedicated to her is the most moving in the book, a series of pin-sharp revelations of envy and isolation. She wants to join the elite, and buys perfume she can’t afford. In the sizzling African heat, she dreams of owning fur coats to give the world she left behind a slap in the face. As a portrait of a desperate colonial it’s worthy of V.S. Naipaul.
But Gersão does youthful exuberance as well as she does middle-aged desolation. Amélia's daughter Gita experiences things, as children do, in a sensory cascade. 'Yes, everything in the yard danced,' she says, 'the leaves, the earth, the spots of sunlight, the branches, the trees, the shadows.' Hers is an open-hearted, child's-eye view, of the kind that sees pain as clearly as pleasure. 'Go away and never come back,''Gita says of her mother. Amélia's resentment is the worm in the apple. Gersão's skill is to make the apple sweet anand the worm sympathetic.
Before reading Teolinda Gersão’s vivid evocation of a girl’s coming-of-age in Africa, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, I knew little about the history of Mozambique, its Portuguese colonisers, the crushing poverty and its fight for independence.
The daughter of Portuguese parents, Gita is growing up in the sprawling, chaotic port, Lourenço Marques, as the capital of Mozambique was known until 1976. For Gita, life revolves around her adoring father Laureano and black housekeeper Lóia. She is at pains to avoid her seamstress mother, Amélia, whose crushing sense of disappointment weighs heavily on them all. An unwilling immigrant, Amélia travelled from a rural village in Portugal to Africa in response to Laureano’s newspaper advertisement for a young bride.
Gita’s joy in simple pleasures is infectious: 'Everything in the back yard danced: the broad leaves of a banana tree, the flowers and leaves of the Hibiscus, the still tender branches of the jacaranda, the blades of grass that grew like weeds…'
Her sense of wonder is in sharp contrast to Amélia’s relentless dissatisfaction. Not content with their modest wealth, especially when compared to those living in the shanty towns, Amélia craves the lifestyle of Mozambique’s rich with their servants, chauffeur-driven cars and expensive clothes. Gersão perfectly captures these two distinct voices - the tart despair of Amélia and youthful exuberance of Gita.
Amélia is doomed to remain forever an outsider looking in. The impossibility of her aspirations is revealed when she enters one of many shops aimed at the Portuguese elite: 'You could live without jewellery or perfume. In that climate, gloves and furs were quite superfluous, a luxury that could only be shown off on very rare occasions. But that was precisely what attracted her, it was why she had gone into that shop. She had wanted the superfluous, the luxurious, what was reserved for the few.'
This desire to possess what is so blatantly unnecessary in a country battling with poverty is heartbreaking. Inevitably, Amélia's growing disillusionment and the decisions she takes taint her husband and daughter.
Gersão's achievement is to use the personal stories of one family to shed light on Mozambique’s troubled past and the immigrant experience in Africa.
It is indicative of the dire state of foreign fiction in this country that despite being translated into eleven languages, The Word Tree is only the first of Gersão's twelve novels to be published in English, thanks to Dedalus's new Africa series. Hopefully, other will swiftly follow.
Last month saw the launch, in English translation, of Portuguese writer Teolinda Gersão’s novel, A Árvore das Palavras, first published in Lisbon in 1997. The Word Tree, rendered from the original by prize-winning translator, Margaret Jull Costa, and published by Dedalus, is the first novel by Gersão to appear in English. It is set in Mozambique during the late colonial period, but unlike Lídia Jorge’s The Murmuring Coast, or António Lobo Antunes’s South of Nowhere, set respectively in Mozambique and Angola during the height of the colonial war, Gersão’s novel has as its background the city of Lourenço Marques (now called Maputo) in the early 1960s, on the eve of the conflict that would only end with the overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974.
The novel’s central character is Gita, a young girl born in Mozambique to white parents from Portugal. It is about her growing up and coming of age, but it is also about her own identification with the country and continent of her birth, facilitated in part by the presence of the black maid and Gita's former wet nurse, Lóia, and her daughter Orquídea, a kind of adopted sister with whom Gita finds the freedom from the inhibitions placed upon her by her biological mother, Amélia, who is obsessed with being accepted into the higher echelons of colonial society. Indeed, in some ways, Amélia is the novel’s most intriguing character because she represents an attitude towards her surroundings that is generally overlooked or dismissed by mainstream postcolonial literature. Amélia arrived in Lourenço Marques as a mail-order bride to Laureano Capítulo, a surname that translates into English as 'Chapter', the significance of which becomes apparent as the story progresses. ‘Casamento por procuração’ (marriage by procurement) was a common practice in Portuguese Africa, for it allowed impoverished women in Portugal to exchange hardship and lack of prospects back home for greater comfort and privilege in the tropics, through marriage to a white colonial male. What she discovers is that Laureano cannot match her ambitions to rise socially and enter the ‘grande bourgeoisie’ of the colonial capital. Instead, all she can do is live on its fringes as a seamstress, while compensating for her lack of status by dyeing her hair blond, enrolling her daughter in ballet classes, and eventually entering into a correspondence, under the fantasy name of Patricia Hart, with an Australian Portuguese who is looking for a wife, and takes her back to Sydney, so closing her Mozambique ‘chapter’. More suburban Madame Bovary than Moll Flanders, and certainly less raunchy than Defoe’s distant heroine, Amélia nevertheless illustrates the interface between home and empire in her journey from the stagnant gloom of Salazar’s Portugal to the open possibilities of a wider colonial world.
By the time Amélia abandons the family, Gita is in secondary school. She experiences romance with a wealthy school friend who lets her down, dabbles in student politics, and as the colony lurches towards its remote bush war, leaves for Portugal to stay with distant relatives and work her way through college. It is perhaps a paradox that while Amélia had left the imprisonment of rural Portugal in pursuit of freedom, Gita abandons the cosmopolitan freedoms of her native land, for the constraints of a motherland she has never known, but which inevitably now represents the next chapter in her own life, and a possible route to her own freedom as a young woman. And if Gita’s mother, resentful and fearful of blacks when in Mozambique, has taken flight to Australia, the last bastion of white settler safety, the abandoned Laureano, whose lack of social ambition was only matched by his love of Africa, has gone native in the autumn of his existence, by fathering a child with the local woman who has taken over as his live-in housekeeper. Unable to cater for Amélia's aspirations in the highly stratified society of colonial Lourenço Marques, Laureano has also unwittingly embarked on another, perhaps final chapter in his life. The novel is a snapshot of Portugal and Portuguese Africa in the middle years of the twentieth century as the country’s elderly and embattled regime sought to maintain order at home, and its ailing empire intact.
Above all, The Word Tree is an atmospheric novel, which evokes a time and a place in impressive detail. The contours and topography of the city are precisely mapped, and there are myriad references to neighbourhoods, streets, squares, buildings, shops, cafés and beaches, which lend the narrative greater authenticity. Gersão never lived in Mozambique for any length of time, but only visited it during long summer holidays in her youth. The narrative is therefore, to some extent, an exercise in memory. Perhaps its most abiding quality is its evocation of the space, freedom and open possibilities that Africa represented for the sons and daughters of a colonial population that has now largely been displaced, and who, like Gersão, only have memories of the environment in which they grew up. In recalling Africa, it is simultaneously recalling the innocent idealism of youth. Gita’s thoughts, as she embarks for Lisbon, speak to the memories of many who, like her, identified more with the land of their birth than they did with that from where their parents had originally migrated, a mother country they had only heard about: “The world that I’m leaving behind. Rivers, plantations, savannahs, palm groves, wide open spaces, broad horizons, and a tree that used to grow in my dreams and that reached up to the sky – what do they know of all that, how can they understand?”