Friday, October 19, 2018

Review of Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto (Serpents Tail, 2008; original 1996)

A police inspector is sent to a former Portuguese fort in Mozambique, turned refuge for older people, to investigate the death of its director. When he arrives the inspector’s body is occupied by the ghost of a worker who is buried under the Frangipani tree in the compound. The inspector interviews each of the residents, their nurse, and the wife of the director. Each one confesses to murdering the director and each professes to awaiting death. He only has a week to solve the crime before a helicopter arrives to fly him back to the city, but he cannot locate the body of the director and is struggling to determine who killed him.

Under the Frangipani is a curious book. Set in an old Portuguese fort in post-independence Mozambique the tale is part murder investigation, part allegory that is rooted in magical realism. The fort is the locus of the long troubled history of Mozambique, a site that held slaves, was used in the war for independence, and is a microcosm of post-independence society. Its inhabitants reflect the melting pot of different identities - blacks, mulattos and whites – and classes, and the challenge of trying to maintain old traditions and spirit worlds while shedding its colonial past and the violence of war and becoming part of a wider world. In this sense, Couto’s tale is an allegory for Mozambique, where the old ways are dying but the new ways are not fully accepted either and the legacy of the past lives on. While it was a somewhat interesting read, I was never really captivated by the tale. I’m sure there are lots of layers and subtle hidden meanings, but with little knowledge of Mozambique and its history I probably lacked the referents to make sense of them. As such, much of this literary tale probably passed me by.

No comments: