Saturday, 19 June 2010

Teolinda Gersão, The Word Tree

The Word Tree, by Teolinda Gersão: a novel of colonial Mozambique.*

Last month saw the launch, in English translation, of Portuguese writer Teolinda Gersão’s novel, A Árvore das Palavras, first published in Lisbon in 1996. 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?”


* Publsihed in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine), 10 April, 2010.

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