José Luandino Vieira

Luandino Vieira photo

 

José Luandino Vieira is a central figure in the establishment of a distinctively Angolan literary movement. Born in Portugal in 1935, he grew up in Luanda, where his family lived in the poor suburbs, the musseques, in which so many of his short stories and novels are set. Politically engaged in the anti-colonial struggle, he spent most of the period from 1959 until the 1974 Portuguese revolution under various forms of imprisonment and house arrest, and wrote most of his books in prison.

Following Angolan independence, he played a leading role in the left-wing MPLA ruling party and was secretary-general of the Angolan Writers’ Union. He was awarded the Grande Prémio da Novelística by the Portuguese Writers’ Society in 1963 (resulting in the temporary suspension of that society by the Salazar regime), and in 2006 he was awarded, but declined for personal reasons, the Prémio Camões, the most prestigious international award for literature in the Portuguese language. He now lives in Portugal. 

Featured Reading Group Title:

Nosso Musseque (Our Musseque)

nosso musseque cover

Our Musseque is a short novel composed of the inter-connected stories of a group of kids growing up in a Luanda musseque during the 1940’s and 1950’s, as Angola hurtles towards the eruption of its armed struggle against Portuguese colonial rule. It is a world of children who laugh, play, squabble and fight, puzzle at racial taunts and insults, and gradually move towards adolescence, sexual awakening and a greater awareness of political realities around them.

The musseque is itself the boundary between a Europeanised city and its African hinterland, drawing in black, mixed-race and poor white migrants in a tense, frictional space that forms a microcosm of the newly-awakening nation. A sense of loss and nostalgia pervades the novel – loss of childhood innocence, loss of traditional African values and, for some of the characters, the disorientating erosion of the certainties and deference of the colonial system collapsing around them. 

The structure of the novel follows that of African oral story-telling tradition, and we swing almost elliptically backwards and forwards in the narrator’s memory as he weaves his story. Emphasising the orality and cultural fluidity of his themes, Vieira also makes extensive use of Kimbundu and creole words, many of which have been preserved in this English translation.

Written in prison in 1961-62 but not published until over 40 years later, the novel is an ostensibly simple tale, inventively written with a clear undercurrent of social and political critique. To an English-speaking reader, comparisons (at least in terms of period and political themes) with Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country or the works of Nadine Gordimer come to mind, but any similarity is, of course, an approximate one. Vieira’s work is a significant reference point in considering Lusophone African literature in general, and its influence continues to be felt in the works of writers as diverse as Mia Couto and Ondjaki.

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4 Comments

  1. I felt this the least interesting of the three samples on offer here. The voice of the narrative of the story, like a kindly adult telling other children the tale, didn’t engage me after the first few paragraphs.

    The text seems to me to need more work (it is presented as a written text here, which is different from the flexibility and “unfinished” nature of an oral telling): How could the white, blue and green shirts begin to pee? Or a toy become (simply) a hole in the ground? Tears are always over-described and there are (to me) unintentional ambiguities that need sorting out to maintain the flow of what is a generally easy-fluent read.

    A lot of pleasant-enough description, but I’m left with a feeling of inconsequentiality. (Just my opinion, of course.)

    Reply
  2. I found this book interesting – the anecdotes of life in the slum, the musseque, are told well in a pretty straightforward way (once you get used to the local words you don’t know, helped by the glossary). The linked stories give a flavour of life there: family dramas and disputes between families and children, the injustices and prejudices to which both whites and blacks from the slum are subject, and the whole experience of life.

    I’d defend too the metonymy the author uses when he mentions the shirts in the trees (a section Jon Miles comments on above). The first thing people see in the trees is the colourful shirts, but I think it’s pretty clear in context that these are kids:

    Up above the crowds, the flowering acacias were weighed down with
    white, blue and green shirts, fluttering like birds. Then some of them began to
    pee on the people down below. It was chaos. The police shook their batons up at
    the kids, who clung to the branches like cicadas and laughed.

    Look forward to hearing from more readers – here or at the meet-up!

    Reply
  3. Jethro says:

    I’m not going to make the meeting tonight so I’ll have to chip in with my two penneth (or my vinte angolares) here. I’ve enjoyed the rolling narrative style, the tales of confusões and malandragem and the unstated but ever-present politics that lurk behind them, all of which brought Brazil’s Jorge Amado and Paulo Lins to mind.

    So I’ve enjoyed it but I have found it (as with the other Viera book I’ve read, Luuanda), as a non-native Portuguese speaker, a pretty tough read. This is not entirely a bad thing, and I imagine native Portuguese speakers would also have their difficulties and that is part of the point. But it does mean that I often felt frustrated that I was understanding what was happening but missing out on some of the nuances, and I think the nuances are what really elevate Viera’s work. To which end I found reading the translated chapter (a difficult job well done) a more rewarding experience, and would welcome the chance to do more of it.

    Reply
  4. Nice to see that Robin Patterson was able after this group to translate the whole book for Dedalus Books! Here it is:
    http://www.dedalusbooks.com/our-books/book.php?id=00000260

    Reply

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