Translator: Luis R. Mitras
Publishers: Heinmann (African Writers Series)
Year of First Publication: 1995 (in Portuguese); 2002 (in English)
For the Africa Reading Challenge
Buildings are coming down in Kinaxixi Square in Luanda. People and property are thrown out and the building just dissolves, the cement turning into powder. And this is happening to buildings within a certain path - the phenomenon has been christened 'Luanda Syndrome' and no one seems to know the cause. Tourists, scientists and criminal investigators are always around to collect samples for testing. Yet, the results yield nothing. However, a small girl named Cassandra alone hears the songs of the Water Spirit. As more of the buildings come down, throwing people and property into safety, the Water Spirit's songs become no more mournful but victorious. Is the Water Spirit the cause of the falling houses, granted that the lagoon in the city had been blocked and built over? So Carmina's husband, Joao Evangelista, thinks. But Carmina, a member of the Youth wing of the communist Party in power, attributes the falling buildings to sabotage and even to the Americans testing a new technology.
The story is told on the backdrop of a country that was gradually changing over from communism to a market economy in the midst of war. As a result everybody is trying to take advantage of this change to better themselves leading to massive class struggle and the creation of dual economies. Some succeeded others did not.
Thousands of homeless children loitered in the streets, thousands of youth sold and resold things to those that drove past in their cars, countless numbers of war amputees begged for alms at the market. At the same time, important people had luxury cars with smoked glass. No one ever saw their faces. (Page 84)
Party members are stealing state property to enrich themselves, civil and public servants are stealing from their workplace with the poorly corrupt getting arrested, others are forming political parties only to receive subsidies from the government. Corruption has become the order of the day and those who are poor in it found trouble
'How's a minor clerk like me going to find an extra source of income? If I had a company car, I'd use it as a taxi. [...] If I was in a government department, I'd ask for a fee to issue a particular certificate or testimonial. [...] (Page 77)
The poor are so poor that even when they steal they are poor at it - they get caught in no time. (Page 78)
For those whose buildings have fallen in a country with housing shortages and a war that has amplified all domestic problems, the only way to make the government listen is to walk nude. Soon the nudeness infected all the struggling masses so that a movement ensued which vowed to denude any clothed person - sharing their poverty with the rich.
'...In no time we'll be millions and no one fights against millions. Then, yes, that will be the moment to impose social equality by force, that is, to tear off the clothes of the rich.' (Page 96)
Carmina is also faced with a choice: follow the direction of change or lose out. She is a hard-working, strong and opinionated woman married to a man brought up in a missionary school and home with a long-line of church ministers in his family. The relationship between the two is dull with Joao Evangelista heading nowhere with his life except with the games he plays daily on the computer Carmina gave him as a wedding present. He is excessively obsequious, full of thought but empty of action. And it is from his perspective, or point of view, that the story is told.
Both the locals and foreign nationals turn the misfortune of the falling houses into a money-making venture and a spectacle to behold, respectively.
A charter plane full of German tourists then arrived, immediately followed by one with South Africans, then one with Japanese, and then, surprising as it sounds, with Finns. (Page 67)
'I was still trying to sell the old set with the third building when it fell [...] I'm preparing a new set. They're doing it all over town. It's a way of making money. It's a pity there are so few buildings left. That'll be the end of business.' (Page 80)
In this novel, Pepetela has brought together two separate stories: the Water Spirit and Economic Struggle. We learn of how corruption begins, how it's fed and how it grows into proportions that make it almost impossible to control. We also read of how war turns the minutest of problems into a huge one difficult to solve. My only problem is that the merging of the Water Spirit and the struggling going on did not seem to gel well. I wanted to know if people would realise that it was the Water Spirit that was causing all the buildings to fall and suppurating water from the ground where no pipes have burst or no source of water was. However, overall, this is a novel one could read and love.
ImageNations Rating: 4.5 out of 6.0
Brief Bio: Pepetela is the nom de plume of Angolan author Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana born in 1941. He is a political activist, sociologist, writer and teacher and was a guerrilla, a representative of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). He also studied Engineering in Portugal. His works include Mayombe (1980), The Generation of Utopia (1992) and Parable of the Old Tortoise (1987). He has about twenty literary works to his name, the most recent being The near End of the World (2008) and O Planalto e a Estepe (2009). He is the youngest author to receive the Camoes Prize, the highest decorations of Portuguese Literature, in 1997.