Thursday, January 06, 2011

56. The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela

Title: The Return of the Water Spirit
Author: Pepetela
Translator: Luis R. Mitras
Genre: Fiction/Novella
Publishers: Heinmann (African Writers Series)
Pages: 102
Year of First Publication: 1995 (in Portuguese); 2002 (in English)
Country: Angola

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. 


  1. sounds like a great book recently read russian novel about there involment in africa ,this is on my to get list thanks stu

  2. Would wait to read your thoughts, Stu

  3. I see the African challenge is on and I like the focus. I enjoyed your thoughts on this one though. I have a dream to read all books on the African writer's series and this is inclusive. Thanks.

  4. that's a huge target. But what cannot be done with determination?

  5. This sounds so interesting! The aspects of corruption and the social movement and revolution with the nudity sounds well done. It's now on my list :)

  6. @Amy, a book that might interest you. His famous book is Mayombe, I think.

  7. well.. it is a very good novel but i came to realize that towards the ending...the middle and especially the beginning was quite stale.

  8. I agree somewhat. The end is powerful... that's where a lot is said.

  9. I found the wrong book. I was looking for sites discussing Barbara Bisco's NIGHT OF THE WATER SPIRITS. Any ideas?
    Roger the Orang Hutan watcher

    1. Sorry for your mis-find. I wish I could help but this is my first time of hearing of this book and therefore incapable of pointing you to the right direction. Thanks

  10. I just finished reading this wonderful novel. Pepetela is always funny and worth one's time. Carmina is an interesting character, a forerunner of a much more complex character Pepetela wrote in 'Predadores:' a totally ruthless businessman who uses his political connections to become rich.

    The Water Spirit subplot also confused me, at first, especially because magical realism is not Pepetela's thing, more Mia Couto. But I see her mostly as a metaphor of Angola's problem. She represents its roots, buried under concrete by the Europeans. She's also the impulse of the 'naked movement,' constituted of the homeless, which is trying to create solutions using Angolan ideas and not foreign ones.

    Another thing that I think was funny is how the 'Luanda Syndrome' puts Angola in the limelights, attracting scientists, intellectuals and tourists. But the civil war tearing the country apart barely gets any mention. Is Pepetela saying that Africa is only newsworthy in its exoticness?

    For a short novel, I found it full of stuff for thought.

    1. This is an excellent pithy review. Your response have opened up a new understanding for me. Thanks


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