Mia Couto

“And listening to Tuahir’s dreams, with the noises of war in the background, he begins to think: they should invent a gentle, more affable gunpowder, capable of exploding men without killing them. An inverse powder, which would generate more life. And out of one exploded man, the infinity of men within him would be born.”
Mia Couto, Sleepwalking Land


  1. I really appreciated this quote, for a variety of reasons, and it’s been following me around all week. Taken out of context, it makes me think of Whitman, perhaps because Whitman, in much of his work, expressed the vastness of the Universe inside himself and all of us. In a way, writers who successfully communicate this concept are that very inverse gunpowder: their expression of it explodes our perceptions of ourselves as discreet entities, opening us up to the mystery of the infinite within.

    The most obvious Whitman quote is perhaps:
    “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

    But his work’s rife with it. Pardon me, while I go on for a second. The problem is, there’s so much of it, how can you pick?:

    “I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
    Seeing hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

    Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
    The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
    This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.”

    I won’t finish quoting the stanza, but if I could I would. It’s 24 of Song of Myself, should you care to look it up.


    1. Oh, and I also meant to say: how devastating such gunpowder would be to the cause of war, because how many could see infinity within themselves and continue to take up weapons against others?

      Of course, again, I don’t know the context of the rest of the story.

      OK, I”m really going away now.

      1. Glad you liked it! But yeah, I guess I ought to have given a bit of context.

        Mia Couto is a contemporary author from Mozambique writing in Portugese. Sleepwalking Land only made it into English translation in 2006, but was originally published in 1992, as Mozambique was nearing the end of a devastating, years-long civil war. This quote is representative of Couto’s prose–fluid and abstract, rich with juxtapositions of the vibrant and destructive, the parallel evolution of internal and external landscape. He is definitely a magic realist, closer stylistically to Miguel Angel Asturias (the Guatemalan Nobel Prize-winner who coined the term for my favoritest genre that is not a genre) than any other writer I’ve encountered. I got this book on loan from Gavin Grant, who is great for just that kind of thing. I have to remember to thank him.

        I guess what grabbed me about this particular quote is the conflation of destruction with generation, which just happens to fit perfectly with the theme of a story I’m working on called “Maryann Saves the World”. The character Tuahir, mentioned in the quote, is an emaciated, flighty old pragmatist who is somehow unwilling to leave Mozambique in spite of (perhaps because of) the half-conscious nightmare it has become. The main character, a boy named Muidinga, is realizing for the first time that his protector, Tuahir, survives here only because he possesses an internal landscape entirely separate from the physical world. Which I think is a state of mind Whitman became intimately familiar with during his experiences in the field hospitals of the US civil war.

        1. Oh, it was fine that it didn’t have a context, I wasn’t complaining. 🙂 It was just that I wanted to be clear that I was reacting to the quote from my own experience, which was the only way I could react to it without knowing much more of the rest. Thanks for filling me in, though.

          The destruction/generation theme is very potent.

          Also, your comment about the internal landscape makes me think of “Pan’s Labyrinth” which I haven’t seen yet, but which I’ve heard is amazing, and which I’ve also heard is about inner worlds and outer conflicts. It is perhaps true about Whitman, as well. The fascinating thing about Whitman is that his inner landscape was infinite, and in reading some of his poetry, you can feel that infinity in your own self as well.

          Last night, I read “Thanks in Old Age” and found it very intimate, so I wish to quote it at you, even though it isn’t really relevant to my point:
          “Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
          For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air–for life, mere life,
          The precious ever-lingering memories, (of you my mother dear—you, father–you brothers, sisters, friends,)
          For all my days–not those of peace alone–the days of war the same,
          For gentle words, caresses, gifts from foreign lands,
          For shelter, wine and meat–for sweet appreciation,
          (You distant, dim unknown–or young or old–countless, unspecified, readers belov’d,
          We never met, and ne’er shall meet–and yet our souls embrace, long, close and long;)…

          Anyhow, I enjoy the magic realist things I have read (admittedly few if you are only counting what’s labelled so: Borges, Isabel Allende, some short stories, Kalpa Imperial, and an interesting South African novel called The Long Silence of Mario Salviati) in much the same way as I enjoy Whitman. I’d have to think more about that to explain why that might be so, since they are like and unlike–but I believe it has to do with the expansion of consciousness beyond, er, the fields we know. I could continue down this road, but maybe another time, since this comment has really meandered along. 😛

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