By Sofia Jesus
“One day, God will come to apologise to us,” Silvestre Vitalício used to tell his children in Jesusalém.
Jesusalém (a word that would mean something like “Jesus over there,” in English) is the name of an amazing novel by Mozambican writer Mia Couto. It tells the story of a family shut off from the world and its (re)discovery of life on the other side (do Lado-De-Lá) — the world they had left behind.
Silvestre Vitalício could not deal with the death of his wife, Dordalma. So, he took his too sons, Ntunzi and his younger brother Mwanito — together with his loyal helper, Zacaria Kalash, and with the help of his brother-in-law, Tio Aproximado — and ran away from the city to go live in a remote place, with no contact from the outside world. He told his children that the world had died, that they were the sole survivors; and he called their new home Jesusalém.
Mwanito, the narrator, was so little when his father took them away from the city — the world — that he has no memories of it — or his mother. He is also “the tuner of silences” — there is not only one silence, he tells us, “and every silence is music in a state of pregnancy”.
In Jesusalém, books had been banned — as prayers and tears had. Ntunzi secretly encouraged Mwanito to learn how to read — his first diary was secretly written in a deck of cards — and how to pray — so that he could dream at night.
In Jesusalém, women were also banned and unspeakable of — and, hence, naturally omnipresent…
Roads or anything resembling a trail were regularly erased from the ground, in Jesusalém. “I never saw a road that was not sad,” Silvestre Vitalício justified. “Waiting. That’s what the road brings. And waiting is what makes us get old.”
But one day, a mysterious visitor arrives. And the destiny of these five characters, stranded in the middle of nowhere, starts changing. And so do we, readers following the magic and the poetry in Mia Couto’s prose.
The novel, first published in 2009, is so wonderfully written that, although the story grabs you and pulls you, page after page — to solve the mystery around Silvestre Vitalício’s radical decision to live in absolute reclusion with less than a handful of people — you end up having to stop here and there to delight, for a few more seconds, in some of Mia Couto’s expressions. As his prose is as crystalline and sweeping as the river in Jesusalém in which Mwanito would dive into to take a look at the other side.
Jesusalém, a story of love and friendship, faith and redemption, makes us reflect deeply on human condition and on the power of memories. And it made me think how sometimes we need to forget in order to learn — or perhaps to go a little crazy to stay sane. The book, to me, is an ode to life; and to what makes it so worth being hooked here — over there, on the other side.
Editorial Caminho, 2009