Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani is a thin book. But condensed in its little more than 150 pages is an impressive narrative of a revolution betrayed as centered on the investigation of the death of Excellency Vatsome, Mozambique revolutionary war veteran turned sanatorium director and secret arms dealer.
Lurking everywhere in Under the Frangipani are the shadows of the Mozambique war of national liberation against Portuguese repression and its traumatic realities.
A genuine revolution is supposed to be waged for the people. It seeks to institute radical social changes to empower the greater majority of peasants and workers. But what if it fails to pursue its original aims after completing the seizure of power from the oppressors?
The question of what happens to guerrilla leaders who lose their ideological bearings is one of the dilemmas described in Couto’s novel. After all, the danger of mobilizing for war but without the adequate political and ideological education tends to breed a one-sided military mentality that fails to consider the political equation.
And all the worse if the struggle for national liberation takes the capitalist road after overthrowing the yoke of colonialism instead of pursuing a socialist perspective.
“Vatsome felt betrayed. He had given the best years of his life to the revolution. What was there left of that utopia?” With the idealism and enthusiasm of the revolutionary experience gone and without a thorough program for social transformation being undertaken, all that is left for Vatsome is money-making, power lust, and cynicism.
But we know all of this only by the end of the novel. Steeped in African oral tradition and deploying that folksy storytelling style familiar to all cultures, the novel is in the main about the life of Vatsome Excellency and his murder as uncovered by the investigation conducted by a police detective.
No ordinary detective spiel, the narrative is seen from a different vantage point. This point of view is that of the spirit of the dead man Ermelindo Mucanga, a martyr of the revolutionary war residing Under the Frangipani, who decides to reside in the body of the police investigator who examines the case of Vatsome’s murder.
Under the frangipani in the terrace of the former Portuguese tradepost is where the dead soul of the narrator resided. This is where we get glimpses of the soul’s past life intruding into the narrative of the present. This colonial fort turned jail for Mozambique revolutionaries turned sanotarium for the elderly after the war and of which Vatsome is director is the setting of the novel.
Of course, the spirit of Ermelindo Mucanga knows ahead that the investigator of Vatsome’s death will also die after six days. However, we learn of the details according to this marked man’s own pace.
Interspersed in the narrative are chapters that unravel the tales of the confessors, residents of the sanotarium who all claim that they killed Excellency Vatsome:
The first, Navaia, an old man-child claimed that he killed Vatsome with a knife because the director physically abused the old men performing a traditional ritual in the refuge.
The second, the old Portuguese expatriate Domingos Mourao, confessed to felling a large stone on Vatsome because the director allegedly abused his own wife Ernestina.
The third, Old Gaffer, said that he smashed Excellency’s face on the stonework and smothered him with a blanket because the director hurt the refuge’s nurse Marta.
The fourth, the “witch” Little Miss No, declared that she was the one who poisoned Excellency after the director hit her breast and raped her.
But it is in the letter of Excellency’s wife Ernestina that we actually begin to understand the seemingly senseless violence imposed by Excellency upon the old residents of the refuge, a brutality that arouses their hate and thirst for revenge:
“I was told that Vatsome showed no mercy on the field of battle, behaving just like the enemy he called devils. I listened to reports of massacres as if they had taken place in an another world.”
The testimony of the nurse Marta who at the beginning of this mystery seemed uncooperative to the investigator also sheds light to this question:
“The culprit you seek, my dear Izidine, isn’t a person. It’s war. The war’s to blame for everything. The war killed Vatsome… War creates another cycle of time. Our lives are no longer measured by years or seasons. Or by harvests, famine or floods. War establishes the cycle of flood… War swallows up the dead and devours its survivors.”
The novel clearly succeeds in subverting the conventions of the mystery genre. But like any other mystery, everything is still revealed in the end.
Nevertheless, this heavily textured novel requires effort to untangle all its threads and nuances. Under the Frangipani‘s deceptively small number of pages conceal a complexity that draws on Mozambique’s mystical world alongside its historical experience of colonization, poverty, and war. A must read.