The curious reader interested in discovering Pepetela in English has very few options: Mayombe (1980), Yaka (1985), The Return of the Water Spirit (1995), and Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent (2001). And the first three are out of print. It doesn’t seem right that one of the best living African writers be so poorly treated and neglected. Pepetela has had a prolific career and accumulated many awards and honours in his lifetime, and in Portuguese-speaking African literature his name is one of the most respected and beloved. We should then take a brief look at his life.
Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos was born in Benguela, in 1941, the offspring of an Angolan-born middle class Portuguese family, and studied in a multiracial school that allowed him to meet people from several ethnicities and social classes. In 1958 he moved to Lisbon, in Portugal, to continue his higher education. Influenced by left-wing ideas from an early age, he enrolled in engineering and literature courses, which he never completed. Angola’s Independence War started in 1961 and in 1963 he joined the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Abandoning Portugal, he established with other nationalists the Centre for Angolan Studies, first in Algeria and then in the Republic of the Congo, where they researched and documented the history of Angola and wrote propaganda for the MPLA. In 1969 he joined the armed struggle, adopting the guerrilla nickname Pepetela, which in the Umbundo language means pestana (eyelash).
When Angola gained independence, in 1975, Pepetela became the Vice-Minister of Education under President Agostinho Neto’s mandate. He stepped down in 1982, by which time José Eduardo dos Santos was president (and as of 2012 still is). In 1975 Pepetela also founded the Angolan Writers Union (UEA) with novelist Luandino Vieira, poet Ruy Duarte de Carvalho and other Angolan men of letters. He currently teaches sociology in the Agostinho Neto University, in Luanda.
Although Pepetela abandoned political office to devote himself to literature, he had been writing since the 1960s. His first novel, Muana Puó, dates from his time writing revolutionary propaganda, but wasn’t published until 1978. In 1972 came out As Aventuras de Ngunga (The Adventures of Ngunga), an ideological novel about a young MPLA soldier. A more mature and sceptical novel based on his guerrilla experiences came out in 1980: Mayombe, named after the vast forest where the MPLA soldiers hid and fought. It was a novel about the fears and aspirations of a small group of soldiers, but it criticised intertribal discrimination within the MPLA’s ranks and the seeds of corruption already growing in its leaders.
Since then Pepetela has been a chronicler of Angolan history and society in his fiction, fiercely critical of the corruption and disillusionment of the post-Independence period, of the failed socialist promises, of the lack of social improvements in Angola, of the widening gap between the rich and poor, of the imperceptible transition from a Soviet dictatorship to a capitalist democracy, and of the civil war that the MPLA and its rival party UNITA waged between 1992 and 2002. It’s with this in mind that we must approach The Return of the Water Spirit.
This short novel juxtaposes two stories: the life of Carmina, an energetic MPLA party member; and the collapse of buildings in the Kinaxixi Square, which, we later find out, are caused by the water spirit Kianda.
The novel doesn’t have a clear timeline, but anyone reasonably familiar with Angola’s history can tell that the action takes place between the dying years of the Soviet Union and the early ‘90s. As the novel opens, Carmina is marrying João, a weak-willed man without ambitions who lets his wife boss him around. The MPLA is still implementing its Marxist-Leninist doctrines, and Carmina is an enthusiastic, fanatic member of the Party’s youth wing, with plans to become a deputy. However, as the Soviet Bloc crumbles, Angola is pressured by external forces to adopt democracy and a free market economy. The political class that once proclaimed loyalty to communism immediately adopts capitalism, and the elites, no longer encumbered by ideological pretences to egalitarianism, turn into ruthless businessmen and plunder the state with even more gusto than when they pretended to be communists at the service of the people. Carmina, harbouring hatred against the Empire, and especially the Americans, at first resists the changes but eventually becomes a businesswoman in the import-export area, though it’s mostly import since Angola doesn’t produce anything. She gains a parliamentary seat in the 1992 free elections, but UNITA breaks the cease-fire, civil war resumes, and she makes a fortune selling luxury goods and weapons to the MPLA government in its fight against the rebels.
Through Carmina’s change, Pepetela caustically condemns the whole of the political class, showing that the change of regime and ideology changed nothing: the same elites continue in power, the majority of people continue to live in abject misery, war continues to devastate the country. Angola’s capitalist adventure has been as disastrous as its affair with communism, save for a fragile veneer of democracy. In order to appear impartial, parliament passes a law forbidding deputies from owning companies. “The people only respect the rich and powerful, haven’t they realised that yet?” Carmina asks, mad at the hypocrisy of a free market society trying to prevent politicians from engaging in private initiative and entrepreneurism. What could possibly be wrong about that? João takes a more placid view of things: they’ll just put front men in charge of the companies. “It’s what they do in democratic countries,” he explains.
The lazy João spends most of his time playing videogames, especially one reminiscent of the classic Age of Empires. Employed at a bankrupt state company, he only shows up once in a week. Addicted to a videogame that allows him to reshape history and conquer the world, he remains indifferent to the deep historical changes his country is suffering and resigned to his powerlessness.
The only glimpse of hope comes from Honório, a member of the ‘naked movement,’ and to explain what the naked movement is, I have to explain the novel’s other story. Buildings are falling in the Kinaxixi Square, but owing to some strange phenomenon people are not injured by the fall. They just float down to the surface. The phenomenon is named the Luanda Syndrome and attracts scientists, foreign and national, as well as tourists because of its strangeness. Pepetela turns Angola into the centre of the world thanks to this phenomenon, which is funny in a dark way considering the war devastating the country at the same time barely attracts any attention from the outside world. Is Pepetela saying that Africa is only newsworthy because of its exoticness?
The Luanda Syndrome leaves dozens of homeless families huddling over the debris of their former houses, ferociously keeping an eye out for their possessions they manage to dig out from under the rubble. NGOs set up a refugee camp in the square, right in the middle of the capital, as fitting a metaphor for Angola as you’re likely to find in a country where the poor are becoming poorer and the new rich can only move around under armed escort. One of the homeless men is Honório, a friend of João. To make things worse, in order to survive on his miserable wage he resorted to taking bribes in his company; he’s discovered and forced to quit in order not to involve the authorities. “You’d be the first person arrested for corruption,” João tells him, fully aware of the crimes his wife and her cronies practice all the time with impunity. Jobless and homeless, Honório joins the grassroots movement of the ‘naked,’ people who protest against social inequities by walking around naked, exhibiting their total level of destitution as an indictment of the ruling class that exploits them.
Amidst this squalid look at Angola’s social problems, one could ask what does the novel have to do with a water spirit called Kianda? Magical realism is not really Pepetela’s style. But if its inclusion in the novel seems forced, we must take into account its symbolism. Kianda lives under Kinaxixi Square, trapped bellow concrete in an area that, before the Europeans turned the island of Luanda into a peninsula connected to the continent, was a lagoon. After centuries trapped, Kianda is freeing herself by toppling the square’s buildings and allowing the repressed lagoon’s waters to flow freely again. At the same time, her creative act of destruction also sets in motion the naked movement, suspicious of Europe’s failed solutions for Africa and generator of Angolan-bred ideas for Angola’s problems. “Creating their own ideas and ways of fighting, not giving a damn about the schemes and formulas of the countries up North?” asks a sceptical João. “Too subversive, destined to failure and mourning.” Maybe, maybe not. It’s also not an accident that it’s a child who can listen to the words of Kianda. But whether children can build a better future is an enigma. The girl, tellingly named Cassandra, asks an old man if Kianda is a mermaid. The old man scolds her for imagining Kianda like that, because the half-woman half-fish imagery is a foreign invention. Is it already too late for Honório’s naked movement to come up with truly indigenous ideas when the new generations are already alienated from their roots? Maybe, maybe not.
The Return of the Water Spirit is a fast-paced satire in the tradition of Voltaire’s Candid. By that I mean the characters are more symbolic than fully-breathing people, and they exist insofar as they represent certain points the writer is making or to demolish some ideas the writer is against. It contains a lot of food for thought but it’s a minor work in Pepetela’s oeuvre. A much better novel that explores similar ground is Predadores (Predators, 2005), a novel about the rise and fall of a common man, Vladimiro Caposso, who becomes one of Angola’s richest men thanks to a mixture of business acumen, ruthlessness, political networking and ability to read the tides of society. Everything that in Carmina is exaggerated and played for laughs, in Vladimiro is well delineated and tragic. In my humble opinion his masterpiece, it’s a more vivid portrayal of Angola’s changes in the last thirty-five years. A day will come when all Pepetela’s books are available in English. Until that day, The Return of the Water Spirit will make for good reading.