In times of war, particularly a brutal and lengthy civil war, along with the soldiers it is the artists and intellectuals who become chewed up, their strength, passion and creativity given not to their chosen field but to the war itself, that terrible, grinding machinery that spews out blood, bone, and leaves only despair. Angolan author JosÃ?Â© Eduardo Agualusa's excellent novel, Rainy Season, follows the parallel story of the poet LÃ?Âdia do Carmo Ferreira and the lengthy and violent Angolan civil war following its declaration of independence from Portugal.
The civil war, which began almost immediately after Angola achieved independence in 1975, continued until 2002, and has left the country in crisis, the economic and social horrors of which it is still dealing with today. It forms the violent centre of the novel, though Agualusa's epic begins calmly enough with the birth of LÃ?Âdia, in 1928, in a Ã¢??decrepit and isolated little farm, half hidden between two big green hills,Ã¢?? in Chela. Over the next hundred or so pages we follow LÃ?Âdia's intellectual growth in Luanda, the capital of Angola, and to the rebellious salons of comfortable Europe. She returns to Angola and begins to publish books of poetry, as well as essays and articles. Then, in 1992, she disappears just as the civil war takes its most violent turn, and the country, already ravaged, falls further into chaos, violence and misery.
JosÃ?Â© Eduardo Agualusa, however, has not created a straight-forward, linear war novel. No, Rainy Season is greater than that, though its style adds to the confusion of both LÃ?Âdia's disappearance and the all-encroaching civil war. Encroaching, that is, on the lives, the homes, the fields, the farms, the futures of the Angolans, and, finally, the novel itself. Rainy Season is comprised of nine parts, the first titled 'The Beginning' and the last, 'The End', and within each part we find snippets of LÃ?Âdia's writing, there are samples from interviews she has given, but also the nameless narrator's reporter-like examination of the civil war and his search for the vanished poet. As the novel progresses, these sections, which skip about in time and space, fill in the historical and cultural gaps of Angola from the 1970s up until the mid-1990s, showing the unfortunate collapse of idealism, and the sad consequences of rival militant factions achieving their one shared goal.
Independence came hard to Angola, a country that first had to extricate it from the brutal grip of Portuguese dictator AntÃ?Â³nio de Oliveira Salazar, and then from the meddling tentacles of Soviet, US and Cuban foreign policy. Finally independent, though hardly free, the rival militant factions for Angolan independence lost their common enemy and fell to fighting one another. The intellectuals and artists, in Agualusa's novel, are represented by LÃ?Âdia most prominently (she disappears, along with many of the other artists, who are killed, tortured, or otherwise put out of action, in the early 90s, when the violence in Angola precluded any form of real artistic expression within the country's borders), but also by an assortment of characters who have their own brief sections alongside LÃ?Âdia's and the narrator's. Agualusa handles the shift from the halcyon days of freedom to the vicious, awful years of terror and torture well, with the best example of what is beautiful turning to what is not coming from a section in the middle: Ã¢??Blind airplanes bombarded the forests of the North for almost six weeks. In his desperate flight to Zaire, Tiago de Santiago da RessureiÃ?Â§Ã?Â£o AndrÃ?Â© saw the villages devastated by the fury of the Portuguese, the rivers and forests devoured by napalm fire. Close to Nova Caipemba, he told me, they found a wood made entirely of unvarying ash, and within it a few huts also of ash, and inside the huts, mats and water jars; and a variety of utensils, all of ash. Fixed to the smallest branches of the trees were hundreds of little birds, also of dead ash, with their happy songs of rain crystallised at the tips of their beaks. The bombs of the Portuguese had frozen the passage of time over the wood, enclosing that anxious instant in a bell-jar of ashes. When a moment Ã¢?? a moment that everyone felt was never ending Ã¢?? had passed, someone raised his arm and with the tips of his fingers touched the fragile ash structure. Then the whole wood began to collapse, with a slow whisper of light rain, and with it the birds and the huts and the domestic utensils, and soon there was nothing around them but a broad plain of unchanging ash.Ã¢??
Rainy Season does not require familiarity with Angolan history, but it would be remiss to mention that any knowledge at all would of course help. There are many historical events, many names and abbreviations, and also casually referenced cultural and domestic items and expressions that are Angola-specific, and these, while not exactly halting the flow of the novel, make some aspects of it less transparent than strictly necessarily. Happily Daniel Hahn, as well as displaying excellent qualities as a translator, has included a (somewhat too-) brief glossary that helps with some of the trickier acronyms and situations.
Speaking of Hahn, included at the back of the book is a sixty-or-so page blog diary detailing the ups and downs of the translation process. The blog is fascinating, and provides both an interesting insight to the difficulties of translation (Hahn is free and candid about words that gave him grief, or sentences which proved particularly tricky Ã¢?? even going so far as to regularly call out for email assistance), but also an increased level of information into the history and customs of Angola. I'd almost go so far as to say that Hahn's blog should be read before reading Agualusa's novel, if only because it helps to place the important pieces firmly within the reader's mind, without spoiling any of the surprises along the way (not in any meaningful sense, anyway). Hahn is quick to point out in his introduction to the appendix that, Ã¢??Because it was (as blogs are) originally intended to be read at the pace at which it was written, a post at a time, there will be the occasional repetition, and little infelicities of other kinds...but it has nonetheless been left just as it appeared online, undoctored, to give you an honest sense of precisely how the transaction process worked, and how the blog itself worked, too.Ã¢?? This gives the impression that the blog is something of a hodge-podge, but it really isn't Ã¢?? there is a lot of great material, and the idea is so appealing and effective that I would welcome its increase in other novels, too.
Rainy Season becomes exceptionally violent, and though the tone remains casual throughout, the sheer depth and breadth of viciousness is unsettling. So we have calm, matter-of-fact declarations such as: Ã¢??I'd heard of him: Lobo d'Ã??frica Ã¢?? the Wolf of Africa. In the seventies he had ordered a massacre in Cassange. He'd buried alive a group of countryfolk, men, women and children, leaving just their heads showing, and then decapitated them all with a bulldozer.Ã¢?? The inclusion of Lobo d'Ã??frica in the part titled Ã¢??The FuryÃ¢?? marks a significant point in the narrative. From here, the intellectuals and rebels are captured, tortured, beaten, and sometimes (but not often enough) killed. The fate of some of the characters is simply horrific, with one of them having his eyes ripped out of his skull, and his nose and ears torn from his face. The narrator can only ask the poor man, Ã¢??Why didn't they kill you?Ã¢??
Violence and literature comes together, and stays together, in a manner familiar to readers of Chilean author Roberto BolaÃ?Â±o. Though of course not the same, the two authors share, in this novel at least, a certain sense that the personality of a nation comes from its most terrible acts and its greatest literary achievements. We shall leave this review with an Angolan achievement of sorts, an extract from a poem by LÃ?Âdia do Carmo Ferreira which appears late in the text:
Ã¢??'Coming back from the Fire, returning, / little by little / and as in fragments / first the torso / the head, then the fingers / that feel out the air / in turn. / In panic / Then the hair, my lovely hair / of my youth / Returning from the Fire and for moments / lucid / such short moments. And returning to the Fire.'Ã¢??show more