Neustadt Prize Winner Mia Couto’s “Serpent’s Embrace”

2014 Neustadt Prize Winner Mia Couto

The latest winner of the Neustadt Prize, Mozambican writer Mia Couto, stands as one of the preeminent writers working in Portuguese today. Couto, 58, counts poems, short stories, novels, and essays among his output of 25 books. The Neustadt honor comes on the heels of the 2013 Prêmio Camões, awarded to Couto in May. Much as the Neustadt is often called the “American Nobel,” the Camões is likewise nicknamed the Portuguese-language Nobel.

Though he is often characterized as a magic realist in Anglophone circles, the title makes Couto uncomfortable. At the PEN World Voices Festival in May 2013, the writer suggested the term has much more to do with marketing than with literature.

Couto’s literature is closely intertwined with the history of his country—Couto was even one of the authors of Mozambique’s national anthem following independence from Portugal in the mid-1970s. His writing might best be viewed as part of a national project that aims to accomplish for Mozambique what Brazil has constructed since its independence from Portugal in the nineteenth century: a language that represents not the impositions of colonial rule, but a linguistic inheritance reconfigured into a mode of communication truly Mozambican. A formidable task: when Mozambique gained independence, a mere twenty percent of the population spoke Portuguese (a number which has since doubled), while Mozambicans continue to speak over 20 other languages. And therein lies part of Couto’s genius: he infuses into his prose the country’s oral tradition. The result is an idiom unique to Couto, one that borrows generously from the diverse languages and cultures of his country.

To translate Couto, one must employ all the tools in one’s box. This goes beyond mere reproduction of his neologisms; it means preserving the rhythm and musicality–the poetry–of the work. It is not insignificant that his first published work was a collection of poems, for the author describes his work as poetry in prose.

The story that follows–“Serpent’s Embrace”–is from the collection Estórias Abensonhadas (loosely, Benedreamted Stories), an important marker in post-colonial Mozambican literature. These stories were written after Mozambique’s war for independence from Portugal ended in 1975, but the collection was unpublished until after the end of the country’s bloody civil war in 1992. As the author notes, “After the war, I thought, there remained only ashes… Everything full of weight, definitive and without repair.” This story and its companions, Couto goes on, speak of a place of remaking and of “this territory where every man is the same, in this way: pretending he’s here, dreaming of going away, and plotting his return.”



“Serpent’s Embrace”

The news on the radio spoke of the imprecise death of Acubar Aboobacar, found in a state of total demise in the vast chair in his living room. And so it went: by the looks of the early departed, it’s suspected the cause of death was a snake bite. However, neither the animal nor signs of its fangs were found on the body of the deceased. The victim’s wife told the Radio that Aboobacar had of late exhibited strange behavior and directed frequent threats her way. He suspected, without basis, conjugal infidelity.

Here follows a compiled version of the facts and characters, irrepeatably always different, like the river into which no man ever steps even once.

Mintoninho left the house running through fields of green, full-blown ranges of grass. He was going to fetch his father, Acubar Aboobacar. The boy didn’t want his mother, a merchant at the bazaar, to come home and not find her husband . The kid had tired of the household fights that, with each of his father’s benders, were always recomplicated.

On that afternoon, Mintoninho, quick afoot, hoped to prevent misfortune. When he stepped into the street, though, he stopped short. On the ground, arrogant, a blue beret displayed itself, one of those. Could it have fallen from the United Nations cars? Could it be from these soldiers exercising the exclusive profession of Peace, and who give the world more news than tranquility? For a few moments, Mintoninho hesitated: could he master the find, since there was no one else witness? He stood twirling the beret in his indecisive fingers, between imaginings of sincere uses and abuses. Then, he decided: he would deliver the hat, later on, over at the barracks of the Blue Berets. For now, he would just find a place for it at home.

He turned back to leave the sky-blue beret in peaceful repose in the cabinet near the entrance. At the next, he reloosed his legs upon the road. But he didn’t even need to make it to the bar. His father was already making his return, staggerlining up the sidewalk, a walking beer sponge. Looking at that figure, the boy longed for the father he’d had before the war. As if he’d been an orphan and the man who was drawing near were a mere stepfather, passing and passerby.

The two of them, father and son, greeted each other in separate silences and walked along as if there weren’t a house in this world to call their own. And it happened right there at the entrance: from the top of the cabinet the blue beret seized the man’s fears.

Who is this?

Acubar Aboobacar didn’t even fit in the universes. His vast surprise overran, unhinged, all his nerves. The man disbelieved himself. Could the woman, his certified wife, have chosen other flavors among the uniformed foreigners, witnesses to this transition from the tragedy of war to the misery of peace? To ask is shame, to doubt is weakness. The affair demanded undelayable mannishness, ingenuities and sureties. Without the light of doubt, hate grows stronger. At grief’s edge, suspicion took on the measure of fact. Mintoninho still tried to explain to his father the reasons for the beret. But he hadn’t even occasion. His father laid down orders: the boy was to be gone, immediate as the shooting star. Was to be off to the veranda, as the airs were growing thin in that place.

Acubar Aboobacar remained seated, waiting for his wife, vinegrated by the beret in his lap. The bitterness of jealousy grew throughout all his body like yeast left in the oven. But it was as if its visit were well known to him, that other self, he who, before the war, would never have managed to lose Sulima. Does jealousy grant man his feminine stature?

And Acubar, sitting down and to the floor, waited, more than for his wife, for the arrival of terrible presages. Death always finds a place to fall upon us. Beret on lap, he took relief in slumber. And so sleeping, secrets were divulged to him. Images came to him of a large snake, bedecked in human vestures. It donned a capulana the baby blue color of the Nations, and a kerchief on its head. With slow skillfulness, the animal drew closer to him and tickled him all over with its forked tongue. The snake is bilingual to show that every animal conceals always a second creature. And the ophidian crept between his legs, slithered round his waist and cat-footed confusedly across his chest. When it arrived at his neck, Acubar heard her eyes: they were those of Sulima–nothing less, nothing more. They were terrestrial, dusty, bare eyes.  They fixed upon him as opium gazes at the lung. Then, the snake spoke:

So it shall be, locked within one another, so it shall be that we‘ll live from now on.

Acubar felt the air being exiled from his chest. Closed like a paragraph, he even thought to cry out, call for help. But then came the recollection, in reminiscience. The converse of life is not death, but another dimension of existence. The serpent, it’s said, was born alongside the human soul. That’s right, the snake is made of mistakes, just like woman. The fangs of one are in the mouth of the other. Sulima was there, extending an invitation for her to crawl inside him.

Each man has his passions eviscerating his insides. I’ll enter into you that we might never have to say goodbye, flesh into flesh.

Acubar opened his mouth, mandibularly. Be it for the serpent’s appeal, be it for the asphyxia that began to grip him. He woke, transpired, transpallid. He’d always said: when I die, it will only be to create longing in those absent. And now, as he felt himself faint away, he called for his son, the most present of those absent. Son, I’m beginning to unlive. I suffer from a coldness come from my insides. Seems there’s a creature lizarding about my belly, mis-stirring up my bloods, I don’t even know if I dreamed it, if it’s a thing that’s really happening. Mintoninho took care to cover him. The father refused:

Leave it. The beer is my sheet.

Then, the child watched his father transiting from dermis to epidermis, some green-greenish scales appearing visible. It looked as though another being, monstriform, stole his old man’s figure. Even his voice was unrecognizable:

I don’t have myself any longer, son. It was the snake that killed me.

Snake? Where?

—It bit me from inside. It entered here.

The boy, at first, believed this to be drunken show. But, then, in the face of his father’s new appearances, he became worried. He wanted to go for help. But a paternal arm stopped him.

Leave it, son: a mouth wound is cured with one’s own saliva. And it’s of life I’m curing myself, of this life I didn’t know how to enjoy as one should.

They say at that instant he expired, so tiny and shrunken that the son grasped him for the first time in a full embrace. The mother found the two of them so statued in remembrance. Strange was how she, barely understood the sight, removed in hurried gesture the blue beret from her husband’s lap. Then, she folded it stealthily into her purse. They say.


Mia Couto was born in Beira, Mozambique in 1955. His novels and short story collections have been published in 20 languages. Two of his novels have been made into feature films and his books have been bestsellers in Africa, Europe and South America. In 2002, a committee of African literary critics named his novel Sleepwalking Land one of the twelve best African books of the twentieth century. His novels have been awarded major literary prizes in Mozambique, Portugal,  Brazil and Italy. Mia Couto lives with his family in Maputo, Mozambique, where he works as an environmental consultant and a theatre director.

Eric M. B. Becker is a writer, translator, and award-winning journalist from St. Paul, Minn. His translation interests include contemporary writers from Brazil and Lusophone Africa, and the Brazilian modernists. His work most recently appeared in Frankfurt Book Fair commemorative edition of Machado de Assis Magazine, a publication of the National Library of Brazil. He lives in New York.