An old man and a boy trek through a desolate and war-torn African landscape. Seeking shelter in a burnt-out bus, they find a corpse and, nearby, a set of notebooks. At night, around their lonely campfire, the boy reads the diary to the old man and the life revealed in their pages becomes intertwined with their own precarious existence.
What light does the diary shed on the past of the dead man and how he came to such an end? And what of the old man and the boy; how did they become dispossessed wanderers in a dangerous land and, crucially, what is to become of them in the future?
These are the bare bones of Sleepwalking Land, which was Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s first novel, originally published in 1992, at the height of the conflict that ravaged his country. It was chosen by an international panel as one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century. Reading this excellent new translation, one can see why: the story is spare and achingly universal. It draws on a timeless tradition of oral storytelling while firmly rooting itself in the terrible reality of life in a war zone.
Mia Couto’s more recent novels, Under the Frangipani and The Last Flight of the Flamingo have extended and deepened his meticulous examination of his country’s heartbreaking history. In Sleepwalking Land, we see a writer of extraordinary talent beginning to construct, from the rubble and the carnage, an alternative narrative of his country.Peter Whittaker