Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the Angolan Ondjaki is one of those books I picked up for the Speculative Africas project because it sounded like it might be sf. It isn’t. At least not in any straighforward sense. But it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and there is something fantastical about it. And it features the astonishing mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, which I have become mildly obsessed with since seeing photos of it in Kiluanji Kia Henda Icarus 13 installation.
The novel is set sometime in the early 1980s: Reagan is in power in the US; Jackie Chan’s The Big Brawl has reached Angola; and the mausoleum of Angola’s first president is under construction. (In reality, it ground to a halt because Neto’s successor, Jonas Savimbi, was a member of UNITA, backed by South Africa, rather than of Neto’s Soviet- and Cuban-backed MPLA. (There was a third-side in the post-independence civil war, the Mobutu-backed FNLA.) During Savimbi’s thirty year reign, he saw no reason to support its completion, and the possibility of further Soviet financing collapsed with the end of the Cold War. When the MPLA regained power in 2008, they used oil revenue to complete the structure on a much less grand scale than initially planned, and it was inaugurated in 2012, on the ninetieth anniversary of Neto’s birth. (See, I told you, mildly obsessed. Back to the book.))
It starts with an explosion in the sky over polyglot Bishop’s Beach, next to the mausoleum’s constructions site, that
woke up even the birds asleep in the trees and the dozy fish in the sea. Colours came out that had never been seen before: yellow mixed with red pretending to be orange in a bluish green, flares that mimicked the strength of the stars reclining in the sky and a warlike rumble of the kind made by the MiG planes. In the end it was a beautiful explosion that lingered in the noises of the pretty colours that our eyes looked upon and never again forgot. (9)
This is the first of several synaesthetic prefigurations – where colours and sounds get jumbled, as do birds, fish, kites and stars – in the initially episodic account of everyday life in the Bishop Beach. The cast of characters include the young protagonist’s several abuelas (Granma nineteen is not his nineteenth Granma – when Dr Rafael KnockKnock amputates her toe, she is left with nineteen digits and a new nickname); his friends Charlita and 3.14, whose real name, Pinduca, was first shortened to Pi; Comrade Gas Jockey, who faithfully, if lethargically, mans the local petrol station even though there is never any petrol; Sea Foam, who is more mad than wise, but sometimes it seems the other way around; and Soviet Comrade Gudafterov, really called Bilhardov, who is in charge of the blue lobsters, as the children call the Russian troops, and who longs to return to his snowy homeland. All of these characters have stories, and Ondjaki laces his story with glimpses of this much-storied world:
Granma Agnette … sang the music of slow Fado tunes, adapted to put us to sleep, and nobody slept. She told crazy stories about her friend Carmen Fernández who had become pregnant, but had given birth to a huge bag of ants that bit the inside of her stomach. The second time she got pregnant she finally had a baby, but it had the head and wings of a bird and, as the window was open, it flew away and escaped. Granma said that Carmen Fernández was afraid of becoming pregnant a third time, but even then we didn’t fall asleep. Then Granma started with her threats. (26)
When the young protagonist learns that Bishop Beach is going to be demolished, their houses ‘dexploded’, to make way for the elaborate grounds around the base of the mausoleum, he and 3.14 decide their only course of action is to beat the builders to it – they must steal dynamite from the construction site and blow up the mausoleum instead.
This slender narrative is made delightful by comical encounters and episodes; a bittersweet treatment of the civil war, which the children do not quite get; a romance which they do not quite perceive, either; by references to Brazilian soap operas and popular movies; and by a linguistic playfulness in which ‘gangrene’ can be misheard as ‘gangrenades’ and Sea Foam can persuasively argue that the sky is occasionally lit up by ‘fouling stars’:
a phenomena of the skies of the dark universe, the cosmic dust and so on… there are two skies: the blue sky that belongs to our eyes and to the wings of planes and little birds. And then there’s a black sky that’s as big as a desert. … Fouling stars melted in the heat of the sun and that’s why they fall towards planet world. Our planet is the only one that has water where they can cool down again. They’re fouling stars, and one day, after cooling off, I swear, those stars are going to want to return home … We’re still going to see those stars rise up from the earth to way up there, in the skies that sleep far away dressed in bright brightnesses… (12)
Needless to day, it offers an alternative explanation as to why work on the mausoleum stopped in the early eighties. A happier, if not entirely happy, one. And it is appropriate that such poetry surrounds the mausoleum of a president who was once a poet, even if he is not actually buried there.