The Sword and the Spear
From the Man Booker International finalist
Mozambique, 1895. The last days of the so-called Gaza Empire. After an attack on his quarters, defeated sergeant Germano de Melo is taken by his bright, young love Imani to the only hospital within reach―an arduous river journey. Meanwhile, war rages all around: Emperor Ngungunyane’s warriors fight the Portuguese occupiers with swords and spears, until the arrival of the machine gun ensures European domination. Germano wants to start a new life with Imani, but her father has other plans: as one of Emperor Ngungunyane’s wives, she would be close enough to this tyrant to avenge the destruction of her village. With poetic beauty, Mia Couto illustrates the futility of war and the fluid borders between cultures, societies, and families.
Mia Couto, born in Beira, Mozambique, in 1955, is one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa … Read more
Book Club Questions
1. In her recurring dream, Imani gives birth to weapons. What could this symbolize? How does it connect to the title of the novel?
2. Nsambe’s decision to give Imani to Ngungunyane is described as follows: “When he tired of being deceitful, all he could muster was the primitive art of revenge.” How does the motif of revenge recur throughout the novel? Who takes revenge on whom? What kind of force is “revenge”?
3. How do both Imani and Gemano relate to their memories of their mothers? What do they gain from their connections to their mothers?
4. What role does language play in identity? How about clothing? What specific instances in the novel – whether with respect to the local ethnic groups or the colonizing ones – support your answer?
5. What sort of role does the Swiss dokotela play in society? What are your thoughts on “missionaries” in general, whether real or fictional?
6. Which characters have a “mixed” or “murky” identity? How do they feel about this? Which characters are clear about who they are? Think of Imani, Rodolfo, Elizabete, Germano, and de Ornelas.
7. In chapter 5, Bibliana leads a mass that combines elements of the Christian faith with the rituals of the local peoples. In what other ways do the practices and beliefs of the European and African cultures collide and blend with each other in this landscape of nineteenth-century Mozambique, as depicted by Mia Couto?
8. What kinds of agency do women have in the worn-torn world of The Sword and the Spear? How do these types of agency relate to race?
9. Do you believe a historical fiction novel to be a good source from which to learn about a particular history? Why or why not?
10. How does Mia Couto’s The Sword and the Spear compare to other novels you may have read about colonial Africa? Are there common motifs? How do they differ?
Praise for Mia Couto
“Mia Couto’s stories of civilisation and barbarity are told through a language that is precise and profound; he weaves together the living tradition of legend, poetry and song.”
INTERNATIONAL MAN BOOKER SHORTLIST JURY
“On almost every page … we sense Couto’s delight in those places where language slips officialdom’s asphyxiating grasp.”
New York Times
“Even in translation, his prose is suffused with striking images.”
“Couto’s narrative tone, at once deadpan and beguiling, and his virtuoso management of time place him alongside the best Latin American magic realists.”
Times Literary Supplement
“Quite unlike anything else I have read from Africa.”
“Mia Couto, long regarded as one of the leading writers in Mozambique, has now been recognized as one of the greatest living writers in the Portuguese language―He cracks open a welcoming window onto a vast world of literary pleasures that has for too long remained under the radar in the English-speaking world.”
PHILIP GRAHAM, author of The Millions
Praise for The Sword and the Spear
“The Sword and the Spear unfolds in a series of letters, mainly between Sgt. Germano de Melo, a reluctant soldier besotted with a young VaChopi girl named Imani, and the careerist Lt. Ayres de Ornelas. Their correspondence is interspersed with the voice of Imani herself, and here is where Couto’s storytelling truly soars (poetically rendered from the Portuguese by Brookshaw) … Couto calls into question the very essence of race and identity, belief and belonging, in Mozambique and beyond.”
New York Times Book Review
“Couto’s protagonists remain consistently fascinating”
“A nuanced study of the power plays and violence sparked by colonialism”
“Literary and psychological symbols abound in The Sword and the Spear, from the Holy Grail to feverish Freudian dreams. Even if readers already know Africa, the novel enlarges worldviews—and Couto does so in lovely (at times witty) poetic prose. His themes are reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (inspired by Jonathan Kwitny’s Endless Enemies) and J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.”
World Literature Today
“With its polyphonic structure and deep affinity with indigenous languages and African worldviews, The Sword and the Spear straddles worlds while translating between them, revealing, as the author once told me, ‘how official history is built from lies, and how it pushes out other stories.’”
MAYA JAGGI, Words Without Borders
“A gripping stand-alone with two complex, sympathetic characters who would sacrifice everything for each other.”
Historical Novel Society
Why You Should Read This Book
“Today, I use history to speak about the present. In Mozambique, history is very elastic: there hasn’t been true peace since independence. This violence has something to do with how the conflicts of the past have been left unresolved. One of these conflicts is the one I write about here, between the Emperor Ngungunyane’s State of Gaza and Mouzinho de Albuquerque’s Portugal. This story is like a tree: it branches out little by little. I had to trim this tree in a way that would help it grow. I also write because I am fascinated by the characters, by the potential that they offer. And everything that I write about is still very much alive in Mozambique.”
MIA COUTO, the author
“In translating The Sword and the Spear, attention had to be paid to the wide variety of voices at play, ranging from that of the sergeant, Germano de Melo, increasingly a pariah of the imperial project, and his vain and pompous superior, Ayres de Ornelas, to the poetic evocations of Imani, on her own journey from mission-educated African girl to a more politically conscious, young woman, and the final emergence of the emperor, Ngungunyane himself, and his mother, the formidable dowager, Impibekezane. Throughout, it was also important to observe the diverse spellings of names and terms, depending on who was speaking, bearing in mind the differences between Portuguese orthographic convention and its Africanized Mozambican variant. These divergences underpin the fact that this is a novel about two worlds in open confrontation but also in varying degrees of fusion. The plethora of such terms in the novel led to the need for a glossary this time round.”
DAVID BROOKSHAW, the translator
“In Couto’s entire oeuvre you can feel a deep connection to his native Mozambique. This enchanting and beautifully written novel focuses on the colonial history of this war-torn country, once the heart of an impressive African empire. With great subtlety, Couto recounts its history from the perspective of both the colonizer and the colonized, in evocative, exquisite, and poetic language.”
JUDITH UYTERLINDE, the publisher