The Drinker of Horizons
A story of love and war in nineteenth-century Africa
During the colonization of the African Kingdom of Gaza, a young local woman Imani and the Portuguese sergeant Germano de Melo share an unexpected love. While Germano is left behind in Africa, serving with the Portuguese military, Imani is enlisted as interpreter to the imprisoned emperor of Gaza, Ngungunyane, on the long voyage to Lisbon. For Ngungunyane and his seven wives, it will be a journey of no return, whereas Imani will come back only after a decade-long odyssey through the Portuguese empire at the turn of the nineteenth century. As Mia Couto depicts the beauty and terror of war and love, and reveals the devastation of a profoundly unequal clash of cultures, he gives a uniquely personal voice to those silenced by the horrors of colonialism.
Mia Couto, born in Beira, Mozambique, in 1955, is one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa … Read more
Book Club Questions
- What feeling does The Drinker of Horizons evoke now that you think back to it? What has stuck with you?
- Who is the protagonist of this epic story? Do you think it an interesting choice?
- What is the meaning of language to Imani? Of Portuguese, of Txitxope?
- Which language is really hers in the end? How did you come to your answer?
- How does Germano de Melo really feel about Imani, do you think? Is it all a game of courtship, self-deception?
- Does Bianca mean Imani well?
- What is the meaning of Emperor Ngungunyane to the people of Gaza? Is it what the emperor himself believes it to be?
- How does competition between European world powers influence Portuguese colonial strategy in this book?
- What do you make of the ending, when the elderly Imani is being interviewed? Is it a comment on historiography?
- How would Imani describe her life, if she had just one sentence rather than a whole novel to convey it?
- Did the images of the historical figures represented in this novel at the end of the book change how you approached or remembered the novel?
- How does it feel to read a novel about great historical events, as compared to looking at “objective” photographs?
- How would you imagine a novelist like Mia Couto goes about writing the story, once he’s done his research? How do you think he approaches the research, for that matter?
- Did you read the first two books of the Sands of the Emperor trilogy (of which The Drinker of Horizons is the final instalment)? If not, are you curious to read about the events leading up to the emperor’s voyage?
Praise for Mia Couto
“Couto’s protagonists remain consistently fascinating”
“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.”
The Washington Post
“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 Drinker of Horizons
“Mia Couto describes how an orientation towards European values is beginning to emerge among the African population, and how critics were already raising their voices in Lisbon during the times of Portuguese colonialism. Couto thus addresses the issues of cultural alienation and racism. This gives the work a contemporary significance.”
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
Praise for Woman of the Ashes
“With its blend of history and mythology, Woman of the Ashes proves an original, occasionally perplexing but always intriguing work of fiction.”
“In Woman of the Ashes, Mia Couto has given us a work that is epic in scale yet maintains a humane focus on the individual tragedies of those caught up in the sweep of history.”
“With riveting prose and thorough research, Couto paints the village as a doomed magical space where blind people can see and sighted people are blind, where dreams about the dead guide the living, where fish fall from the sky and the earth spits up weapons. There is not one dull moment. Although sometimes too enmeshed in fables, this is also where the novel’s strength lies: in completely enchanting us.”
“An exquisite, multi-layered novel.”
The Literary Supplement
“From the myths that swirled around Ngungunyane (and still do), Couto conjures what he has described as the ‘many and small stories’ out of which history is made, offering a profound meditation on war, the fragility of empire, and the ways in which language shapes us.”
The New York Times
“Woman of the Ashes is a beautiful and grotesque force interweaving history with myth. Couto’s prose carries the weight of a creation story in nearly every passage.”
World Literature Today
“In their exploration of myth, dreams, power, and fear, Couto’s books draw from the tradition of storytelling across Africa. In the use he makes of stories—about dreams and superstitions, spiders and stones that talk—Couto has created a work of rare originality and imagination. Read it and remember.”
“Mia Couto has combined brilliant folkloric prose with extensive historical research to write a novel on the colonial history of Mozambique at the end of the nineteenth century. Woman of the Ashes exposes the nature and impact of colonial power in Mozambique. You will learn more from this novel than from several scholarly books on Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique.”
The Washington Book Review
“In this excellent book, Couto feathers history with folklore; while readers with some knowledge of Mozambican history will get the most out of the novel, this is still a fascinating, intricate story.”
“The novel shows the inherent flaws in colonialism, its built-in ignorance, fickle management, and use of privation as a tool to control local people. But Couto also writes on a more subtle level, with Imani’s vivid dreams and memories exposing the nature and impact of power and revealing how Western practices are folkloric too: ‘Europeans write the names of those they have buried on a stone. It’s their way of resuscitating them.’ A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Márquez and Achebe.”
“Couto’s mastery lies in his ability to turn his exploration of this slice of history into a commentary on all of human civilization. Richly translated by Brookshaw in words that suggest more than they say, Couto’s tale evokes a sense of timelessness, especially in the world seen through Imani’s eyes. An intriguing combination of folklore, history, and magic realism, and the first in a trilogy, this is a novel to be read and reread, savored and analyzed.”
“Woman of the Ashes is the sort of novel in which fish fly through the air, the soil bears the footprints of angels, and a bundle of animal pelts hides a deep abyss. The book’s richness stems from its recognition that many forms of conflict rend nations and their people. This is a wise and powerful novel about war and its consequences.”
“A beautifully written and spirited work.”
Run Spot Run
“While Couto treats his characters to a world of blazing specificity, Imani―in Woman of the Ashes―is also a vessel for our more contemporary battles.”
Praise for The Sands of the Emperor trilogy
“Through the tragic story of Emperor Ngungunyane―who was defeated, deported to Lisbon, and died on Azores―Couto recounts the fall of one of the last empires on the continent, along with the shock of the colonial encounter, as seen from both sides. Sublime.”
“The author of The Tuner of Silences and Confession of the Lioness delivers a manifesto of a book, proclaiming its faith in the act of writing and in the strength of women.”
Le Matricule des Anges
“Nothing interests the author more than the everyday life of those who are supposed to be history’s spectators.”
“Mia Couto, a novelist from a country where oral traditions reign, describes his narratives in a concise, powerfully evocative style. He thus creates an impressive text about the incomprehension and fear of ‘the Other.’”
“The Sands of the Emperor is a fascinating work; its narrative has a rare power that offers the reader a flamboyant tableau of the little-known history of an African country that once ruled over its continent.”
“Couto creates, with poetic language, a fiction out of a reality interwoven with legends.”
“My words fall short to express the greatness of this work by Mia Couto, as beautiful as the prose of García Márquez, as indispensable to understand the history of the African continent a little better as are the works of Chinua Achebe.”
Libros y Literatura
“Couto’s literature seems to reinvent the Mozambican tradition, interweaving myths and realities in which African orality and African beliefs play a key role, and which in turn lends perfectly with the European tradition.”
Praise for Rain and Other Stories
“Couto’s stories counter the fear of barrenness, pinpointing kernels of possibility … Becker’s intricate translation uses wonderful almost-words to recreate Couto’s illusory and playful sentences―concoctions precise enough to capture the writing’s mythical, trancelike quality.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Couto has been creating his own utterly original take on African life for decades now, rich and lyrical works immersed in the soil and mindset of rural Mozambique … These literary fragments are dreamy but hopeful responses to Mozambique’s violent past, magical tales that find solace in the wisdom of rivers and trees, fishermen and fortune tellers, children and blind men. An assortment of transcendent sketches, fables, and creation tales, Couto’s stories are rooted yet timeless, both whimsical and deeply spiritual―essential qualities of the work of the masterful Mozambican author.”
“A charming collection―unsettling and uplifting, and filled with the wisdom of folk tales.”
“Stellar―offers fable-like gems capturing lives hurt and heroic, damaging and enduring … At a low point, Blind Estrelinho ‘remained on the side of the road, like a balled-up handkerchief soaked with sadness,’ and such language stuns throughout. A woman deserted by her husband, a problem child rushing to rescue her father―these are some of Couto’s poignant stories. VERDICT―Highly recommended.”
“Wide ranging in theme, mood, and genre … Couto’s descriptions of landscapes and people have the power and mystery of the best style of folklore. The strength of his characters, whether he’s portraying an old math professor exploring love, a cross-dressing neighbor, or a businessman creating a happy communal space as a gift to God‚ is most apparent in how with few words their varied lives become relatable. Becker’s translation conveys Couto’s precise use of language to capture the innately elusive nature of human experience.”
“Encompasses everything from unlikely confessionals to dreamlike forays outside of realism; it’s a concise and wide-ranging demonstration of Couto’s authorial range.”
Words Without Borders
“Stunning imagery draws power from unexpected comparisons … Playful and poignant, Rain and Other Stories cements Couto’s reputation as one of the finest writers in the Portuguese language, and proves Becker’s talent as a discerning and perceptive translator.”
“Conveys a sense of profound loss flecked with a measure of optimism about life after the bloodshed is over. An impressionistic flash-fiction trek through the wreckage of war.”
“Magnificent. The wonder of the collection, indeed its grip on the reader, is that such seemingly disparate tales come together to ultimately present how the land is remade. Nearly each sentence is astonishing in this riveting, challenging collection.”
Winnipeg Free Press
“What’s most successful about this collection are the ways in which Couto repeatedly asks unanswerable questions, piquing reader curiosity. Answers manifest through subtext, and the effect is both chilling and tragic. In this collection, Mia Couto, via Eric M. B. Becker’s aesthetically rich translation, packs an emotional resonance in each story―despite brevity, many only reaching five pages―that lingers with readers long after putting the book down.”
“The roots and spirits of these tales seem to run deep into the very bedrock of the earth. They are uniquely Mozambican and yet timeless. Couto has an uncanny ability to create miniature worlds peopled with wonderful characters, images and happenings―simply enchanting.”
JOSEPH SCHREIBER, Roughghosts
Praise for Confession of the Lioness
“Masterfully wrought … Confession of the Lioness sings with the musical nuance of a poem.”
Los Angeles Times
“Couto’s work doesn’t so much blur the generic and stylistic boundaries we normally draw as explode them―Confession of the Lioness reads as a parable of human savagery and its consequences. It shows how humans might transform, literally and metaphorically, into animals; how violence, once committed, takes on an independent and inexorable life.”
The Boston Globe
“Myths, magic, tradition, and reality intersect to the extent that it becomes difficult to tell them apart―Couto’s magical realism is never too cute, instead leaning toward a dispassionate, documentary portrayal of unlikely interpretations of ugly events.”
The Denver Post
“It’s an old-fashioned tale whose earthy wisdom and shimmering magic will make you want to discover more of Couto’s work.”
“A meditation on the nature of memory―Couto is a brilliant aphorist. There are countless sentences that, in David Brookshaw’s clean-cut translation from the Portuguese, have the weight and wisdom of ancient proverbs.”
The Wall Street Journal
“A rich tale in which the spirit world is made real, animals are controlled by people, and dead ancestors are feared for their power to destroy cities. Couto also manages to explore the clash of disparate belief systems―tribal, Islam, Christian―in postcolonial Africa and deftly weaves in a critique of the embedded patriarchy.”
“Couto weaves a surreal mystery of humanity against nature, men against women, and tradition against modernity.”
“Both a riveting mystery and a poignant examination of women’s oppression, Confession of the Lioness explores the confrontation between the modern world and ancient traditions to produce an atmospheric, gripping novel.”
Portuguese American Journal
Praise for Under the Frangipani
“To read Mia Couto is to encounter a peculiarly African sensibility, a writer of fluid fragmentary narratives.”
“Blending history, death, and a uniquely African flavor of magic realism, Under the Frangipani is a powerful and trenchant evocation of life in a society traumatized by decades of war and poverty.”
“Couto’s tale unfolds on two levels: first, as a mystery story, for the fantastic confessions generate a ‘whodunit’ suspense; more demandingly as a thematic puzzle.”
“Anything but an everyday whodunit―it is a novel which forces the reader to question preconceived notions, to take a second look at assumptions that normally go unnoticed and to try to look at the world with fresh, unspoiled eyes.”
Praise for The Last Flight of the Flamingo
“Mia Couto is a white Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, perhaps the most prominent of his generation of writers. Couto adroitly captures the chaos and comedy of an abrupt and externally imposed shift in ideologies. No one gets off lightly … The narrative shifts nimbly through a range of registers, from supple wordplay to lyricism.”
London Review of Books
“UN officials, the prostitute, the bureaucrat; carriers of ancient lore and modern ideas chat and clash in this gnomic, comic parable of change in Africa, deftly translated by David Brookshaw.”
“The book has fierce vitality. The narrator’s friendship with the hapless investigator Massimo is touching and complex―real eloquence.”
“A wonderful mix of magical realism and wordplay that has a similar tone to Márquez at his best. Couto writes in an idiom all his own that feels authentically African.”
“While a countryside still seeded with thousands of landmines left over from two decades of civil war might seem an unusual setting for jokes about explosions, nowhere else could the humor cut so deep. Behind the jokes, a clear sense of frustrated rage burns clear and bright throughout the narration.”
Why You Should Read This Book
“I was born and lived in a small town in Mozambique during colonial times. Racial violence and misery were things I have always known. When I was 15, the war arrived at the gates of my city. At the age of 17 I joined the national liberation struggle. Nobody questioned the fact that I was white, the son of a privileged minority. I was asked by a responsible of the liberation movement: Do you write poems? So, join us, we need poetry. Over time, I came to understand that we, black and white Mozambicans, were so in a hurry to build a common present that we lied about the past. Then I understood that my lack of ancient roots could be a particular advantage for my writing. I wasn’t afraid of the oldest ghosts because they didn’t inhabit my dreams. I could travel around contradictory memories and I could be a translator of different voices of cultures and versions of History. In this book I recall the loneliness of a black African emperor who was deported to the island of the Azores where he died ten years later. This African saw the sea as a forbidden place for which there was not even a name. To write this book I spent two months in the Azores. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t look at the ocean with the eyes of this character who learned to see the sea as a prison and transferred those walls into his soul.”
MIA COUTO, the author
“The Drinker of Horizons is a very different novel from the first two in the trilogy, in which the narrative was moved along by two voices: Germano’s letters and Imani’s notebook recollections, which are limited in space and time. This third novel, with the exception of one or two epistolary interventions from outside, is Imani’s account of her life from the time of her exile in 1895. One of the fascinating challenges for the translator here, was conveying the reactions of Imani and her fellow prisoners to their alien environment, as well as the complex relationships between Imani and the characters she encounters in this new imperial world she spends so long in, including a variety of eccentric and emotionally vulnerable sea captains, her putative mother-in-law, and of course her sisterly solidarity with Dabondi, one of Ngungunyane’s queens.”
DAVID BROOKSHAW, the translator