Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2018. ISBN: 9781925336634
There is a word in Portuguese, saudade, which does not translate into a single English word. It means missing something, a place or a person or a time. It is nostalgia and longing. My mãe once explained it as the presence of absence, or the absence of presence. On one of my trips back home after we moved to Australia, I got the word tattooed on my body in my own handwriting.
In a novella which manages to unveil layers of movement by way of migration, colonisation, imperialism, countries fighting for independence, liberation or to retain invasionary control, and in soaking up influences, knowledge and customs of lands which gradually become accessible, the definitions of Suneeta Peres da Costa’s titular choice deserves extensive consideration to fully appreciate how such a slim work can reveal so much about the lead-up to the Angolan War of Independence.
‘Saudade’, so short a word, can too encompass several of the nuances at play mentioned above. One review notes that the word conveys ‘a sentimental tone often evoked by Portuguese folk music and literature – refers to a nostalgic or melancholy sense of longing for lost things.’ Peres da Costa herself unpacks this extramusical association, as well as its historical significance:
the ‘saudade’ of this title is about this migration and homelessness, the condition of diasporic homelessness or exile and the haunting of that particular inflection or trade route if you like … it’s very much associated with fado and literary associations in Portuguese but its meaning is longing for lost things … and it has some associations – historical, literary, artistic associations with the end of the Portuguese Empire, the Empire itself, during the time of the Empire, sailors who were part of the discoveries … who colonised parts of the Portuguese Empire and their longing for their homes … when they were taken away from Portugal, a tiny landmass in Europe.
It’s also associated with fado this particularly Portuguese folk music and ‘fado’ means ‘fate’ in Portuguese. So do Italian and other southern European folk music associated with loss, longing, love and in this sense I’ve tried to broaden the word to encompass the loss of those of the diaspora.
While Peres da Costa has herself not been to Angola, she has deftly chronicled the country’s stirrings into independence, its political upheaval and climate, and that of its immigrants and inhabitants in succinct detail, and with poetic precision and economy. We view the unfolding of the world through Maria on the verge of adulthood. As her perspective expands, so does her understanding of what it means to be born in Angola to Goan immigrants. Her father plays the imperialist game, while her mother mourns the loss of a homeland’s culture and familiarity, some of which she tries to keep alive through her daughter with mixed results.
Maria is born in Benguela but it immediately is made clear that she is the sum of many places. One way this is revealed to the reader is through Maria’s observations or reactions to the myriad of languages – and music – she is surrounded by. Some of them are familiar to her:
My father had made this quip in Konkani. When he was trying to be angry, or trying to be funny, Papá spoke in Konkani. I did not yet know that Konkani was a tongue that might have belonged to a people from whom I was also descended, to a place and time of which I nevertheless had no memory, and so it was neither discordant nor alluring to my ear. My mother moved fluently between Portuguese and Konkani and the tone she used with me or my father no different than that she used to speak to Ifgênia and Caetano. (4–5)
The ones that aren’t as familiar are the ones that enlarge her world and her knowledge without the strictures of heritage, initially:
… only the postboy came, whistling a Cape Verdean folk song; it must have been a morna of Eugénio Tavares. […] He started to say something; I could not understand what he was saying because he spoke in Creole. […] I was happy to hear him speaking, to hear this other voice with its unusual cadences … […] [my mother] said that she was sure the postboy was a communist and that I was not to speak to him again. (14-15)
There also comes a time when she is confronted by the notion that she is part of the world of others, and by relation to her parents, an antagonist. The world begins to expand again, in an unsettling way:
I could hear [Ifgênia and Philomena] talking in lowered voices in Kimbundu. Ifgênia had been told to speak Portuguese in my company but she often forgot and spoke Kimbundu anyway. Though I could understand only a smattering, I found Kimbundu, with its spirited rhythms, beautiful. And if it did not occur to me that they may have been talking about me, this was less because of humility than because it had not yet dawned on me that Kimbundu might be the language, as I might be the source, of some of their plaints and grievances. When this became evident I might find Kimbundu a cacophony, at the first sound of which I would reach for pliable beeswax to stop my ears! (15–16)
Maria’s mother is loathe to move from Benguela to Angola’s capital, Luanda, but comes around to the idea when her husband explains they will have a bigger house and garden. Maria starts to learn more about her Goan heritage through conspicuously italicised words: karma, sari, chole, bindu, kohl, kolhapuris, devanagari, dekhni, Mahabharata, sadhus, dhotis, salwar kameezes, beedis, puri, thalis, mangalasutra, mehndi, paise, mando, kulchi kodi, pāo. These are mysterious curiosities, unwillingly hidden by her mother, disapproved of by her father who stands to benefit from imperialist power, though more of them are revealed and explained as the narrative progresses. Just as Maria’s world begins to expand again, others would seek to constrict it – or become familiar with it through invasionary pastiche:
When we moved to the capital my mother resolved that we should make a new impression on the world too. Papá was often away on business and so Caetano drove – and as we passed from the new district into the old district of the city, I read the street names […] recited them to myself with wonder […] I did not know they were merely set out on the same grid as Lisbon, being a mirror of the colonial imaginary. […] now that the names of the streets have changed, I wonder would I recognise them or be lost when moving through them again? (29)
This move alerts Maria to her mother hiding aspects of identity. As her daughter becomes more knowledgeable and worldly, there is panic surrounding Maria because she is no longer willing to be her mother’s carbon copy. The language used to describe this is that of consumption, ingesting and acceptance of regurgitated matter, rather than of imitation.
That my mother began to conceal things was something I was beginning to learn. For so many years, I had been like a little bird, gobbling the food, words and ideas, that she put directly into my mouth, already half-masticated. Now I began to consider what was real and what was not, what pleased me and what did not; I began dividing the world this way before swallowing … (40–41)
Whilst coming to terms with this, Maria reflects inwardly, and perhaps begins a unique form of protest, anticipating her eventual interrogation of the world she exists in when mother and daughter visit the local tailor:
… [he] said that not every child who does not talk is demented but some turn out to be. […] She said that the tailor was right and that people took me for a deaf-mute […] that the problem was that she had cosseted me far too long. All these things she said with a look of such disappointment that she seemed an utter stranger … (34–35)
The muteness is enough concern to warrant a doctor visit who assures her mother that there is nothing wrong with Maria, ‘that I would start talking soon enough – that they should only be sure that they spoke Portuguese not Konkani to me at home’ (42). Her mother’s disappointment isn’t limited to her daughter. Displacement is beginning to unravel the family as separate members, rather than as a unit. Despite Maria’s muteness, her mind is active, speculative, and coming to understand what her mother might have felt she has lost:
That I was not the cause of her disappointment was suddenly apparent to me, but when I turned my head back to see where it might also end, I could see far out across the sea […] petrels gliding on the crests of the waves and I could even see the horizon, but I could not see where her unhappiness might end … (35)
The significance of the title is now keenly present in the novella if we reconsider the very beginning, where Maria’s mother tells her the dead only walk backward seem like a bleak omen, once reaching the sixth chapter announcing that Maria’s mother has had a stillborn child. Maria is informed at school after challenging the teacher with the notion that Bartolomeu Dias is an invader. Maria critically studies her teacher’s appearance, noting that she is dressed inappropriately for the Luandan climate:
What do you have to say for yourself? the teacher from Coimbra now rounded on me and demanded when she came to the end of her homage to (Dias). Up until now it was true I had little to say. Who was I? How had I come here? Such simple facts of geography and history went right over my head. (50)
Maria reaches puberty and makes friends. She has an odd but not unusual relationship with her body and its changes, and what it restricts her from in comparison to boys. She now wants to know where she is from and muses on this in church, another symbol of oppression and colonialism:
My own name, Maria-Cristina, in fact said everything and nothing about who I was or my origins; I could have been given any other name […] it now occurred to me … and how different my fate might have been had my relatives fled into the hills with their gods. (72–73)
The mental health of Maria’s mother worsens after the stillbirth; she retreats into herself. Notably, Maria’s father rarely has dialogue or presence in home life despite the opening Kontaki quip, throughout the novella. He embraces Maria after school as if she were ‘something spectral’, with tears in his eyes, telling her ‘Henrique died’ (53). His wife and daughter’s relationship and lives are orchestrated by his decisions, to marry, to move, to pursue the employment he wants:
Papá promised to take my mother away to Angola, and make a fortune there. The Portuguese were leaving Goa, anyway, he said. […] His words carried my mother away from her own mother, from the man she really loved, from everything known and familiar. How could she have known that more than any foreign country or continent, her husband would be the region she would be least capable of understanding? […] Perhaps she never left Goa. […] For many months after they had arrived and set up house in Benguela, my mother tried to forget everything. She was glad for the oceans that existed between her present and her past, she said, so vast, deep and unfathomable, nothing could wash ashore. (82–83)
His world and ambitions begin to fracture as the independence movement gains momentum:
Papá arrived home. Ifgênia had prepared calulu de peixe and we ate without speaking. There was news of the farm strikes on the radio and he got up in fury to turn it off. He shouted that it was too much to be surrounded by fools. Why did I come to this country of fools? he smashed his fist on the table, rattling the plates, cutlery and glasses. He said that we would not intimidated (67)
The novella began with a culturally specific depiction of death, and ends with one, contextualising cultural knowledge by using of Maria’s father’s death, an event which will force leaving behind Angolan life, for somewhere familiar yet foreign, a ‘terra incognita which I hesitate to call home’ (106). When local women speak to Maria in Hindi or Mahrati, she does not understand though eventually learns some basic vocabulary. She is acutely aware of her displacement, ironically complicated by ‘familiarity-foreignness’ internal struggle. Lying about her name is one way she addresses this: ‘Masquerading, I said, My name is Saudade, and, to my surprise, no one unmasked me.’ (108)
Maria’s relocation does not end in experiencing saudade; she seems destined to observe it in others, rather than share in or partake of it. She grows up chronicling it in her mother, and quickly sees it in her lover Miguel’s face:
it was like coming upon a sight in nature that, existing beneath one’s ordinary awareness, suddenly reveals all sorts of unspoken truths, an epiphany … Awake, this face was full of sadness, a saudade – a lostness, a feeling of not having a place in this world. (93–94)
Land, its management and occupation of, is constantly proven to be a divider, the separator, a source of othering and internalised xenophobia when colonised and migrated to by imperial subjects, driven by men like her father:
Caetano came in […] I brought out plates and served us. […] While we ate I thought, here we are, across the table, orphans of Empire … yet in reality Caetano was doubly orphaned, with family on the other side of the continent, in Mozambique, which had already become independent. (89–90)
Occasionally, this self-hatred presents itself in friends, acquaintances or lovers. Again, their treatment of it is as if they are objects to be managed, trifled with, absent of altruistic emotional investment:
[…] pride was also the source of Miguel’s resentment … […] he had aspirations to study agronomy […] to change lives by taking new farming practices to the poor in Africa, in India. The way he talked of these places, it seemed they were distant – rather than an extension of the very earth on which we stood. (92–93)
These realisations within Maria’s interpersonal relationships provoke new thoughts blatantly independent of her parents, that evoke a sense of the unfathomable:
How easy it was, I thought, to be close to someone and yet feel out of joint with them and the world. […] A gulf opened up between us, Miguel on one side and me on the other, and it felt vast and deep and unfathomable. (100–102)
Bridging gulfs and identities for Maria, is often framed in terms of water, and processed alone, rather than in loneliness:
I wondered what home may mean and what different routes one might take to get there. I was watching the water churning, wondering what secrets that sea could disclose, how much fear and loss, and how much expectation. I was wondering whether life itself was a terrible unmooring. (62)
Emotional connection and epiphanies exist alongside upheaval and military violence. Maria’s resilience lies in her ability to think of existence as fluid, unfixed, peppered with echoes of familiarity, as if no adjustment is needed to changing circumstances and escalating violence, it occurs readily with the quotidian:
I walked along the familiar streets of our neighbourhood and then further until I had reached the city. I stopped at the foot of the statue of Vasco da Gama … listening to the old accordion player from Principe playing that old fado, ‘The Boat’, which was a favourite in his repertoire. Soldiers surrounded Largo do Infante Dom Fernando; some had been sent from Lisbon to make up local cohorts. (85)
She is instead able to transcend her situations and experiences, with the knowledge that ‘those who hurt you may be the same who otherwise claimed to protect your interests and care for you’ (59–60). In spite of the various upheavals and dislocations experienced, perhaps Maria does carry the best of her parents; her mother, who much earlier says ‘However far away you go … you will always be my daughter’ (83), and her father, by recalling a ‘rare and tender’ memory he’d shared where the mantle of imperial conformity and assimilation is absent. Through losing her father, Maria is able to meet her paternal grandmother – arranged by her daughter-in-law, a not-quite resolving of the extraction and loss Maria’s mother had to contend with when first marrying. Peres da Costa makes that which might be or remain alien, resilient and able to embrace change. The novella ends with Maria eating hungrily, with the knowledge that her ‘destiny was unwritten … the beginning always seems beautiful’ (111).
 Sarah L’Estrange interviewing Suneeta Peres da Costa, ABC Radio National. Audio.
Gem Mahadeo is a Melbourne-based writer and musician, who came to Australia in 1987. Her poetry has appeared in zines and online journals such as Concrete Queers, Cordite Poetry Journal, Going Down Swinging, The Suburban Review and Rabbit Poetry Journal.