Part 1 of The Sands of The Emperor Trilogy, winner of the 2020 Jan Michalski Prize

Translated from Portuguese by David Brookshaw

Southern Mozambique, 1894. The African emperor Ngungunyane has rebelled against Portuguese colonial rule and his forces are approaching the village of Nkokolani, where the VaChopi tribe have allied themselves with the Portuguese. The family of the fifteen-year-old, Imani, is divided. Her eldest brother has sided with Ngungunyane, while she and her other brother work at the Portuguese garrison.

The faith of the VaChopi in the ability of the Portuguese to protect them is utterly misguided. The garrison is manned by only one, Sergeant Germano de Melo. The armory is poorly stocked. Yet somehow the Sergeant is able to convince the villagers that reinforcements are on their way. The illusion begins to crumble when Imani, who is fluent in Portuguese, begins to read the Sergeant’s correspondence with his superiors. In some ways she becomes a spy, an unwilling one at that, for adolescent hormones being what they are, she finds herself attracted to the sergeant. It is an attraction that is reciprocated.

Though it is one of opposites, of clashing cultures. This point is underlined by the narratives of Imani and the Sergeant; Imani’s which is full of colourful family anecdote, mysticism and folkloric influence, the Sergeant’s is rooted in a painful reality, for he is as much a victim of his Portuguese masters as the VaChopi. His history is revealed in his epistolary outpourings. His solitary posting is a cruel exile, his loneliness palpable, his task impossible, his mental health fragile. Although the representative of an oppressing force, he, himself, is not a natural oppressor. Despite his sympathies, his understanding of the Africans is limited.

I must confess, I have no preparation for understanding the metaphors that litter the speech of these Negroes.

I’m not entirely sure I do either. In a culture strongly influenced by the dead, some of Imani’s tales are quite fantastical: her grandfather who leaves home to go live in a mine, fish falling from the sky, and buried weapons caches. Most poignantly, a story from her childhood, the fable of the injured bat. First he is rescued by birds and sent to their king, but rejected because he is not one of them. Then some mice try to save him, but he is rejected again because of his wings. Abandoned and alone, he dies.

In the first instance it applies to Imani herself who has two cultures tugging on her soul. But it can also can be applied to the village of Nkokolani. Rejected by Ngungunyane for siding with the Portuguese, not entirely accepted by the Portuguese because they are not white. When war finally arrives on the doorstep, the bat’s fate is a precursor to its own. And Imani is left to pick her way through the unburied dead searching for her brother’s corpse.

“Who would have said I’d be one of those women, condemned to journey through life amid ashes and ruins?” she muses. And who would have thought this fusion of fable and fact in a war-torn land would be so beguiling?