There is a moment in our earliest years, if we are lucky, when the outside world with all its attendant ills and hardships cannot yet touch us, but it is simultaneously a vulnerable space, fleeting, ephemeral—even more so when we look back and remember how quickly it passed:
It was the middle of the dry season but each time her lips parted I found myself in an oasis in which I wanted for nothing; I had no need to look to the horizon but if I did, it would have gone on and on, a hungerlessness that might well be called paradise. The wind was blowing from the coast, a salt wind from the Atlantic which I would feel against me as a phantom presence even when it was not there any more. The sun was not shining and its not shining was neither here nor there; I was not waiting for the sun to reveal itself to me . . . Although I was old enough – three years, perhaps four – I seldom spoke at this time. No one really remarked on this fact nor how I hung off every one of my mother’s words. Indeed, I could have continued in this same vein for an aeon or more, unaware of the peril of what might lie ahead.
Set in Angola during the years leading up to Independence from Portugal in 1975, Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa, an Australian author of Goan heritage, is a young woman’s account of childhood and youth during a time of increasing political unrest and instability. As she remembers the magic of her early, loving bond with her mother, in an idyllic setting secure in the comforts wealth affords, the truths she is not yet able to understand linger in the air. From the beginning, a tentativeness, a sense of an impending ending runs through the narrative, beneath the protection of a child’s innocence and an adolescent self-absorption, until it becomes evident that the last remnants of the colonial social structure must either face unfortunate dissolution or exile.
Named for the Portuguese expression meaning an unbearable longing or melancholy, Saudade is a novella of displacement. Narrator Maria-Christina’s parents, Indians from Brahmin backgrounds, their marriage arranged, had immigrated to Angola in the dying days of Portuguese rule in Goa. Africa was seen as a place of promise and hope for the future. At first they settled into a comfortable existence, and started a family. But their colonial experience, as such, has two sides. They have a certain status, hire African servants, and yet, to many Portuguese they are still bound to the reality that Portugal had once subdued and ruled their homeland. When, at school, Maria-Christina refers to explorer Bartolomeu Dias as an “invader,” her indignant teacher reminds her of her place:
Her voice tremulous, she declared that Bartolomeu Dias had been commissioned by João II and Isabel; she said that he had battled storm and shipwreck and cannibalism to claim Angola for Portugal. Bartolomeu Dias, she said, was responsible for civilising the people of Angola and was part of that long line of fidalgos who had cultivated my own loinclothed and mud-thatched and blue-godded people! When she had made this speech, the teacher from Coimbra was standing close to me and yet it seemed I could not see her; her face was blur. When she spoke, her breath smelt stale – as of onions and salt pork sitting in a pot too long. Not a day went by without one girl or other being humiliated by her, so I tried not to take the humiliation to heart.
After an initial period of prosperity, unrest begins to grow and threaten the security of the non-Angolan residents. As the fight for independence escalates, Maria Christina’s father is caught up secretive, risky activities, while her mother becomes increasingly stressed and homesick. Meanwhile, their daughter must navigate the mysteries and challenges of childhood and adolescence against a shifting social, political and domestic landscape.
The success of any Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel, for me, depends on a certain recognizable authenticity of voice. Here the spare, wistful melancholy of the protagonist’s early memories, filtered through the lens of acquired understanding, carries just the right tone. Trusting and deeply attached to her mother when she is young, she gradually gains a more defiant edge as puberty arrives and the tensions at home and in the country intensify. Her relationships with her parents become strained as friendships and her first romance start to define her move toward an independent engagement with the world. That is, until political upheaval begins to draw her friends away from Angola, often to places and relatives they barely know. Yet, as much as this is a story of a family living through the final years of colonial power and privilege, the nostalgia for India is deep and abiding—a loss that haunts the mother and leaves the daughter rootless. Independence exacts huge costs for all and, of course, for the Angolans themselves, there will be many bloody years yet to come.
Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa is published by Giramondo in Australia and Transit Books in the US.
9 thoughts on “A deep and abiding melancholy: Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa”
What an interesting contrast in cover art!
I read this too, and (apart from the qualities that you so cogently identify in your review) found it fascinating because I knew nothing about Angola and the book triggered discoveries about its history and culture.
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I read this as desi diaspora writing because it is so different from the Angolan writers I’ve read who lean heavily into magic realism (for better or worse). I have, however, read more set in the civil war years. Ondjaki who was born in 1977 has some wonderfully funny books about growing up under Soviet and Cuban presence that render that time so vividly.
I’ll look for this book. Thank you for such a thoughtful review, Joe. And you might be interested in my friend Anik See’s book as a companion piece: https://chbooks.com/Books/S/Saudade
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It’s a lovely spare novella. The one you’ve recommended sounds excellent in quite a different way, of course.
Like Lisa, I knew little of the history of Angola until I read another novel which looks at this time, Dulce Maria Cardoso’s The Return, which I wrote about in 2018. You might find it an interesting companion piece.
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As I say to Lisa, I have read some Angolan literature, notably José Eduardo Agualusa’s General Theory of Oblivion which won many awards but totally tested my patience for magic realist constructs. I’ll confess my interest in lit connected to India drew me to this book, but the one you describe does sound like a suitable companion, especially as a boy’s coming of age story.
This book is very interesting to read, I learned a little bit about history.
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