Mozambique had by then careered into a civil war that would last over a decade and kill over one million people. “It changed everything,” Couto said of the war. His disenchantment gave his writing an irony that became a marker of his storytelling.
His breakout novel, “Sleepwalking Land,” which was published in 1992, the year the civil war ended, follows an elderly man and a young boy wandering through a wounded nation trying to make sense of the disasters that have befallen it. It ends without closure.
Couto has found increasing favor in Maputo, where he and two brothers set up a foundation to foster literature and the arts. But despite picking up awards abroad, he was not recognized with the José Craveirinha literary award, the most prestigious in Mozambique, until 2022.
Bringing up Couto’s name still raises, for many of his contemporaries, some of the country’s essential debates: about the role of Portuguese, about the left and how it was abandoned in the mid-1980s, and about identity.
Cracking open a large beer one evening in her garden on the dusty outskirts of Maputo, Paulina Chiziane, one of the first women to publish a novel in independent Mozambique, said that the country’s literary world, like all others, is divided by rivalries and jealousy.
“There are many people on the outside, who begin to think and imagine things,” she said.
“He is white and a man, I am Black and a woman,” she said of Couto, but “we are moving together.”
They are part of the same effort, Chiziane said. “Mozambican literature will come one day, not with me, not with Mia, but one day.”
Couto agrees. “We are building myths,” he said. “This country needs myths to build its own foundations.” He pauses. “We are still in the process of creating one nation; one nation that can bring together these different languages, different beliefs. We are substitutes for the prophets.”