« It was thought for many years that these impenetrable books corresponded to forgotten or distant idioms. It is true that the earliest men, the first librarians, used to use a totally different language to the one we speak today. It is true that several dozen miles to the right, the language becomes dialectal, and ninety floors above, incomprehensible (…) Five hundred years ago, the chief of a superior hexagon came across pages as confused as the others (…) He showed his discovery to a travelling decipherer, who informed him that they were written in Portuguese (…) Less than a century later, the exact idiom was established: it was a Lithuanian dialect of the Samoyed, with classical Arabic inflections. (…) You who read me, are you sure you understand my language? »
Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel.(1)
Let us delve into the unknown. We know little about Portuguese-speaking Africa, we who can rarely even situate it on a map. What do these five countries scattered around the African canvas still have in common? Comparing them involves a process in which politics is central. Indeed, politics are unavoidable if we are to understand the recent cultural evolutions and the current stakes in Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, and Sao Tomé e Principe. It is striking that these countries have forged their unity by reappropriating the language of the colonizer: Portuguese.
It is paradoxical that they have made it an instrument of national construction as they have built the nations born in the wars independence. Already before the Sixties, the period in which the armed struggles materialized around the FRELIMO (the Mozambique Liberation Front), the PAIGC (the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde), and the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), groups of writers, such as Vamos descobrir Angola, or the journal Claridade in Cape Verde, made writing a political act: to write against…
In the Seventies, the independence struggles became more radical. The Revolution of the Oeillets, on 25 April 1974, which led to the fall of Marcelo Caetano’s fascist regime, successor to that of Antonio Oliveira Salazar, led to the « Five’s » independence in 1975. Whilst it is possible to discern a unity in the independence struggles centred on leaders who became veritable national heros, and who, for the most part, met one another in Lisbon at the Casa dos estudantes do império (the House of the Students of the Empire), these countries, which are too often regrouped under a common denomination, nonetheless experienced differentiated histories. These notably translate into the different statuses and usages of the Portuguese language on a literary level. Indeed, language is central, and we have placed it at the heart of this dossier.
Angola and Mozambique, then, use a normative Portuguese, into which African lexical items have been integrated. The granting of independence was to mark the beginning of civil wars, given that the « victorious » parties ended up fighting over the legitimacy of power with UNITA (the Union National for the Total Independence of Angola) and RENAMO (the Mozambiquan National Resistance). Even though the civil war came to an end in Mozambique with the signing of peace treaties on 4 October 1992, the recent elections, which were won by Joaquim Chissano and the FRELIMO, also saw the rise of the RENAMO, which gained a majority in 5 regions… As for Angola, we are, sadly, all aware of the current situation.
In Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau and Sao Tomé, the existence of Creole has served as the basis for a concerted policy to institute a specific language (2). Nevertheless, since the split of the PAIGC (now the PAICV in Cape Verde) in 1980, after General Joao Bernardo Vieira « Nino »‘s coup d’Etat in Guinea Bissau, a turnaround in linguistic policy has been observed, favouring Portuguese and French. Writers, on the other hand, increasingly resort to written Creole, the most widely-spoken language.
1990 marked a turning point, with the introduction of a new geo-political factor. The majority of the countries moved away from « true socialism », and « adopted a market economy ». The legitimacy of the liberation parties in power was called into question. In Cape Verde, consequently, the PAICV lost the elections, and Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro was elected President. In 1998 in Guinea Bissau, « Nino » Vieira decided to sack Ansumané Mané, Commander in Chief of the army, who was accused of arms trafficking with the MFDC (Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces). This provoked a civil war, which ended in 1999 when elections were held, with the victory, in January 2000, of Kumba Yala, leader of the party for social renovation.
Initially a vehicle for political emancipation, then a tool for legitimizing power, contemporary literature, which uses the Portuguese language as its medium, nonetheless anchors this in cultural specificities via a process of destruction and appropriation. This is the process we propose to look at here. We will see that poetry and prose have developed along different paths, that the linguistic question, , whilst operant for some, does not generate a consensus, that literature has freed itself from the political, thereby opening up original sites of creation.
We also hope to offer what will inevitably remain a too fleeting glance at other art forms. Our contributors have been given a free reign to choose to focus on this or that aspect, thereby offering a range of view points. We have given preference to a country by country approach due to the geographic diversity and distance, even though it is also possible to distinguish between the insular and the continental zones (3).
In the course of this journey, beyond the differences and similitudes, plural voices emerge, exploring the modalities of the emergent being, and constituting a range of view points about places usually only seen in the perspective of conflicts.
Elisabeth Monteiro Rodrigues and Olivier Barlet
Inset: Socio-political introductions written by the specialists on each of these countries can be consulted, free of charge, on the French pages of the web site.
(1) In Ficciones (Fictions).
(2) In Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde in particular.
(3) The theme of insularity is, in fact, present in all the countries. In Angola and Mozambique, it has become the semantic space of an original literary re-creation.///Article N° : 5434