For the Africa Reading Challenge I’ve decided to read one book from each of the five Portuguese-speaking African countries. The Last Will is the Cape Verde choice. I’ve read it in the original but I’m happy to report that there is an easily-found English translation, as well as a great movie adaptation.

Scribacchina from Paroles/Words was also planning to read it for a while, so we’ve decided to have a little chat about it, which I’ve included below. I’m always surprised at how much more you take out of a book by discussing it with other book lovers.

In the island of São Vicente, Senhor Napumoceno Silva Araújo led the life of a respectable self-made business man. He was famous for owning the island’s first car, but also for being a man of habits and routine. There was nothing extraordinary about his life, or so everyone though until the opening of his last will and testament…

Alex: Did you think there was an “African feeling” to the book? It somehow reminded me more strongly of South American story-telling. I often thought of the Brazilian Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the way one describes Salvador da Bahia and the other the fictional village of Macondo. There’s no magic realism in The Last Will, but a the sort of other-worldly feeling about life in São Vicente, that had the same effect. It also reminded me why I love books set in islands, there is something about the feeling of isolation that’s perfect for growing eccentric characters and habits :)

I found the funeral (sorry to say it) delightful to read and couldn’t help but smile at all the loops the heir had to jump to be able to fulfill Napomunceno’s last wish to be buried to the sound of Beethoven’s Funeral March. Any favorite moment?

Scribacchina: It is interesting that you cite Marquez, because from the start I kept comparingThe Last Will to his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, if just for the structure: the death (or the last will) of a man is the excuse to tell different histories about several people in a close society. But I feel the parallelism (if there is one) ends there. To me, it did feel more like another African novel I read, Mia Couto’s A River Called Time, which was my first experience with African magical realism — and while there is no magical realism in The Last Will, the society feels very much alike. But I do see what you mean, and I do agree that in a way all of them talk about closely-knit societies and how they influence the type of characters that live in them.

At the same time, I feel The Last Will is much more focused on identity than society. Little by little we are told how Napumoceno’s saw himself. How he tried to be more European than he was — the Beethoven March is part of that effort, I think. But because the book is so much focused on real and perceived identity, I was completely baffled by the last chapter, which basically contradicts everything that we have been told previously: we are told that no one knew about his affair, but then Carlos says that everyone knew Maria da Graça was Napumoceno’s daughter; we are told that he was one of the most influential men in town, but then it looks like everyone still considered him the small-village poor he was when he was young… How did you react to the ending? Did it come out of the blue, or do you think it was expectable?

One of the things that made me LOL was Napumocenos’ reaction to green: basically, he’s so passionate about the Sporting football club that when he sees his cleaning lady dressed in the team’s green, he takes her on as his lover. (Of course that is not exactly what happens. It is a rape, but nobody seems to perceive it that way. What do you make of that?)

City of Mindelo, São Vicente Island – credits

Alex: I was reading the green parts to my boyfriend who’s a hard-core Benfica fan :) First about the ending, I wasn’t surprised because I assumed that over time the “affair” slowly came to light, it’s just that Carlos expected the money to go only to him. We’re told even her husband knew, and Napumoceno’s regular rent must have become suspicious. About the way the village saw him, I spend long months of my childhood and early teens in a small village in Serra da Estrela and I recognize those “mood swings” as typical of a close community. It’s very hard to forget that a stranger is a stranger, especially if the person is envied.

Interesting that you saw identity over society, because I did the other way around. I think the humor and witty language is used expose the public and private morality of village life. I wouldn’t be surprised it some stabs were private Cape Verdean-jokes, that we just don’t get.
I’ve read in another site an interesting quote that might shed some light into why the novel reminded us of South America, Europe and Africa:

Discovered in 1462 and settled before Columbus’ arrival in America, the arid Cape Verde archipelago is arguably home to the oldest, most thoroughly Creolized culture in the world. Indeed, the Portuguese used the islands as an advertisement for their missao civilizadora or assimilationist colonialism. (…) Cape Verdeans, scattered around the Atlantic Rim by geography and economics for centuries, intuitively understood the idea of “transnational identity” long before it became a buzzword in cultural studies journals.

It must be a very interesting society and I look forward to visiting it at some point (maybe in my honey-moon). (Did you know there’s going to be an Observatory of the Portuguese Language there?) I felt Almeida captured that peculiarity of the country well and subtly.

What do you think about Napumoceno the man as a metaphor for Cape Verde: isolated, with an apparently controlled and repetitive life, but full of secrets and adventures. He’s a serious business-man, with a good dose of the comical about him (he became rich by selling umbrellas in a country where it doesn’t rain!). He’s the poor foreigner, who cannot be part of the exclusive club, no matter how rich and philanthropist he becomes (Cape Verde vs. Portugal after independence?).

Scribacchina: I love your interpretation of Napumoceno as a metaphor for the country, it fits perfectly! At the same time, I know too little about Cape Verde to judge (I had to go and check out history and geography on the Internet), but I think that parallel to that metaphor there may be another, less subtle one: Napumoceno as a symbol (or even as a satire) of part of the local society, struggling to identify themselves less and less as African and more as Westernized. Or am I just mis-constructing Cape Verdean identity here? I would love to know how the locals reacted to the novel — I’m sure there are inside jokes as you mentioned, but also because they have the first-hand knowledge of the place that we lack.

Moving back from society (thanks for the links!) to plot, what do you think about Adélia, the lifelong love/lover that no one seems to know about? I wonder if it was some kind of wishful thinking on Napumoceno’s part, a fantasy that he created to redeem his bleak life and give it some color?

The late and very missed Cape Verdian singer Cesária Évora, singing one of her most famous songs, a love-song to São Nicolau Island, where Senhor Napumoceno was born (she makes an appearance in the movie).

Alex: That is also a great point! And I guess it can be applied to every country that was under some sort of restriction and then became infatuated by the wonders of the west and all its status symbols (Napumoceno’s car, the office gadgets). Regarding Adélia, I’m still convinced she’s the toothless old woman. We only see her described by Napumoceno and who’s to say he didn’t embellished her here and there? If the old woman is really Adélia, I can’t but to admire her pride and stubbornness.

Regarding the whole individual vs. societal focus we discussed above, I was thinking: there is a strong sense of place, but surprisingly little about history or politics in the book (unless we count our guessed metaphors). In the end, it’s really a story about a man trying not to be the poor child who arrive in São Vicente penniless. He wanted to exit this social limbo, so he divided his live between the boring bachelor business man that everyone esteemed (but maybe didn’t really respect?), and the man to whom the color green was so irresistible that he basically raped his cleaning lady when she wore a green skirt.

I really liked Germano Almeida’s style of writing: the ironic and witty way he gradually built this extraordinary character and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.

Scribacchina: You really think that woman is Adélia?! She doesn’t fit Napumoceno’s description at all, nor the character I had imagined! I’d rather set for the interpretation that Adélia was some kind of fantasy. But then again, nothing in the will completely mirrored his life, so…

In the end, I think I was less impressed by this book than you were, but the best thing about it (apart from the witticism you mentioned) is that it can be read on so many level. It is just the story of a man who tries to overcome his poor origins. It isjust the story of a man who basically missed each and every chance at happiness he had. And at the same time it is the social satire, and the reflection on identity, and probably many more things that we don’t see yet.