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Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Authors

Also by Henning Mankell

Title Page

Epigraph

Prologue: José Antonio Maria Vaz

The First Night

The Second Night

The Third Night

The Fourth Night

The Fifth Night

The Sixth Night

The Seventh Night

The Eighth Night

The Last Night

Dawn

Copyright

About the Book

One night José Antonio Maria Vaz hears gunfire from the deserted theatre next door to his bakery. He races to the theatre’s uppermost gallery, and there beneath him on a spotlit stage lies the wounded body of Nelio, a street urchin renowned for living on his wits. Gasping, the wounded boy asks to be taken to the roof to breathe the beautiful air fresh off the Indian Ocean. On that theatre roof, his life ebbing away, Nelio begins his story.

At the age of five, Nelio watched helplessly as his village was burned to the ground and his people were massacred by bandits. He escaped by chance; a man handed him a gun and ordered him to shoot another boy, but instead he turned the gun on the bandit and ran. He made his way to the coast, encountering en route bizarre characters who gave him guidance. Upon arrival in the city Nelio joined a rough street gang, and began a very different way of life.

Henning Mankell’s Chronicler of the Winds is a dazzling new venture from the master of crime; a beautifully told fable of the African continent.

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About the Authors

Henning Mankell is the prize-winning and internationally acclaimed author of the Inspector Wallander Mysteries, now dominating bestseller lists throughout Europe. He devotes much of his time to working with Aids charities in Africa, where he is director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo.

Tiina Nunnally is known for her many award-winning translations of Nordic fiction, including Per Olov Enquist’s The Visit of the Royal Physician, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2003. Most recently, she has produced a new translation of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.

ALSO BY HENNING MANKELL

Fiction

Faceless Killers

The Dogs of Riga

The White Lioness

The Man Who Smiled

Sidetracked

The Fifth Woman

One Step Behind

Firewall

The Return of the Dancing Master

Before the Frost

Depths

Children’s Fiction

A Bridge to the Stars

Non-Fiction

I Die, but the Memory Lives on

HENNING MANKELL

Chronicler of the Winds

TRANSLATED FROM THE SWEDISH BY
Tiina Nunnally

The human being has two eyes;

one sees only what moves in ephemeral time,

the other

what is eternal and divine.

ANGELUS SILESIUS

If this is the best of all possible worlds,

what must the others be like?

VOLTAIRE, Candide

When there were no depths,

I was brought forth;

when there were no fountains

abounding with water.

Proverbs 8:24

Prologue: José Antonio Maria Vaz

On a rooftop of sun-scorched, reddish clay on a sultry, humid night beneath the starry tropical skies, I who bear the name José Antonio Maria Vaz stand waiting for the world to end. I am filthy and feverish, my clothes are hanging in tatters, as if they were in wild flight from my gaunt body. I have flour in my pockets, which for me is more precious than gold. A year ago I was still somebody, a baker; whereas now I am nobody, a beggar roaming aimlessly beneath the searing sun in the daytime and then spending the endless nights on a desolate rooftop. But even beggars possess traits that give them an identity, that distinguish them from all the others on the street corners who hold out their hands, as if they wanted to give them away or sell their fingers, one by one. José Antonio Maria Vaz is the vagrant who became known as the ‘Chronicler of the Winds’. Day in and day out, my lips move without cease, as if I were telling a story to which no one has ever bothered to listen. As if I have finally accepted that the monsoon which sweeps in from the sea is my only listener, always attentive, like an old priest waiting patiently for the confession to come to an end.

At night I retreat to this deserted rooftop, since here I feel I gain both space and a viewpoint. The constellations are mute, they do not applaud me, but their eyes flash and I feel as if I can speak straight into the ear of eternity. And I can look down and see the city spread out before me, the city of night, where uneasy fires flicker and dance, unseen dogs laugh, and I wonder about all the people down there asleep, breathing and dreaming and making love, while I stand on my roof and talk about a person who no longer exists.

I, José Antonio Maria Vaz, am also part of this city which clings to the slopes down the wide estuary. The buildings perch like monkeys along the steep banks, and for each day that passes, the number of people living there seems to swell. They come wandering from the unplumbed interior, from the savannah and the remote, dead forests, down towards the coast where the city lies. They settle there and do not seem to notice all the malevolent glances that meet them. No one can say with certainty what they will live on or where they will find a roof over their heads. They are swallowed up by the city, become a part of it. And every day more strangers arrive, all with their parcels and baskets; the statuesque black women with enormous cloth bundles atop their noble heads, walking along the horizon like lines of small black dots. More and more children are born, more buildings clamber along the steep slopes, to be washed away when the clouds turn black and the hurricanes rage like murderous bandits. This is the way it has been for as long as anyone can remember, and there are many who lie awake at night, wondering how it will end.

When will the city crash down the slopes and be swallowed by the sea?

When will the weight of all the people finally become too great?

When will the world come to an end?

Once I too, José Antonio Maria Vaz, would lie awake at night and ask myself these questions.

But no longer. Not since I met Nelio and carried him up to the roof and watched him die.

The anxiety that I sometimes felt is now gone. Or rather, I have come to understand that there is a crucial difference between feeling afraid and feeling anxious.

That was something else that Nelio explained to me.

‘If you’re afraid, it’s like you’re suffering from an insatiable hunger,’ he said. ‘But if you’re anxious, you can fight off your anxiety.’

I think about his words, and I now know that he was right. I can stand here and look out over the night-time city, the fires flickering uneasily, and I can recall everything he told me during those nine nights that I spent with him and watched him die.

This rooftop is a vital part of the story. I feel as if I were at the bottom of the sea; I have sunk down and can go no further. I am at the bottom of my own story; it was here, on this roof, that it all began and it all ended.

Sometimes I imagine my task to be this: that for all eternity I will wander at the bottom, on this roof, and direct my words to the stars. Precisely that will be my task, for ever.

So here is my strange story, a story impossible to forget.

It was on that night a year ago, near the end of November, when the moon was full and the night was clear after the heavy rains, that I placed Nelio on the filthy mattress where nine days later, as dawn broke, he would die. Since he had already lost a great deal of blood, the bandages – which I did my best to fashion from strips that I tore from my own worn clothing – did little good. He knew long before I did that soon he would no longer exist.

That was also when everything started over, as if a peculiar new way of measuring time was suddenly established. I remember that quite clearly, even though more than a year has passed since then and many other things have happened in my life.

I remember the moon against the dark sky.

I remember it as a reflection of Nelio’s pale face on which salty beads of sweat glittered as the life left his body slowly, almost cautiously, as if trying not to wake someone who was asleep.

Something important came to an end on that early morning, after the ninth night, when Nelio died. I have a hard time explaining what I mean. But at some moments in my life I feel as if I am surrounded by a vast emptiness. As if I were inside an enormous room made of invisible membranes from which I cannot escape.

That was how I felt on the morning when Nelio lay dying, abandoned by everyone, with me as the only witness.

Afterwards, when it was over, I did as he had asked me to do.

I carried his body down the winding stairs to the bakery, where the heat was always so intense that I never got used to it.

I was the only one there at night. The huge oven was hot, awaiting the bread that would soon be baked for the hungry day to follow. I shoved his body into the oven, closed the door, and waited for exactly one hour. That’s how long it would take, he had said, for his body to disappear. When I opened the door again, there was nothing left. His spirit blew past me like a cool gust from the heat of the inferno, and then there was nothing more.

I went back up to the roof. I stayed there until night fell again. And it was then, beneath the stars, in the faint moonlight, with the gentle breeze from the Indian Ocean brushing my face, in the midst of my grief, that I realised I was the one who had to tell Nelio’s story.

Quite simply, there was no one else who could do it. No one but me. No one at all.

And the story had to be told. It could not be left lying there like some abandoned and cast-off memory in the storerooms that are housed in every human brain.

The fact is that Nelio was not merely a poor, filthy street boy. Above all else, he was an unusual person, elusive and enigmatic like a rare bird that everyone talks about but which no one has actually seen. Though he was only ten years old when he died, he possessed the experience and wisdom of someone who had lived to be a hundred. Nelio – if that was his real name, because from time to time he would surprise me by calling himself something else – wrapped himself in a magnetic field that no one could see or penetrate. Everyone treated him with respect, even the brutal policemen and the always nervous Indian shopkeepers. Many sought his advice or hovered timidly nearby in the hope that some scrap of his mysterious powers would be transferred to them.

And now Nelio was dead.

Sunk in a deep fever, he had laboriously sweated out his last breath.

A solitary wave travelled across the sea of the world, and then it was finished and the silence was terrifying in its emptiness. I stood looking up at the starry sky and thought that nothing could ever be the same.

I knew what many people thought. I had thought the same thing myself. That Nelio was not really human. That he was a god. One of the ancient, forgotten gods who had defiantly, perhaps foolishly, returned to earth and slipped inside Nelio’s thin body. Or if he wasn’t a god, then he was at the least a saint. A street-child saint.

And now he was dead. Gone.

The gentle breeze from the sea which had brushed my face suddenly felt cold and ominous. I gazed across the dark city that was clinging to the slopes above the sea. I saw the flickering fires and the solitary street lamps where the moths were dancing, and I thought: This is where Nelio lived for a brief time, here in our midst. And I am the only one who knows his whole story. I was the one he confided in after he was shot, and I carried him up here to the roof and laid him on the filthy mattress, from which he would never rise again.

‘It’s not that I’m afraid of being forgotten,’ he told me. ‘It’s so that the rest of you won’t forget who you are.’

Nelio reminded us who we really are. Human beings, each of us bearing secret powers we know nothing about. Nelio was a remarkable person. His presence made all of us feel remarkable.

That was his secret.

It is night by the Indian Ocean.

Nelio is dead.

And however unlikely it may sound, it seemed to me that he died without ever being afraid.

How can that be possible? How can a ten-year-old boy die without betraying even a glimmer of terror at not being allowed to partake of life any longer?

I don’t understand it. Not at all.

I, an adult, cannot think about death without feeling an icy hand around my throat.

But Nelio only smiled. Clearly he had yet another secret that he would not share with the rest of us. It was odd, since he had been so generous with the few possessions he had, whether it was the dirty shirts made of Indian cotton that he always wore, or any of his unexpected thoughts.

The fact that he no longer exists I take as a sign that the world will soon come to an end.

Or am I mistaken?

I stand here on the roof and think about the first time I saw him lying on the filthy floor, struck down by the bullets of the demented killer.

I call on the soft night wind blowing in from the sea to help me remember.

Nelio once asked me, ‘Do you know what the wind tastes like?’

I didn’t know what to answer. Does the wind really have a taste?

Nelio thought so.

‘Mysterious spices,’ he said – I think it was on the seventh night. ‘That tell us about people and events far away. That we can’t see. But that we can sense if we draw the wind deep into our mouths and then eat it.’

That’s how Nelio was. He thought it was possible to eat the wind.

And that the wind could dull a person’s hunger.

Now when I try to recall what I heard on those nine nights I spent with Nelio, it occurs to me that my memory is neither better nor worse than anyone else’s.

But I also know that I am living in a time when people are more likely to forget than to remember. For that reason I understand more clearly my own fear, and why in fact I am waiting for the world to end. Human beings exist to create and to share their good memories. But if we are to be honest with ourselves, we should recognise that these are dark times, as dark as the city beneath my feet. The stars shine reluctantly on our neglected earth, and memories of good times are so few that the vast rooms in our brains where memories are stored stand empty and locked.

It is in fact quite odd for me to be saying these things.

I am not a pessimist. I laugh much more often than I cry.

Even though I am now a beggar and a vagrant, I have retained the baker’s joyful heart.

I see that I’m having trouble explaining what I mean. If you have baked bread as I have in a hot and suffocating bakery since the age of six, then words might not come so easily to you either.

I never went to school. I learned to read from scraps of old newspapers, often so old that when the city was mentioned it still bore the now discarded colonial name. I learned to read while we waited for the bread to bake in the ovens. It was the old master baker Fernando who taught me. I can still remember quite clearly all those nights when he raged and cursed at my laziness.

‘Letters and words don’t come to a person,’ he would say with a sigh. ‘A person has to go to them.’

In the end I learned. I learned to deal with words, although from a distance and always with the feeling that I was not truly worthy of them. Words are still strangers to me. At least when I am trying to explain what I think or feel. But I have to try. I can’t wait any longer. A year has already passed.

And yet I still haven’t spoken of the dazzling white sand, the rustling palm trees, or the sharks that are occasionally seen just beyond the crumbling jetty in the harbour.

But I will do that later.

Right now I’m going to talk about the remarkable Nelio. The boy who came to the city from nowhere. The boy who made himself a home inside an abandoned statue in one of the city’s plazas.

And this is where I’m going to start my story.

Everything begins with the wind, the mysterious and enticing wind that sweeps in over our city from the eternally wandering Indian Ocean.

I, José Antonio Maria Vaz, a lonely man on a rooftop under the starry tropical sky, have a story to tell.

The First Night

WHEN THE SHOTS were fired on that fateful night and I found Nelio soaked in his own blood, I had been working at the bakery of the confused and half-crazed Dona Esmeralda for several years. No one had lasted there as long as I had.

Dona Esmeralda was an amazing woman; everyone in the city – and they all knew who she was – either secretly admired her or wrote her off as insane. When Nelio, without her knowledge, lay on the roof of the bakery and died, she was more than ninety years old. Some claimed that she was a hundred, but no one could say for sure. With Dona Esmeralda, nothing was certain. It was as if she had existed for all time; she was one with the city and its founding.

No one could remember her ever being young. She had always been ninety or perhaps a hundred years old. She had always driven around in her ancient car at high speed with the top down, veering from one side of the street to the other. Her clothes had always been made of voluminous silk; her hats were fastened under her wrinkled chin with broad ribbons. It was explained to strangers – who barely managed to avoid being run over by her wild careering – that even though she had always been exceedingly old, she was the youngest daughter of the infamous municipal governor Dom Joaquim Leonardo dos Santos, who during his scandal-ridden life had filled the city with innumerable equestrian statues in the various central plazas.

Countless stories circulated about Dom Joaquim, particularly about the vast number of illegitimate children he had fathered. With his wife, the birdlike Dona Celestina, he had had three daughters; Esmeralda was the one who resembled him most, in temperament if not in appearance. Dom Joaquim belonged to one of the oldest colonial families that had come from the other side of the sea in the middle of the previous century. His family had quickly become one of the most pre-eminent in the country. Dom Joaquim’s brothers had won positions through their prospecting for gems in the remote provinces, as big-game hunters, prelates and military officers.

At a young age, Dom Joaquim had cast himself into the chaotic arena of local politics. Since the country was governed as a province from across the sea, the locally appointed governors could generally do as they pleased; no one had any opportunity to keep an eye on what they were up to. On those few occasions when suspicion grew too great, government officials would be dispatched from across the sea to find out what was actually going on within the colonial administration. Once Dom Joaquim filled their offices with snakes; another time he installed a number of wild drummers in a neighbouring building, whereupon the government officials either flew into a rage or lapsed into a deep silence and then departed as soon as they could find passage to Europe. Their reports had always been reassuring: all was well in the colony. In recognition of which, Dom Joaquim would stuff little cloth bags of gemstones into their pockets as he bade them farewell at the dock.

Dom Joaquim was first elected municipal governor when he was no more than twenty. His opponent, a kindly and credulous old colonel, withdrew from the race after Dom Joaquim cunningly spread a rumour that the man had been convicted of unspecified crimes in his youth, when he was still living on the other side of the sea. The accusations were false, but the colonel realised that he would never be able to extinguish the rumours and gave up. As in all other elections, fraud was the fundamental organisational assumption, and Dom Joaquim was the winner by a majority that far exceeded the number of registered voters. The principal element of his campaign was a promise, if he were elected, to increase dramatically the number of local holidays, which he implemented immediately after he had been sworn in and appeared for the first time on the steps of the governor’s residence wearing the plumed tricorn hat, the symbol of his new, democratically achieved eminence.

Dom Joaquim’s first act as newly elected governor was to order a large balcony to be built on the façade of the palace from which he could address the citizenry on appropriate occasions. Since he had been legitimately elected, he took pains to ensure that no one could challenge his position as governor, and he was re-elected over the next sixty years by an ever growing majority, in spite of the fact that the population decreased drastically during this period. When at last he died, however, he had not been seen in public for a long time. He was so confused by then and had sunk so far into the haze of old age that sometimes he imagined he was dead, and at night he would sleep in a coffin standing next to his wide bed in the governor’s palace. But no one had the courage to question the wisdom of his continuing as governor; everyone feared him, and when he did finally die – hanging halfway out of his coffin, as if he had wanted to crawl out to the balcony one last time and look over the city which he had transformed beyond recognition during his long years in power – no one dared do anything until several days later when, in the stifling heat, he began to smell.

He was Dona Esmeralda’s father, and she was just like him. When she raced through the city in her open convertible, she would see everywhere the mighty statues crowding the plazas, and every one of them reminded her of her father. Dom Joaquim had always been on the lookout for the least sign of revolutionary discontent and unrest. In his early years he had appointed a body of secret police, a unit which everyone knew about but which officially did not exist. Their only task was to mix with the people and listen for the tiniest hints of unrest. At the same time, Dom Joaquim took quick action whenever a revolution in a neighbouring country threw the current despots into prison, drove them into exile, or put them in front of a firing squad. By then he would have already offered a price for the statues that the enraged populace was toppling to the ground. He paid handsomely for them, and they were transported to the city by ship and by rail. The old inscriptions were filed off, and Dom Joaquim ordered his own family name to be engraved on the statues. Since his ancestors were of simple peasant stock from the Mediterranean plains, he felt no compunction about inventing a new family tree for himself. In this way the city became filled with statues of former generals belonging to his family. Since revolutions in the neighbouring countries were a regular occurrence, the influx of statues became so overwhelming that Dom Joaquim was forced to build new plazas to make room for his purchases. At the time of his death, every conceivable space in the city was taken up with British, German, French and Portuguese monuments to individuals who were now included in the multitude of generals, philosophers and explorers with which Dom Joaquim, in his inexhaustible fancy, had endowed his lineage.

His daughter, the eternally ninety-year-old Esmeralda, would rush past all these memories of Dom Joaquim and his life in her frantic quest for a meaning to her own life. She had been married four times, never for more than a year since she would almost at once grow bored, and the men she had chosen would flee, terrified of her violent temper. She never had any children – although there were rumours that she had a son concealed somewhere who would one day make himself known and get himself elected governor as his grandfather’s successor. But no son ever turned up, and Dona Esmeralda’s life continued to shift course in her restless search for something that she never seemed able to define.

During this time in the life of the city, which might also be called the era of Dona Esmeralda, colonial war had finally spread to this country too, one of the last on the whole African continent to be so affected. Those young men who had decided to fulfil their inescapable historical destinies and liberate the land from the ever weakening colonial power had crossed the border to the north and entered the neighbouring country, which had already overthrown its past and established its own military bases, its own university. Later, when the time seemed ripe, the men came back over the border, now fully armed with weapons and self-confidence.

The war started on a dark September evening when a local chefe de posto was shot in the thumb by a nineteen-year-old revolutionary, who would later become the first military commander-in-chief of the independent nation. During the first five years of the war, the country on the other side of the sea refused even to acknowledge that it was going on. In the increasingly transparent propaganda, the revolutionary army was labelled as misguided terrorists, deranged criminosos, and the populace was exhorted to grab them vigorously by the ears instead of listening to their malevolent talk about another time and another world in the offing. Gradually, however, the colonial power was forced to acknowledge that the young men were extremely determined and that they quite obviously had the ear of the disloyal public. A colonial army was hastily dispatched; the soldiers began haphazardly bombing the areas where the revolutionary liberators were believed to have their bases, but without fully appreciating it, they suffered one defeat after another. To the very end, those who had come to the country as colonisers refused to accept what was happening. Even when the young revolutionaries surrounded the capital and stood just a few kilometres outside the black townships, the white colonisers continued to administer and to plan for a future that would never be realised.

Only afterwards, when their defeat was a fact and the country had proclaimed its independence, were the long rows of white headstones in the cemeteries discovered. There lay the young boys, often no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, who had come across the sea to take part in a war they never understood, to be killed by enemies they had never even glimpsed. Chaos erupted in the city. Many of the colonisers fled for their lives, leaving behind their homes, their cars, their gardens, their shoes and their black mistresses; trampling over one another in the departure hall at the airport and fighting for passage on the ships about to leave the harbour. Those with sufficient foresight had exchanged their money and possessions for gemstones, now hanging in little cloth bags inside their sweaty shirts. The others left everything behind and departed the country cursing the injustice of the revolutionaries, who had stripped them of all they owned.

Although Dona Esmeralda had never been interested in political matters and was at the time at least eighty years old, she understood early on, presumably from sheer instinct, that the young revolutionaries were going to win the war. A new age would arise, and she would be forced to choose which side to be on. It was not difficult for her to grasp that she belonged with the young revolutionaries. With a mixture of anger and joy she would gladly fight the heavy-footed bureaucracy, which seemed to be the only thing the colonial power had bestowed upon its distant province. She put on the darkest hat she owned, possibly meaning to camouflage her treacherous intentions, and drove her car out of the city, taking the north road. She passed through a number of military roadblocks, where the guards tried in vain to make her turn back, warning that she was now entering areas controlled by bloodthirsty revolutionaries who would confiscate her car, tear off her hat, and then slit her throat. When she continued regardless, they concluded that she was crazy, and it was there, at those roadblocks, that the rumour was born which definitively pronounced Dona Esmeralda to be mad.

It is true that she was stopped by the young revolutionaries, but they neither tore off her hat nor slit her throat. On the contrary, they treated her kindly and with respect. At one of the nearby encampments a commandant questioned her as to why she was travelling all alone in her big open car. She stated briefly that she wanted to enlist in the revolutionary army, and she pulled out of her handbag a rusty old cavalry pistol that had belonged to her father. The young commandant, whose name was Lorenzo and who would later end up in disgrace because of a ferocious lust for other men’s women, sent her on to a base sixty miles farther into the bush to an officer higher up the chain of command who would be better able to determine what should be done about Dona Esmeralda.

This man, whose name was Marcelino and who was a brigadier general in the revolutionary army, was familiar with the old governor Dom Joaquim. He welcomed Dona Esmeralda, gave her a uniform cap in exchange for her motley hat, and personally handled her briefing in the ideological doctrines of the revolution. Then he sent Dona Esmeralda to a mobile field hospital, where he thought she might do the most good. Under the direction of a team of Cuban doctors she soon learned to assist with complicated operations. That was where she stayed for the rest of the colonial war. When the new leaders at last made their jubilant entry into the city, the populace watched with astonishment as the convertible, which they recognised at once but which they had not seen on the streets for a number of years, reappeared with Dona Esmeralda driving and with one of the revolutionary leaders standing behind her, waving. In the chaos that prevailed during that intoxicating time after the liberation, she was asked by the new president what role she would like to play in the revolutionary transformation of the old society which was now being initiated.

‘I want to start a theatre,’ she replied without hesitation.

Surprised, the President tried to persuade her to assume a role of greater revolutionary moment, but she was insistent. When the President saw that he would not be able to change her mind, he issued a decree, which he later had the Minister of Culture confirm, stating that Dona Esmeralda would be in charge of the city’s only theatre building.

The new era had begun. Dona Esmeralda was so preoccupied with her new life that she didn’t seem to notice that the statues, which her father had gone to so much trouble to acquire upon the demise of various dictators, had once again been toppled and were being transported to an old fortress, where they were either stored or melted down. The city, which up until then had been branded by her invented ancestors, was now transformed without her noticing it. She spent all her time inside the dark and decrepit theatre, which had long stood abandoned. It had fallen into a sewer-like condition; the stench was horrific, and the rats, as plump as cats, ruled the stage where old sets stood and rotted.

With furious energy Dona Esmeralda declared war on the rats and the stench and then threw herself into a strenuous campaign, resolved to reconquer the theatre, which sat like the wreck of a ship in the sludge. No one who saw her during this time failed to observe that Dona Esmeralda’s madness had now become full-blown. With disgust and poorly concealed contempt, people decided that she was expending her energies on an absolutely useless task, the greatest sin that anyone could commit. After a while she managed to win the help of some young people who were both unemployed and ignorant of what a theatre was all about. Dona Esmeralda used to say by way of explanation that it was ‘like film without a projector’. When she held out the illusory possibility that the young people might one day try their skill on the stage – which was still half buried in the overflowing sewer – she managed to persuade them to hitch up their skirts, roll up their trouser legs, and slog around in the muck, chasing the rats with sticks and lugging out all the rotting stage sets.

After six months she had made so much headway that she had reclaimed both the stage and the hall with its rickety red plastic seats, and she was finally able to get the electrical wiring to function as well. It was a big moment when she turned on the lights for the first time. Two thirty-year-old spotlights simultaneously exploded with powerful blasts. But for Dona Esmeralda they were like saluting rockets. Now she could at last see her theatre. And what she saw convinced her that she was right, although nobody else had any idea what was in her mind.

Six months more and she had gathered around her a group of similarly inclined people, and she had written a play about a halakawuma who was constantly giving the King bad advice. It was a play that took more than seven hours to perform. Dona Esmeralda built the sets, sewed the costumes, directed the actors, and played those parts herself which she had not been able to find anyone else to fill.

On a December evening the theatre was to be re-inaugurated. She had sent invitations to the President and the Minister of Culture, who was not entirely pleased that Dona Esmeralda had refused the good advice of the Ministry’s many bureaucrats about how the theatre might best be run. A strong rain storm shorted out the electrical circuits just as the performance was about to begin. The President had sent his regrets, but the corpulent former shoemaker, Adelinho Manjate, who was now the Minister of Culture by virtue of his success as a dancer during his years as a revolutionary soldier, was in attendance. The performance was delayed for several hours. The rain poured through the roof on to the festively clad but increasingly disgruntled audience.

It was past ten o’clock by the time Dona Esmeralda was able to switch on the spotlights again and the first actor, who had forgotten his lines, stepped on to the stage. The performance turned out to be a peculiar experience. It went on until dawn the following morning. None of those present, perhaps least of all the actors, fully understood what the play was about. On the other hand, none of those in attendance ever forgot what they had been part of. Dona Esmeralda, finally alone on the stage at first light, was filled with that singular sense of joy which only those who have achieved the impossible can feel. She thought nostalgically of her father, the old governor, who had not been there to witness this proud moment, and then she realised she was hungry. During the past year she had scarcely had time to eat.

She went out into the city. The rain had stopped and there was a fresh scent from the blooming acacia trees that lined the main streets. She regarded the people she met with curiosity, as if she were noticing for the first time that she was not alone in the city. And she discovered that all of the statues with which her father had adorned the plazas had disappeared. For a moment she felt old, sad that the new era clearly meant that nothing would remain as before. But her triumph was stronger than her sorrow, and she cast off her melancholy thoughts. She stopped at a café, sat down at a table, and ordered a glass of cognac and some bread. As she pondered how she was going to find the money to continue to operate the theatre, she chewed on the bread. That was when it occurred to her that the old ticket office and the abandoned café in the foyer of the theatre could be revamped as a bakery. By selling bread she could earn the money she needed. She ate the rest of the bread, stood up, and returned to the theatre to start the process of cleaning up, to make room for the dough blender and the ovens. To obtain funds for the necessary investments, she sold her car to an official at the British Embassy, and three months later she opened the doors to the bakery.

I, José Antonio Maria Vaz, came to Dona Esmeralda as soon as the rumour spread through the city that she was going to open a bakery. At that time I was working for the baker Felisberto in the harbour district, and I had no thoughts of quitting. And yet, one afternoon after work, I couldn’t resist going over to see Dona Esmeralda, who was just then hiring bakers. A long queue wound its way out of the side door of the theatre. I went to the end of the line, even though I knew it was pointless. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and, for once in my life, come close to the strange Dona Esmeralda. When it was finally my turn, I was admitted and led into a room where the sparkling stainless-steel dough blender stood waiting to begin its work. Dona Esmeralda was sitting on a low stool in the middle of the room, wearing a long silken gown and a wide-brimmed, flower-patterned hat. She gave me a solemn look. There was something inquisitive about her glance, as if she were asking herself whether she had met me before. Then she nodded abruptly, as if she had made an important decision.

‘You look like a baker,’ she said. ‘Do you have a name?’

‘José Antonio Maria Vaz,’ I told her. ‘I’ve been baking bread since I was six years old.’

I told her where I was working, but I wasn’t sure whether she heard what I said.

‘How much is Felisberto paying you?’ she interrupted me.

‘I earn 130,000,’ I said.

‘I’ll give you 129,000,’ she replied. ‘If you really want to work here, you’ll make do with less than what you’re getting from Felisberto.’

I nodded, and so I was hired. That was more than five years ago, but I can still vividly recall the moment. Dona Esmeralda asked me to get started at once. She wanted me to help her with the plans to buy flour and sugar and yeast and butter and eggs. During those long days and nights when we worked together before the bakery opened, she told me about her life. That’s how I know all that I know about her. It was through her that I began to understand something about the city in which I live, and about the country that is mine.

Whether Dona Esmeralda was crazy or not, I can’t say. On the other hand, I can certainly attest that she possessed an energy and determination that I had never before encountered. The people around her could collapse with fatigue, just from watching her at work in her theatre and bakery. Although she was then between eighty and ninety years old, she never rested. Many nights she didn’t even bother to go home; she would simply curl up on some flour sacks, call goodnight to the bakers, and then get up again after half an hour, bursting with renewed energy, as if she had awakened from a long night’s sleep. Sometimes, as we waited for the bread to rise, we would discuss when and what Dona Esmeralda actually ate. She was always scraping off the dough from around the edges of the dough blender with her fingers. No one had ever seen her eat anything else. On the other hand, she always had a bottle of cognac nearby. We suspected that it was from the bottle that she drew the strength she needed, but since we were simple people who had never had either the money or the opportunity to taste foreign distilled drinks, always celebrating instead with tontonto, we used to discuss whether her bottles might also contain something that kept a person young. Maybe Dona Esmeralda had a curandeiro who infused her drinks with magical powers.

When I, José Antonio Maria Vaz, first came to Dona Esmeralda’s bakery, which she had named the Holy Bread Bakery, I had just turned eighteen. I was a trained baker, although I was still lacking my master’s certificate. But I had been baking bread since I was six years old.

It was my father who took me over to my uncle, Master Fernando, who ran a bakery in the African bairro out past the airport. My father, who all his life long was an extremely impractical man, had one day looked at my hands and decided that they were suited for shaping croissants. I would find both my future and my livelihood as a baker. Like almost all other Africans, we were poor. I grew up during the time when no one had yet heard anything of the young revolutionaries who had