We Killed Mangy-Dog and other Mozambican Stories (1964) is one of the best short story collections by a single author in African literature. I would list it among the best in the world. I loved this slim book of seven stories when I first read it about fifteen years ago. It has gotten even better this second time around.
In these stories, Luis Bernardo Honwana interrogates the racial, social and class realities of Mozambique. His writing style is sensitive and delicate and each character, whether human or animal, is deeply rendered. His descriptions are vivid and his prose is poetic.
Paradoxically, the brevity of his prose coupled with how the stories are crafted results in an expansive view of his Mozambican world. Because, in most of the stories, the reader has to fill in certain gaps or infer a great deal. The author goes to great lengths to show the fragmented nature and the discord in his society as a result of the oppressive and racist Portuguese colonial system.
In first story, Dina, a white farm Overseer rapes a young girl within hearing and seeing distance of her African father. It is most shocking and disturbing. The story deals with the emasculation of the African society by its colonial masters. It focuses on Madala, the old father. In the opening scenes, the Overseer delays in heeding the call to lunch and Madala continues to work. Or does he? One is not quite sure whether Madala’s pulling on stalks is real or imagined. Whatever the case, Honwana weaves in a rather sympathetic portrayal of this old man such that when the shameful act occurs, the reader and the other farmhands are both outraged at the pain and dishonor done to this man and his daughter. The reader is led on and expects a rebellion. Instead, another tragedy occurs.
In the second story, Inventory of furniture & effects, a young girl relates her family’s possession and describes their living situation. The reader might be lulled into thinking that the story is about nothing much really. But a closer reading allows one to infer intellectual life lived in genteel poverty and a child’s anger at the absence of her father.
In Papa, snake & I, a young boy grows closer to his father on a day his father is humiliated by white neighbor.
“It’s nothing, Mother, but you know , our son believes that people don’t mount wild horses, and that they only make use of the hungry, docile ones. Yet when a horse goes wild it gets shot down and it’s all finished. But tame horses die every day. Every day…Day after day, after day – as long as they can stand on their feet… Do you know, Mother, I’m afraid to believe that this is true, but I also can’t bring myself to tell him that it’s a lie… He sees, even to-day he saw… I only wish for the strength to make sure that my children know how to recognize other things…”
The Hand of Blacks presents different myths about the origin of the pale palms of the hands of Black people. A mother tells her son that black people are equal to white people in every way even though her reality and the community that she lives in say otherwise.
The penultimate story, Nhinguitimo, starts with the description of pigeons and the havoc they wreak on harvest, talks of an impending storm but ends with one of the most heart-breaking and poignant instances of land dispossession in literature.
The pigeons flight is essentially practical – it sacrifices the grace of a pirouette or the sweep of a curve to the necessity of arriving more quickly. No one remembers seeing a pigeon intoxicated by the caress of the wind, as often happens to the swallow; no one can affirm that, like the vulture, the pigeon indulges himself in the sensual pleasures of gliding through the dense blue space with his wings unfurled; surely too, no one ever heard of a pigeon spending a whole morning combing his stomach for lice, fluffing out his chest, smoothing his feathers, as the lazy secua goose does.
The title story, We killed Mangy-Dog, uses versions of this description of a sick as a frequent refrain:
Mangy-dog had blue eyes with no shine in them at all, but they were enormous and always filled with tears that trickle down his muzzle. They frightened me, those eyes, so big, and looking at me like someone asking for something without wanting to say it.
The narrator of the story, a young boy, feels compassion for and is attached to Mangy-dog. Yet, he will join a band of peers to kill Mangy-dog. Honwana uses this story to describe segregated life under Portuguese rule. Mangy-dog is the most vulnerable member of the community. Here, the plight of the dog represents the plight of black people and in the end, when mangy-dog is killed, one feels that a human being has died. The killing of mangy-dog also marks a rite of passage for the boy-narrator and his peers. Like other stories in the collection that are narrated by children, the child develops with the development of the story. A most disturbing but a truly brilliant story.
The stories in this collection are created around a single ideology, character or situation in each instance. As such, their short form belies a depth in perception. It’s as though Honwana took snapshots of life in Mozambique and has rendered them in prose. In this manner then, the ambiguity of many of the stories’ endings is to be expected. The lives of the characters continue on beyond the confines of the story. This is a haunting collection of short stories. Vulnerable is the word that comes to mind when I think of the characters in these stories.
Luis Bernardo Honwana’s name is hardly mentioned when we list the masters of African literature. A great shame because this book has influenced the works of many Southern African writers. A must read and highly recommended.
(Translated from the Portuguese)