The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

Matulai, the South Wind

Abacar Abubacar knows all the winds. He knows them by name, by origin, and by temperament. He knows them better than he knows his own children, whom, as it happens, he hasn’t seen in many years. He was born on a dhow, and since then has spent more time living on the sea than on terra firma. He doesn’t like the expression “terra firma.” He doesn’t feel safe on land. Only the sea seems firm to him.

“How many people do you know who have been shot dead while at sea? Or got run over while fishing?”

When night falls, he drops anchor at a safe distance from the land, at least a hundred meters away, and only then does he stretch out on the coarse wood, and sleep.

His sleep is deep and dreamless. When he wakes, he asks the fish about the winds. Since the fish are wise they tell him things he has always known. Abubacar enjoys the discreet wisdom of the fish.

One morning he wakes up and sees no fish. No birds. The silence, like a blanket, covers the clear calm of the waters. He wonders where the fish might be. Where the winds have gone. He wonders if the world still exists.

Or, he thinks, perhaps he has died? Maybe this is what death is: a sea with no fish.

For the first time, he is afraid of the sea.

He sits and waits. In this motionless time, upon the lifeless liquid, he hears a voice that seems to come from everywhere:

“Who’s there?” asks the voice.

Abubacar gives a start. The voice seems familiar.

“Who’s there?” he asks in turn.

“I asked first,” the voice objects.

“Abacar,” says Abacar. “Abacar Abubacar.”

“Abacar, the fisherman?”

“Yes . . .”

“The friend of the winds?”

Abacar senses a slightly ironic tone to the voice. He can’t tell if it is mockery or praise.

“Well, nobody knows all the winds,” he murmurs, a little irritated.

“I only know our own. I don’t know a thing about foreign winds.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? I live here! This is my sea.”

“Not this sea, Abacar. Not this one. Not yet.”

Abacar stands up, very nervous. He spreads his eyes across that tranquil emerald mirror. It’s then that anguish strikes his heart like an enemy arrow. No, this is not the sea where he was born and where he has lived his whole life. It’s the same color and has the same wonder. There is the narrow island and, beyond it, the leisurely outline of the continent. Yet it lacks the whisper of the winds, the dense murmur of the fish crossing the currents, the powerful smell of salt and life that, every morning, brings him more energy than a cup of coffee.

The island is a time capsule. Nothing of the present can reach us here. From time to time tourists show up. We don’t ask them from where they’ve come, but from when. Naturally they come, all of them, from some moment in the future. However, when they dock here, they no longer remember. Journeys through time provoke an irreversible kind of amnesia.

Abacar is well-acquainted with that illness. He has transported such wayward tourists often. They look in wonder at the rocks raised up at the surface of the waters, like the lightest pieces of filigree, delicate roses of stone, and they ask:

“Is this possible?!”

Abacar knows it isn’t a question of possibility, but of patience. Those people come from an impatient time. They don’t understand the work of the centuries.

“Where am I?” he asks at last.

The air seems to roar with laughter around him. The boat rocks slightly. In that unfamiliar water, an inanimate copy of his own sea, Abacar feels like an avocado tree retreating completely back into the inside of the avocado. He understands with horror, and relief, that the voice surrounding him is his own.

He sits on the prow, with his feet brushing the water, and shuts his eyes. He smiles when he hears the wind. He knows it well: it is Matulai, the good south wind, the one that combs the waves, untangles the knots in thoughts, and puts women in better humor. He smiles, before he has even opened his eyes, because he knows he’s back home. Three hours and he’ll be mooring on the jetty. Aisha will appear with a bowl of seaweed matapa and new logs, wide-hipped and ample-bosomed, her great laughter unsubdued. At night his sleep would be deep and dreamless. And in the morning he would talk to the fishes.


José Agualusa

José Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola in 1960. He studied agronomy and forestry in Lisbon before he began his work as a writer. His novel Creole was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature, and he received the U.K.’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Book of Chameleons in 2007. He and his translator, Daniel Hahn, won the 2017 Dublin Literary Award for A General Theory of Oblivion and in 2019, he won Angola’s most prestigious literary prize, the National Prize for Culture and Arts.

Daniel Hahn

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, and translator. He is the author of several works of non-fiction, including the history book The Tower Menagerie. He is the editor of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature and one of the editors of The Ultimate Book Guide, a series of reading guides for children and teenagers. His translations (from Portuguese, Spanish, and French) include fiction from Africa, Europe, and Latin America.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues