The most distinctive landmark in Luanda is, without question, a four-hundred-foot-tall obelisk that overlooks the bay. It is one of those outsize monuments to Soviet constructivism, a mausoleum erected in the early eighties for Angola’s first president, the Communist Antonio Agostinho Neto, who died in Moscow in 1979. The locals call it o foguete—the rocket—because that’s exactly what it looks like.
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, a remarkable novel (his third to appear in English) by the Angolan writer Ondjaki, is set in the shadow of this real-life monument in the seaside Luanda neighborhood of Bishop’s Beach. Like so many Soviet efforts in those days, this one would become something of a white elephant. Original plans for the memorial included a political and administrative campus, a large demonstration square for rallies and meetings, and a chime that would sound at regular intervals, accompanied by recordings of the late Neto’s verse. Instead, civil war and the rise to power of a US-backed anti-Communist government left the project largely unfinished. Neto’s remains wouldn’t even be laid to rest in the mausoleum until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even then it was done largely out of pity for his wife, who had waited eleven years to bury him.
Like his unnamed narrator, Ondjaki was a little boy in Luanda in the mid-1980s when Angola’s relationship with Moscow was waning. Much of Ondjaki’s work deals with this period and what it is like to come of age at the end of an epoch. In the landscape of Granma Nineteen, the rocket looms over a plot of dust that separates the residents from the sea, limiting the movements of the novel’s delightfully weird cast of characters: Old Comrade Fisherman can’t fish the way he used to; Crazy Sea Foam has to fight with the Soviets so that they’ll let him go on bathing in the ocean each morning; and the children of Bishop’s Beach have to stick to very particular routes for their running and playing. But the central worry for all involved is a rumor, becoming increasingly real over the course of the novel, that the Soviets plan to move them out of the area and demolish, or “dexplode,” their homes.
This word, “dexplode,” invented by the children who constantly misinterpret and mispronounce what they see and hear, is one of dozens of linguistic mash-ups that the novel relishes. The children even confuse languages for the nationalities to which they are attached—Spanish and “Cuban” are one and the same; Soviets speak Soviet, but they have terrible accents in Portuguese, which might also be Angolan. One Soviet soldier, who greets everyone at any time of day with a stilted, “Gudafternoon,” is dubbed Gudafterov by the narrator’s best friend, a little boy named Pi, whose own name has undergone transformation: When Sea Foam, “who had studied mathematics in Cuba until he went crazy,” tells the children that Pi is a number, the boy assumes the name 3.14.
Ondjaki beautifully evokes the earnest resolve of the children as they take up their campaign against Soviet demolition. They discover Cyrillic letters chalked on the sides of homes that are to be leveled and sneak into warehouses in search of the dynamite that will do the job.
But theirs is not the only plot being hatched in Bishop’s Beach and therein lies the truly enjoyable stuff of this novel. Granma Nineteen is a story of multiplicities and simultaneities. It is at once a coming-of-age novel, rousing adventure, and lyrical experiment. And, with a civil war (a simultaneity in itself) raging in the background, it is undeniably political. It, like Angola, is multiracial and multinational, absorbing and resisting the outside world.
It is no surprise that this energetic and endearing novel is the work of a writer of such stunning accomplishment as Ondjaki. He is incredibly prolific—the author of twenty books, and winner of over a dozen Portuguese-language literary prizes, including the prestigious José Saramago Prize for Literature in 2013. He is only thirty-six.
Just as the dust whipped up by the Luanda Bay breeze drifts across the neighborhood in a wave, settling on front steps and in chicken coops, getting into everything through windows and eyes, the world of Granma Nineteen is in constant motion. We have only to read the first lines to know this: “The explosion woke up even the birds asleep in the trees and the dozy fish in the sea. Colours came out that had never been seen before: yellow mixed with red pretending to be orange in a bluish green, flares that mimicked the strength of the stars reclining in the sky and a warlike rumbling of the kind made by MiG planes.” Ondjaki is at his best when he is writing the frenetic wonderment of children, even as they contend with the deadly realities of war and political power. The result is ebullient, cinematic, and downright magical.