In some ways the novel Mayombe resembles an old World War II movie. A rugged military officer and his closest friend are fighting for a better life, but their passion for the same woman tests their friendship and their commitment to the struggle. But this time the two men aren’t GIs in Normandy but guerrillas in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, and they are battling not the Nazis but the colonial power of Portugal.
In the late 1960s, Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana, whose pen name is Pepetela, fought in Cabinda for the MPLA, one of several movements struggling to expel the Portuguese and gain control of the country. He wrote Mayombe while the war was still going on, several years before the MPLA became the ruling party of an independent Angola. Despite its frank discussions of racial and tribal conflict among the ranks, and even its prediction of MPLA authoritarianism after independence, the book was published with the support of Agostino Neto, Angola’s first president. A translation from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers first appeared in 1983.
Pepetela’s firsthand war experience lends authenticity to his descriptions of combat and of life behind the lines. The forest of Mayombe is almost a character in its own right, and the author doesn’t forget the homely, unheroic details. The guerrillas’ Pepesha machine guns, for instance, sound like sewing machines. The names adopted by the guerrillas — Truth, Struggle, New World, Miracle, even Theory — may sound like the allegorical figures in Pilgrim’s Progress, but these men are thoroughly human: they make mistakes, struggle with their fears, and act for the most part without false bravado. They are philosophical warriors, though, and their bookish conversation is flavored with Marx, Lenin, and Freud.
The Commander of the Mayombe guerrillas is known as Fearless, a name that sits uneasily on him (he was previously called Sphinx) and that strikes some of the men as a little too much. Fearless or not, he is certainly brave, and he inspires loyalty through example and through his sensitivity to the personal qualities of his troops. Though he considers himself a Marxist, he struggles with the remnants of a Christian upbringing, and his approach to problem-solving is far from doctrinaire. He finds fulfillment in the struggle against the Portuguese, and cannot imagine what role he would play in a free Angola.
Fearless’s friend and right-hand man is referred to as the Commissar, though in intimate conversation the Commander calls him Joao. Steeped in Marxist ideology, the Commissar insists that his men risk their lives to return a small sum of money stolen from a local worker, and he describes his troubled relations with the tumultuous and beautiful Ondine in terms of dialectics. His hard ideological shell hides some violent emotions, however, and these erupt most dramatically in the second of two battles that (contrary to Marx) play out the first time as farce and the second time as tragedy.
Fearless recognizes that the Commissar is the model for the post-independence Angolan leader, the type responsible for the creation of a rigid government machine. “What is more tragic,” Fearless tells him, “is that you will be right. Objectively, it will be necessary to tighten vigilance inside the Party, improve discipline, make purges…. But these purges will provide pretexts for ambitious men to confuse counter-revolutionaries with those who criticize their ambition and their mistakes.” Though Fearless, and apparently the author, appear to have reservations about this stark future, both seem to believe it is unavoidable.