Rami, the beautiful yet spurned wife of Tony, says “Modesty apart, I’m the most perfect woman in the world.” And that sends us right into her world, in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, a world of baffled women whose husbands have wandered off to form new alliances. The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, by Paulina Chiziane, Mozambique’s first published female novelist, shouldn’t be funny, but it is, as Rami forces Tony to marry all the women—all four of them!—with whom he has created families (not to forget an additional fifth lover!). Then they all gang up on “their man” to claim their rights! The publisher, Archipelago Books, is a non-profit press dedicated to publishing translations of classic and contemporary world literature. The translator here is David Brookshaw, professor emeritus of Luso-Brazilian studies at Bristol University, UK. You can purchase The First Wife directly from the publisher, through a local bookseller or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
AN EXPLOSION can be heard somewhere over there. A bomb. A landmine. It must be the war returning once again.
I think of hiding. Of running away. The explosion scares the birds that seek refuge in the heavens. No. It can’t be the sound of a gunshot. Maybe it’s two cars colliding somewhere on the road. I look down the road out of curiosity. I can’t see anything. Only silence. I feel a faint fluttering in my breast and remain motionless for a minute. A crowd of neighbors is walking toward me.
“What was it?”
Their arms are moving like gentle waves, ready to quell the uproar. There is feeling in every gesture. There’s a hint of quiet, feigned pity in each look, which makes me feel more alarmed.
“Yes. The window.”
“Yes. The car window.”
“Oh! Who was it?”
An invisible dagger slithers down from on high aimed at my breast. I’m as speechless as a stone, I’m terrified. All I can do is sigh and think: Ah, Betinho, my youngest! That car belongs to a rich man. What’s going to become of me?
I enter a stage of deep, silent panic. My nerves are buffeted by gusts of anxiety, like some razor-sharp wind. This accident fills me with pain and longing. My Tony, where are you? Why do you leave me all by myself to fill the role of both woman and man in solving everyday problems, when you are out there somewhere?
There are moments in life when a woman feels as isolated and vulnerable as a fleck of dust. Where are you, my one and only Tony, for I hardly ever see you? Where are you, husband of mine, to protect me, where? I’m a respectable woman, a married woman. A deep sense of loathing poisons my way ahead. I feel dizzy. A bitter taste in my mouth. Nausea. Repugnance. Impotence and despair.
Betinho dashes in, hides away in his room awaiting his punishment. I chase after him. My weekend is already ruined, my Sunday has been overcome by disaster. I need to scream in order to get rid of this bitter taste. I need to give someone hell in order to dispel this pain. I need to mete out some punishment in order to feel I’m alive.
I’m unable to scream. The tears glisten like moonlight on Betinho’s face. Betinho’s sadness is overflowing with innocence. Betinho’s sobbing is as sweet as a baby bird chirping. His tremor shakes his whole body like flowers on a bush swaying in the breeze. I sniff the smell of urine.
“Betinho, a man doesn’t wet himself with fear.”
“It was the mango, mom.”
“Yes, that ripe one, high up there in the tree.”
I look up at the mango tree. The mango is swaying serenely in the breeze. It looks a tasty mango, yes sir. Round. Youthful. And Betinho was trying to halt its flight when it was in life’s first flush, when it was still very green.
“Oh! Betinho, what have you done to me?”
“Punish me, Mom.”
Betinho’s voice ripples in my ears like the gentle rustle of pines and my rage melts away into pity. This son of mine is beautiful. Instead of forgiveness he asks for punishment. I have a just man here. I grow tender. Enchanted. My anger subsides. I feel a mother’s pride.
From the bedroom window, I am aware of comments wafting up from the street. The words I hear drive me to despair. I feel their flaming tongues licking the inside of my bones. I boil. My eyes grow moist with tears. If Tony were here, he would berate his son as a father and a man. If he were here now, he would resolve the problem of the broken window with the owner of the car, men understand each other. Oh, if only Tony were around!
But where is my dear Tony, whom I haven’t seen since Friday? Where is that man of mine who leaves me to look after the children and the house, and gives me no inkling of where he is? A husband at home means security, protection. Thieves keep away if a husband is present. Men respect each other. Women neighbors don’t wander in just like that to ask for salt, sugar, much less to bad-mouth the other neighbor. In a husband’s presence, a home is more of a home, there’s comfort and status.
I leave Betinho alone and go out into the street. The owner of the car is seething with fury. I thought he would hit me, but not a word. He’s one of those men who are classy in the way they talk and don’t assault women. I go up to him and apologize on my son’s behalf.
I tell him my husband, Tony, a police chief, will settle the matter with him. He agrees, but I get the feeling he doesn’t believe me. What respectable man believes the word of a woman in despair?
A whole procession of women comes to meet me. They console me. Children are like that, Rami. They talk about children and the broken window. And they talk about absent husbands who don’t look after their children either.
“There’s no order because there’s a man missing in this house,” I burst out. “This is all Tony’s fault. He’s never here. First he was away for a night, then it was another, and then another. It’s become a habit. He tells me he’s on duty at night. That he has to supervise the work of all the police officers because night is when thieves are on the attack. I pretend to believe him. But men leave a snail’s slime behind them, they can’t hide. I know very well what he’s up to.
“You’re not the only one, Rami. My husband, for instance, left me years ago,” a neighbor says, “and ran after a young fourteen- year-old girl because he wanted to start all over again. An old man became a child.”
“Mine has those concubines you all know about, with children and everything,” says another. “Do you think I care?”
I look at them all. Tired, used women. Beautiful women, ugly women. Young women, old women. Women defeated in the battle for love. Outwardly alive, but dead within, forever inhabiting the shadows. But why have our husbands gone away, why have they abandoned us after so many years living together? Why have they cast us aside like unwanted baggage, like weary loads, in order to pursue new lives and loves? Why, when they are already approaching old age, are their appetites renewed? Who told old men that mature women don’t need affection? Oh, Tony, my love! If only you were here. Bring me springtime again. Where are you that you can’t hear me?
My neighbors comfort me with astonishing stories. They are mothers. In order to alleviate my pain, they tell me stories of their own unhappiness and suffering.
Our minds wander in nostalgic murmurs. In the eyes of each of us, there are images of a husband who has gone and will never come back. Quelling our anguish has become our daily struggle. In my street, most women have been abandoned, their husbands decided to get out almost at the same time. I’m the only one who still sees her man’s face from time to time—but only when he comes home to eat or change his clothes. There are no men left in this area, it’s the women who are the head of their families, but when night falls, lots of men can be seen entering and leaving some of the houses surreptitiously, like thieves. They are married men, for sure, and from these relationships here, children will be born, many of whom will die without knowing their father.
Love. Such a tiny word. A beautiful, precious word. A powerful, elusive sentiment. Just four letters, giving birth to all the emotions in the world. Women talk of love. Men talk of love. Love that comes, love that goes, that flees, that hides, that is sought, that is found, that is cherished, that is scorned, that causes hatred and unleashes endless wars. In matters of love, women are a defeated army, they have nothing left to do but weep. Lay down their arms and accept their solitude. Write poems and sing to the wind in order to chase away their pain. Love is as fleeting as a drop of water in the palm of one’s hand.
Copyright © Paulina Chiziane, 2002. English language translation copyright © David Brookshaw, 2016. Published by Archipelago Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.