A Companion to João Paulo Borges Coelho

Rewriting the (Post)Colonial Remains

by Elena Brugioni (Volume editor) Orlando Grossegesse (Volume editor) Paulo de Medeiros (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection VI, 266 Pages


This companion offers a critical overview of a great part of the literary oeuvre of the acclaimed Mozambican writer and historian João Paulo Borges Coelho. It focuses on a multiplicity of elements central to his literary project, underscoring the originality and complexity of one of the most prominent authors from the Portuguese-speaking world. With contributions from scholars hailing from different academic disciplines including history, this collection offers a compelling and original reading of Borges Coelho’s fictional work, engaging with current critical debates in the fields of literary theory, postcolonial studies, world-literature, and eco-criticism. The book advances new critical paths within Portuguese-speaking literary studies from a comparative perspective. At the same time it is addressed to a variety of scholars and advanced students in other, related fields.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • João Paulo Borges Coelho: A Short Biography
  • 1 The Enchanted Cloth (João Paulo Borges Coelho)
  • 2 The Archive and the Fable: Trajectory of a Mozambican Historian (Paolo Israel)
  • 3 Poetics and Politics of Memory: Notes on João Paulo Borges Coelho’s Novels1 (Nazir Ahmed Can)
  • 4 Narratives of the Indian Ocean in the Writing of João Paulo Borges Coelho: A Transnational Geography (Ana Mafalda Leite)
  • 5 History, Literature, and the Indices of the Ocean: Force of Signification in Borges Coelho’s ‘A força do mar de Agosto’ (Rui Gonçalves Miranda)
  • 6 The Tourism Imaginary in Hinyambaan (Jessica Falconi)
  • 7 A Parody of Final Redemption: The Uses of Geopolitical Fiction in O Olho de Hertzog (Orlando Grossegesse)
  • 8 Of Clues, Traces, and Minor Histories: Theorizing the Historical Novel in Borges Coelho’s Rainhas da Noite (Elena Brugioni)
  • 9 Towards a World-Literary Aesthetics of Postcolonial Memory: Rainhas da Noite by João Paulo Borges Coelho (Emanuelle Santos)
  • 10 The Drowning of Time: Ecological Catastrophe, Dialectics, and Allegorical Realism in João Paulo Borges Coelho’s Ponta Gea and Água: Uma novela rural (Paulo de Medeiros)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

Elena Brugioni, Orlando Grossegesse, and Paulo de Medeiros


This book proposes a critical overview of the literary work published by the Mozambican writer João Paulo Borges Coelho. It focuses on different aspects of his biography and literary project and underscores the originality and complexity of one of the most prominent authors from the Portuguese-speaking world.

With the contribution of scholars from different academic contexts and fields of study in the Humanities, the volume offers a compelling and original reading of Borges Coelho’s historical and fictional work, engaging with current critical debates in the fields of comparative literatures, literary theory, and postcolonial studies, and therefore puts forward new critical paths within the Portuguese-speaking literary field, as well as comparative insights for scholars and students of the Humanities at large. The book represents the first monograph published in English1 dedicated to the fictional work of João Paulo Borges Coelho, and therefore an important bibliographical source for scholars from the Anglophone world, offering new comparative possibilities within the fields of Lusophone literary studies and African literatures.

Considering the increasing academic interest in Borges Coelho’s literary work, especially within Portuguese-speaking contexts, but also in Anglophone and Francophone universities, we believe that this publication will fill an important gap, as well as hopefully contributing to the dissemination of Borges Coelho’s literary work in English-speaking contexts. In this regard, the short story ‘O pano encantado’ [The Enchanted Cloth],2 ←1 | 2→translated by David Brookshaw, that opens the volume gives the reader a taste of the valuable and original literary project developed by Borges Coelho, whose translation into English will undeniably add an important voice to the polyphony of the Portuguese-speaking literary canon already published in English, and possibly promote new critical readings of Borges Coelho, such as the one recently consolidated by the Warwick Research Collective on World-Literature.3

A publication composed by a selection of essays by diverse hands always and inevitably raises many problems and questions, particularly when the aim is crossing linguistic, academic and editorial boundaries, involving scholars usually working in a field still deeply defined by its linguistic identity, and therefore posing a number of issues: from the scarcity of resources dedicated to the translation of academic essays, to personal or professional impediments or the challenge of publishing a book on an author barely known in English-speaking contexts. Therefore, as usual, the final result is not quite that which had been initially conceived and discussed by us when the project was initiated. Yet, in spite of, or rather thanks to, the many changes and adjustments the project underwent along the way, the book represents what we view as a strong contribution to scholarship on the work of João Paulo Borges Coelho. For this we would like to express our deep and sincere gratitude to the authors who willingly accepted to join the project, honouring with their contributions a writer and a person that we all hold in high regard.


If the literary work of João Paulo Borges Coelho does not provide easy answers, neither does it pose uncomplicated questions. As shown by the chapters in this volume, the author and his work hardly fit the established labels that frequently shape the language of our time, especially within an academic context. Since 2003, Borges Coelho has published eleven books – seven novels, a collection of short stories, and three novellas – all deeply engaged with different moments and places of Mozambican ←2 | 3→history and territory, as well as clearly open to global historical events and transnational cultural networks.4 In this regards, it is worth addressing the literary corpus of the author in order to highlight the variety that characterizes this literary project.

As duas Sombras do Rio [The Two Shadows of the River]5 – the author’s first literary work – is a novel that deals with a peculiar moment of Mozambican history, its so-called civil war, and is set in the emblematic space of the Zambezi region and the Zumbo district. The book offers a compelling and original narrative regarding the cultural environment that characterizes the region, addressing the violent impact of the war on the different communities that inhabit the region, and focusing on cultural practices, knowledge and beliefs that define the very identity of the people and the world around the Zambezi River.

The author’s second novel, As visitas do Dr. Valdez [The visits of Dr Valdez],6 is a masterful postcolonial parody – a brilliant example of mimicry as theorized by Homi K. Bhabha – set in the city of Beira, where two old settlers ladies lost their personal doctor, who would be replaced by their black servant in order to disguise the changes of times which all the characters are about to experience. The novel depicts all contradictions and ambiguities of a moment of transition, lived in a private space, and therefore repositions the relation between the colonial past and the post-independent era beyond the rhetoric of opposition. The book won the literary Prize José Craveirinha, consecrating the author inside and outside the ‘republic of letters’ in Portuguese.

Índicos Indícios III Setentrião e Meridião [Indian Ocean Traces – North and South]7 is the first collection of short stories published by Borges ←3 | 4→Coelho, and offers an emblematic intersection between the Mozambican territory and history within the complex network of the Indian Ocean space-time, addressed in each short story as the paradigmatic index for a maritime dimension of the Mozambican national context.

In 2006, the author published Crónica da Rua 513.2 [Chronicle of Street 513.2],8 a novel set in an unnamed street of Maputo (Lourenço Marques, during the colonial era), depicted as an exemplary place, inhabited by the ghosts of the past and where in the present real people struggle to make sense of colonial memories and transformations of the post-independent time. This is a brilliant metonymic narrative articulating the tension between space and time within a postcolonial political dimension.

In 2007, his fourth novel Campo de Trânsito [The Transit Camp]9 was published. A work inspired by the re-education camps established by the first Frelimo government in order to educate people and build the New Man, the novel also addresses power relations and bio-political issues, offering an inspiring narrative concerning the ‘camp’ as an aesthetic paradigm for contemporary literary writing.

The first of the three novellas is Hinyambaan. Novela burlesca [Hinyambaan. Burlesque novella] (2008).10 Its title is a parody of the South African pronunciation of Hinhambane – the touristic city 300 kilometres north of Maputo. It depicts a trip undertaken by a South African white family who, during their holidays, are befallen with several incidents, in an ironic take on the misunderstandings between Mozambicans and their South African neighbours.

O Olho de Hertzog [The Eye of Hertzog]11 is possibly the first openly historical novel published by the author, counterpointing different historical events and characters in the scenario of Lourenço Marques (today Maputo) in the aftermath of the First World War in East Africa. The book won the LEYA International Literary Prize in 2009, and was welcomed by critics as one of the new masterpieces of Mozambican literature.

←4 | 5→

In 2011, the author published his second novella, Cidade dos Espelhos. Novela futurista [City of Mirrors. Futuristic novella],12 a dystopian narrative that deploys a post-human and post-apocalyptic atmosphere and proposes a fierce critique to contemporary political regimes, inside and outside the Mozambican context.

Rainhas da Noite [Queens of the Night],13 a novel published in 2013, is set in the small mining city of Moatize during the so-called period of late colonialism (1950). It addresses the living experience of three women and their interaction with the local community, offering an original meta-critical discourse regarding the workings of history and memory within a postcolonial context.

Água. Uma novela rural [Water. A Rural Novella]14 is the last of the three novellas published by the author, and possibly the work in which the eco-critical dimension of Borges Coelho’s literary writing became more explicit, offering, at the same time, an original reflection regarding the very concept of modernity within the periphery of the Mozambican nation.

Ponta Gea [Cape Gea],15 his most recent novel, is a hybrid narrative that intersects the aesthetics of short narrative forms with the sub-genre of memoirs. The city of Beira – and its peculiar political and cultural environment within Mozambique – is used to represent and remember a kind of micro-cosmos of the country’s political and social life.


Although this volume does not pretend to cover all works published by Borges Coelho, it does propose different critical approaches in order to highlight the multiplicity of readings and reflections inspired by his literary project.

Before dealing with literature, Paolo Israel offers a narrative appraisal of João Paulo Borges Coelho’s trajectory as a historian, in the broader context of knowledge production in socialist Mozambique. Following the ←5 | 6→articulations of intellectual biography, the chapter focuses especially on his engagements with the history of the liberation struggles and its archives, underlining his unique position analysing the role of the liberation ‘fable’ in Mozambican collective memory, and at the same time observing his shift to fiction as a possible disenchantment with the discourse of history itself. The chapter by Nazir Ahmed Can presents an overview of the artistic project proposed by Borges Coelho, demonstrating how his literary work finds its unity through the combination of regularity and experimentation, an unusual blend in the literary scene. Starting from the diversification of times, spaces, people, and narrative stances, opposing the rigid vision of established powers, the author interprets the silences of official historiography and expands the horizon of local memory. By looking at his first novels, Nazir Ahmed Can analyses the way these options enable, on the one hand, a clever reading about violence and, on the other, an act of aesthetic renovation in Mozambican literature.

Ana Mafalda Leite discusses the importance of narrative as a cultural element of transit that entwines the shores of the Indian Ocean, creating a specific geography between the coastline and the islands. Her chapter demonstrates how that transit is charted in Borges Coelho’s writings and how it interweaves two different types of Indian Ocean topographical representation: the descriptive meta-narrative of historical origin and the literary-fictional narrative, which lies at the intersection of myth and history. A fragmentary geography of the Indian Ocean, built in different narratives, is thus mapped onto the creative multiplicity of the Mozambican author. Rui Gonçalves Miranda analyses the short narratives of Índicos Indícios (2005) shedding light on the ways in which the indexes and traces of the Indian Ocean both historicize and storify political alternatives. The representations of law and democracy – the force of and the enforcing of law (Jacques Derrida) – in short stories such as ‘Casas de Ferro’ [Iron houses] and ‘A Força do Mar de Agosto’ [The strength of the sea in August] highlight the way in which literature performs (‘as literature’) an always already political role beyond denouncing and/or engagement (Jacques Rancière). The ‘Indian Ocean’, both as social-political method and as literary device, presents no escapist route; rather, it stresses the tension and conflict underwriting a ‘within’ which is without defined borders or propriety. In the ←6 | 7→short stories, the ‘sea’ demands and performs a logic other to the ‘law of the land’, thus enabling us to resist authoritarianism in the present and to project beyond a preordained future. Jessica Falconi looks at the novella Hinyambaan (2008), focusing on the representation of tourist practices and exploring the tourist gaze16 performed by the South African characters, as well as their ideas of nature and culture, mainly based on prejudices and stereotypes about Mozambique and Mozambican people. Conversely, the description of the cultural encounter and interaction between the South African family and the ‘native’ Mozambican character Djika-Djika, and his family, display a powerful representation of a contact zone, as theorized by Mary Louise Pratt, where the gaze becomes mutual. Finally, this chapter explores the role of material culture – objects, food, drinks, etc. – in the construction of the tourist gaze, as well as in the representation of cultural interaction. Orlando Grossegesse analyses the novel O Olho de Hertzog (2010), observing how Borges Coelho rewrites the past. Starting with Linda Hutcheon’s category of historiographic metafiction, the chapter deals with the specific parody of teleological construction of history, which notably contributes to the critical cosmopolitanism of this novel. A peculiar spacetime (David Harvey) on the periphery of colonial empires lends an ex-centric perspective on traditional Eurocentric historiography. Therefore, a comparison with Imperium (2012), a novel by the Swiss author Christian Kracht, sheds light on the uses of geopolitical fiction in partly overlapping periods since 1902 to the immediate aftermath of the First World War. O Olho de Hertzog goes clearly beyond repositioning Mozambican colonial identity in the beginning of the twentieth century, aiming towards a self-reflexive or even self-ironical positioning within twenty-first-century transnational world literature.

Elena Brugioni, through a reading of the novel Rainhas da Noite (2013), proposes a reflection regarding conceptual constellations – traces, clues, archive, and witness – that appear to be crucial in the novel, as well as in Borges Coelho’s literary project. Addressing literary writing as a practice of critical and epistemological formulation and reflection, a number of significant clues occur, defining the novel as a place of production of historical ←7 | 8→and philosophical knowledge that become crucial for the creation of a ‘cultural memory’ in Mozambique. Emanuelle Santos discusses the ways in which Borges Coelho’s widely acknowledged talent creates literary works that conjugate the global and the local, being able to illuminate the connection between postcolonial memory and world-literature. In her reading of the novel Rainhas da Noite, she argues that the nuanced representation of colonialism through memory operates a critique of postcolonial societies which is inherently transnational and systemic.

In the closing chapter, Paulo de Medeiros proposes a critical approach to the two novels Ponta Gea (2016) and Água: Uma novela rural (2017). According to Medeiros, the latest novel Ponta Gea means an intense process of working through memory that starts by positing memory itself as water. On the other hand, Água reflects on the contradictions of Mozambican society as it undergoes rapid and drastic changes related both to modernity and to climate change. Both texts draw on some of the author’s established preoccupations, themes and images, focused on the crucial function of water. Not only in terms of their content, but also due to their formal experimentations, these novels constitute daring interventions in Mozambican and Lusophone literature. The essay discusses them in terms of their engagement with ecological issues, dialectics, memory, and technology. At the same time, Medeiros analyses the novels’ aesthetic aspects, from the question of (magical) realism to the various processes of allegorizing deployed.

←8 |

1 There are already two books published in Portuguese entirely dedicated to the literary work of João Paulo Borges Coelho: Nazir Ahmed Can, Discurso e poder nos romances de João Paulo Borges Coelho (Maputo: Alcance Editores, 2014), and Sheila Khan, Sandra Sousa, Leonor Simas-Almeida, Isabel A. Ferreira Gould and Nazir Ahmed Can, eds, Visitas a João Paulo Borges Coelho: leituras, diálogos e futuros (Lisboa: Colibri, 2017).

2 Included in Índicos indícios – Setentrião (Lisboa: Caminho, 2005).

3 WReC, Combined and Uneven Development. Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).

4 The author has published also three books of graphic novels: Akapwitchi Akaporo – armas e escravos (1981), No tempo do Farelahi (1984) and Namacurra (1984), all currently out of print. Borges Coelho’s literary work is published in Portugal by Editorial Caminho and in Maputo by Editora Ndjira, the Mozambican publishing house of Caminho.

5 João Paulo Borges Coelho, As duas Sombras do Rio (Lisboa: Caminho, 2003).


VI, 266
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
World-Literature Eco-Criticism Mozambican postcolonial novel Postcolonial Studies History, Memory, and the Indian Ocean
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VI, 266 pp., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Elena Brugioni (Volume editor) Orlando Grossegesse (Volume editor) Paulo de Medeiros (Volume editor)

Elena Brugioni is Assistant Professor in African literatures and postcolonial theory in the Department of Literary Theory at the University of Campinas (Brazil) and Lecturer in the Graduate Program in Literary Theory and History at Unicamp. Orlando Grossegesse is Professor of German and Comparative Literary Studies at the Institute of Arts and Humanities at the University of Minho (Braga). Paulo de Medeiros is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.


Title: A Companion to João Paulo Borges Coelho
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274 pages