Laughing out loud

João Melo’s The Serial Killer e outros contos risiveis ou talvez não (The Serial Killer and other laughable stories or perhaps not) is a collection of 17 short stories, the first of which gives the book its title. This is a taut, intellectually rewarding work, at once provocative and entertaining. Melo covers themes as varied as political correctness (“O engenheiro nórdico” – The Nordic engineer – and “Uma história canina” – A canine history), social mendacity (“O rabo do chefe” – The chief’s tail) and intellectual hypocrisy, professional fakery, and the perpetual debate between politics and aesthetics that characterises Angolan letters as much as African art in general (“Caricatura do artista enquanto jovem” – Charicature of the artist as a young man). Two stories deal with the messy relationship with the former colonial power, Portugal in a light-hearted manner (“Vêm aí as portuguesas” – Look at the Portuguese over there – and “A herança” – The legacy), and another explores the changing human geographies of Luanda (“O gourmet”). Throughout it all João Melo revels in the pleasure of the word, of the well-crafted tale and reveals a sharp eye for the complexities of human behaviour.

This is storytelling of a fine standard, bringing together a thoroughly Eurocentric intellectual disposition (if he forgives me for putting it in these terms) and a wonderful ability to reflect critically yet compassionately on contemporary Angolan society. Melo’s Luanda is particularly well drawn, a rich blend of old and new practices, of the cloying nostalgia for days gone by and of the permissive, often corrupt ways of the present. The stories revolve around a number of interesting characters, from the dull to the eccentric, picking up the wide social disparities of a society very much still in transition between colony and postcolonial nation building where the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ grow ever apart. Although mostly focused on individual cases, the stories resonate also with the condition of Angolan people more broadly.

“The relationship between writer and reader reflects as much an urbane awareness of literary tastes as it does of a real pleasure in the playfulness of storytelling”

Perhaps not surprisingly in a text written in Portuguese but given an English title, in The Serial Killer Melo allows himself total freedom to play with both language and form, while tirelessly sharing with readers the imaginative scaffolding of the narrative, as it were. To suggest that his work is in part ‘postmodern’might give you an idea of some of the kinds of games he plays with his readers, but it is also much too limited a way of describing this text. The relationship Melo sets up between writer and reader reflects as much an urbane awareness of literary tastes and movements as it does of a real pleasure in the playfulness of storytelling. There are plenty of references to the work of other writers, ranging from the Americans Paul Auster and Ernest Hemingway, to ‘multinationals’ such as James Joyce and Walter Benjamin (“O livro da deambulação” – Book of Wandering – is an obvious allusion to Benjamin’s flâneur), and the Mexican Laura Esquivel. However, these are less the result of a conscious desire to emulate foreign styles than a ‘by-product’ of a writer at ease in a globalised world, in the word’s most meaningful sense. He displays his immense knowledge of European, American and African literary traditions with a lightness of touch that at once provokes and seduces us into laughing with him while simultaneously being teased into thinking beyond the more superficial level of the work.

Melo draws on this impressively wide body of ideas to create stories that stand out for the simplicity of their structure and the controlled use of language. Reading his work for the first time I was reminded of the late Mozambican poet, José Craveirinha; with Craveirinha he shares a wry sense of humour and a lucid and plain diction. He writes with a confidence that most writers would envy, though on occasion the narrative voice of an old curmudgeon risks undermining some of the best stories. Perhaps there is such a thing as a ‘male Latin literary temperament’, for when Melo’s voice most strongly betrays a mixture of braggadocio and unreconstructed machismo it echoes those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Augusto Roa Bastos and Jorge Amado, among others.

The author of 11 publications published since 1985, in prose and poetry, Melo must be one of the most interesting writers in contemporary Angolan writing. Although written in Portuguese, and as such limited in its appeal to a reading public, Melo’s work conveys a real sense of risk-taking and narrative experimentation. If The Serial Killer is an accurate reflection of his work as a whole, João Melo’s is a highly original and erudite African writer, possessed of a wicked, subversive and unpredictable sense of humour. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and would add to the earlier encomia a note on its intellectual energy, and its zany but warm view of the world.