‘Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret’ book review
By Joshua Grant, Senior Columnist
I’ve always had a soft spot for literature that captures life through the eyes of a child, because children are weird. Childhood is a framework that offers so many opportunities—life to a child is simultaneously light, surreal, frightening, and important in ways that adults so easily forget.
Ondjaki’s Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (translated from Portuguese by Stephen Henighan) handles the child’s perspective well. The way that it captures children’s actions both so childish and so political could be compared, favourably, to American TV show South Park. The tone is a bit different, of course (darker, slower, less outrageous), but feels true to the experience of children living in a complicated world.
Granma Nineteen is set in Ondjaki’s home country, Angola, and follows the young protagonist (who remains unnamed) and his friend, Pi (also known as Comrade 3.14).
The sleepy town of Bishop’s Beach, near the Angolan capital of Luanda, faces an existential threat when a contingent of bumbling Soviet soldiers appears. Though the Soviets, with their strange accents and old-world mannerisms, are an endless source of humour, this is essentially an occupation. They are here to construct a huge mausoleum for the deceased president of Angola, a mausoleum that could displace the town.
The young heroes face the threat with mischief and explosive imagination. Along the way, they are helped (and hindered) by a cast of memorably strange characters.
This isn’t a common novel. The plot, the characters, and even the world itself are unstable and hard to get a grip on. The two main plot arcs, which describe how Granma Nineteen became Granma Nineteen and the building of the Soviet mausoleum, respectively, are more like a series of two novellas than a unified novel. But this works all right with the slightly off-beat, surreal flow of the whole work.
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in strange novels or Portuguese/African literature. It describes a weird and beautiful world that’s a joy to visit.