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Decades of war in Angola and surrounding countries have produced a region of displacement and total violence; the actions of many have shifted the map of the country, its coordinates, its very being, making it into something that appears on no map at all: “War was the erosion, eating away at the land and its inhabitants;’ Mendes explains. “Benguela is terra firma. Lubango also. Huambo and Cuito once were. What’s in between is indescribable. No one is from the place where they are living men and women were tossed the way rough seas toss boats onto the dunes.” Much of Angola is now literally unmappable, a grid of no-go areas. Mendes navigates these dangerous places, usually under cover of night, in darkness so total and terrifying that there is no way for him to distinguish his own face or hands or the bodily shapes of others. Referred to as simply “the journalist” by both his protectors and the regional warlords who torment hima title that saves his life several timeshe realizes that in a place ravaged by war, identity is dictated by fear: “Fear is the map and the obligation it imposes?’ He follows this map to its outer limits; what he finds in this new post-war, but war-like landscape is sobering. He rides in cars and buses that break down every few feet in places where every step forward could be a step into a landmine. He argues with generals who think he’s a spy and keep him under arrest for days with little food or water. He risks his life to make a midnight phone call just to say “Hello! I’m alive!” In a place where there are no mirrors, identity is replaced by familiar sounds and the rhythm of the rituals of living. “Wake up with rats;’ he writes. “Go to sleep with fear…Vomit your own smell… Listen to the wind beneath the divan.” The chapters have no unifying style; some are fictionalized scenes of actual events written to resemble a movie script, others feel like excerpts from his writer’s notebook. Despite the oddities and discrepancies in his style, Mendes should be commended for approaching each person not with a solo traveler’s voyeuristic bravado, but rather with a gentle reverence. “In the Angolan emp tiness, places are people.” He takes his role as storyteller very seriously, and he’s good at it. While writing about cities where the distribution time of the World Food Programme dictates people’s lunch breaks, where warlords rule from bombed-out ruins, where people without running water drag buckets up several flights of stairs, he manages to avoid easy melodrama or pity. Again and again he comes back to the land and its people: the way light falls, the way people use their imaginations to survive the “brutalizing melancholy” of their lives. “A very young guerilla,” he writes, “muscles bulging under his ragged uniform, and feet jammed into the remains of his sneakers. They ordered him across the river.. stupidly risking his skin to buy tobacco and beer for the officers?’ Here, with a novelist’s sense of observation and detail, Mendes shows how brutality breeds brutality. Most of his stories ring terribly true. Only occasionally does the dialogue feel reconstructed or didactic. Relying on a collage of voices, he documents a place where “death is cheap” and “enemies are everywhere” in “a land of guerillas and no other crop.” He is at his best when he avoids philosophical musings that occasionally dip into melodrama \(“That’s how the journey is: the direction doesn’t matter, and any course ends inevitably in the same place. Destinythe first, the last, the only stafor themselves, allowing the reader to flip back and forth between the glossary and the text, fitting the individual stories with the acronyms and history in the back. One of his most interesting observations is that “the war made Angolans, even the uneducated, into people with an elevated perspective of life. With a big imagination.” He meets a man who finds his own way to mark time in a place where no calendars exist, poetS in Luanda who write on bullet-stroked who drive a car literally into the ground and send him to a mine-filled area to barter for a part. He recounts the story of a mechanic who escaped deep poverty in Portugal for a better life in Angola, where he saw a bathtub for the first time. Through Mendes we meet Domingo, a former child soldier with “eyes aged by panic….Between birth and war, Domingo has no biography: it was merely the brief time it took for him to grow big enough to hold a machine gun in his hands, hatred on his lips, and fear in his legs.” Everything is in exile in this book: bodies, memory, language, and even time and what we do with it. One haunting chapter simply lists the names of women aged 24 to 69. continued on page 29 ‘A fascinating, lively, rich work of literature.” RYSZA RD KAPLISC:i MR: 10/24/03 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23