The Sword and the Spear

From the Man Booker International finalist

Mozambique, 1895. The last days of the so-called Gaza Empire. After an attack on his quarters, defeated sergeant Germano de Melo is taken by his bright, young love Imani to the only hospital within reach―an arduous river journey. Meanwhile, war rages all around: Emperor Ngungunyane’s warriors fight the Portuguese occupiers with swords and spears, until the arrival of the machine gun ensures European domination. Germano wants to start a new life with Imani, but her father has other plans: as one of Emperor Ngungunyane’s wives, she would be close enough to this tyrant to avenge the destruction of her village. With poetic beauty, Mia Couto illustrates the futility of war and the fluid borders between cultures, societies, and families.

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Publication date

1 October, 2020




Mia Couto 

MIA COUTO, born in Beira, Mozambique, in 1955, is one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa … Read more

Book Club Questions

1. In her recurring dream, Imani gives birth to weapons. What could this symbolize? How does it connect to the title of the novel?
2. Nsambe’s decision to give Imani to Ngungunyane is described as follows: “When he tired of being deceitful, all he could muster was the primitive art of revenge.” How does the motif of revenge recur throughout the novel? Who takes revenge on whom? What kind of force is “revenge”?
3. How do both Imani and Gemano relate to their memories of their mothers? What do they gain from their connections to their mothers?
4. What role does language play in identity? How about clothing? What specific instances in the novel – whether with respect to the local ethnic groups or the colonizing ones – support your answer?
5. What sort of role does the Swiss dokotela play in society? What are your thoughts on “missionaries” in general, whether real or fictional?
6. Which characters have a “mixed” or “murky” identity? How do they feel about this? Which characters are clear about who they are? Think of Imani, Rodolfo, Elizabete, Germano, and de Ornelas.
7. In chapter 5, Bibliana leads a mass that combines elements of the Christian faith with the rituals of the local peoples. In what other ways do the practices and beliefs of the European and African cultures collide and blend with each other in this landscape of nineteenth-century Mozambique, as depicted by Mia Couto?
8. What kinds of agency do women have in the worn-torn world of The Sword and the Spear? How do these types of agency relate to race?
9. Do you believe a historical fiction novel to be a good source from which to learn about a particular history? Why or why not?
10. How does Mia Couto’s The Sword and the Spear compare to other novels you may have read about colonial Africa? Are there common motifs? How do they differ?

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Praise for Mia Couto

“Couto’s protagonists remain consistently fascinating”
Publishers Weekly

“A nuanced study of the power plays and violence sparked by colonialism”

“Mia Couto’s stories of civilisation and barbarity are told through a language that is precise and profound; he weaves together the living tradition of legend, poetry and song.”

“On almost every page … we sense Couto’s delight in those places where language slips officialdom’s asphyxiating grasp.”
The New York Times

“Even in translation, his prose is suffused with striking images.”

The Washington Post


“Couto’s narrative tone, at once deadpan and beguiling, and his virtuoso management of time place him alongside the best Latin American magic realists.”
Times Literary Supplement

“Quite unlike anything else I have read from Africa.”

“Mia Couto, long regarded as one of the leading writers in Mozambique, has now been recognized as one of the greatest living writers in the Portuguese language―He cracks open a welcoming window onto a vast world of literary pleasures that has for too long remained under the radar in the English-speaking world.”
PHILIP GRAHAM, author of The Millions