Who is Rainer, this middle-aged man of mixed African and European parentage living in the besieged city of Maputo, capital of war-torn Mozambique? Why does he contrive such dangerous and mysterious actions during the course of the narrative, including his own suicide? Is the Narrator possessed by him? – and are the startling journeys he makes under Rainer's influence, real psychic experiences, or visions induced by a powerful shaman?The story takes place over a fifteen-day period during Christmas 1984. The Narrator (a writer and film maker who is the author himself) has arrived in Mozambique to look for his estranged lover who is trying to get as far away from him as possible. With all hotels boarded-up, he finds himself compelled to stay with Rainer who he has never met before, and who he dislikes on sight, not just for his reactionary politics, but also for his loud and crazy manner. He intends to leave the premises as soon as possible.But the Narrator's fragile state of mind due to his broken love affair hinders his activities, and he deteriorates fast in the surreal world of the besieged and traumatised city, and of Rainer's bizarre household.
A miraculous healing of a dying soldier by Rainer sets up the central theme behind a story packed with intrigue: what is the division between real and unreal, what is the psychic mind, and how do we define natural energy. The Narrator becomes terrified by Rainer's remarkable powers and senses that he is being used for reasons that he cannot fathom. But as he falls victim to Rainer's charisma, curiosity becomes his best tactic for survival, which allows him to keep peeling away the layers of mystery that surround his host.
At first he cannot distinguish between Rainer's political intrigues and his psychic obsessions. And when Rainer confesses that he is seeking death by playing one political group against another in order to raise himself to a higher level of reincarnation on another planet, the Narrator decides his host is quite simply insane. In fact the charge of insanity will never quiet leave Rainer.
Another revelation further complicates issues: Rainer's servant, António, turns out to be his secret lover. It will be António, not Rainer, who emerges as the chief mastermind behind the suicide plot. The Narrator finds himself compelled to accept and even assist Rainer's death because António's plan is to bring Rainer to a point of consciousness similar to a state of grace whereby he will come to terms with guilt and consequently remain his lover in future lives. Theirs is a love story that has endured through space-time and will hopefully continue to do so. But if Rainer fails to accept the terms, they will be lost to each other forever.
The intrigue escalates into Rainer's desperate search for his destiny, and the Narrator's personal hunt for a deeper wisdom that will lead him out of his own chaos and suffering. Rainer's grasp of the laws of nature is brilliant and illuminating; they succeed in providing the Narrator with an entirely different philosophy of life, which regenerates him as a human being. But what Rainer didn't intend was to expose himself as a Sisyphus of the cosmos with feet of clay - a fact that finally makes him endearing to the Narrator (and the reader)… even lovable.
Big themes enveloping a racy story full of twists and turns and vivid 'larger than life' characters. "Night of the Fireflies" is infused with hope, for Rainer's cosmology maintains that the most complex organism known – the celebral cortex – was created in order to drag life up the evolutionary ladder to a stable level where polarity is no longer the source of human suffering, nor the principle motor within the laws of natural energy. Following the great tradition of African culture in which real and unreal are merely two sides of the same coin, the so-called supernatural world, in which psychic energy is a powerful tool for discovery, converges with the scientific tradition of the western world to attain the ultimate prize: 'A Theory of Everything'.
After the death of the man he grew to love, and armed with a new consciousness, the Narrator lets go of the lover he came to find, leaves Mozambique and writes the book "Night of the Fireflies" – exactly as Rainer had planned.
Review of Night of the Fireflies by Michael Raeburn (David Philip)
MAIL & GUARDIAN - November 10th, 2006
"This book must surely rate as one of the stranger phenomena of postcolonial Africa. The author is the well known film maker who was expelled from Zimbabwe by Ian Smith after he made the film Rhodesia Countdown. His most recent film, Zimbabwe Countdown, shown at the 2006 London Film Festival, examines the rule of Robert Mugabe, the hero of his youth. He is currently working on the film version of Marlene van Niekerk's Triomf. So he is no lightweight on the African continent.
Night of the Fireflies is set in Maputo in the 1980s when Frelimo and Renamo were still battling it out. The narrator-protagonist is Raeburn himself, journalist and film maker who has come to Maputo to find his runaway lover, Kudzi, and persuade her to come back to him. The writing is elegant and engaging and sustains the whole bulging edifice of a story constructed around fourteen sweltering days at Christmas. Michael finds himself an unwilling guest in the house of the volatile Rainer, who plays politics while exploring higher consciouness and his cosmic destiny. As this book is called a novel one assumes some of it is fiction; its up to the reader to decide where to draw the line. Raeburn himself calls Rainer a card carrying crazy but seems to take him entirely seriously.
As the friendship between the two men deepens, Rainer expounds his attempts to understand the universe, the dualism inherent in human existence and, in short, his theory of everything which includes much popular science. He takes on evolutionists and Richard Dawkins, positing the slow evolution of an altruistic gene, as opposed to Dawkins's selfish gene. All this is very readably contained within the structure of the novel which also gives an interesting portrait of 1980s Maputo, ravaged by war. There are detailed endnotes and footnotes for the reader who wants to pursue the theoretical side of this.
This unusual and mainly credible novel shows life as far more than everyday humdrum reality, and far more than politics. But for this reader it is taken too far by the introduction of the planet Zeega and its Zeegan inhabitants predictably more highly evolved than earthlings.
The plot is highly dramatic and keeps one reading to the very end, the characters are rich and real, and the writing itself full of intuition and insight. The scientific-spiritual theory is imparted with persuasive poetic clarity. Many people are going to love this book which is a strange amalgam of religion, science and science fiction. Above all it is full of hope and vigour."
THE CAPE TIMES - Interview by Karin Schimke (abbreviated)
16 March 2007
Author and filmmaker Michael Raeburn is wearing a bright yellow shirt, and his hair and beard are a blaze of orange. He appears in all senses to be a conflagration of a man. The kind of person flung upon your path to either irritate or inspire you. A person who pushes you up against your ideas and forces you to look at them. A challenge presented as a friendly human being.
The impression when you're reading his book Night of the Fireflies is that the narrator - not coincidentally a filmmaker called Michael - is a man with pincer-like intelligence and consuming emotions. The perception is cemented on meeting the author.
Night of the fireflies is both an engrossing (if somewhat unusual, some might say weird) adventure, and a provocation. I keep telling all my cynical, reasonable-to-the-point-of-frigidity friends to read it to see which of them is equal to a summons of this particular kind. Raeburn says his friends have either hated or loved this book.
It is the story of a broken-hearted Michael who visits a devastated Maputo over Christmas in 1984 to follow his lover Kudzi and lure her back to him. With nowhere to stay, Michael ends up living with an utterly unlikable eccentric named Rainer Kruger and becomes drawn into a bizarre plot which is purposefully politically ambiguous, ethically dodgy and in every other possible way extraordinary.
First question: is this story true?
"Short answer? Everything is true. Everything that is recorded in this book happened to me. But it didn't happen in that particular way, over such a short period, and Rainer Kruger did not really exist. He's a composite," says Raeburn. " I was looking for a context to pour my various experiences into. And Night of the Fireflies is that context. I wanted to create a verisimilitude of time and place and I chose to be the narrator because I wanted to seduce the sceptical reader in the hope of opening up perceptions. It's a book of faction, really, is how I would describe it."
At base, it seems, Raeburn's point is that what is apparent to us in the world - the "real", tangible stuff - is not all there is to things, and to believe that that is all there is, is to deny oneself of a richness that is freely available.
At the same time, he is not pushing his own take on divinity. He is merely saying: look harder, look beyond, look up, look inside.
"In the West, life is understood in a rational, realistic, empirical way, but there is something beyond that. Science is only now beginning to tinker with energy and life forces and is seeing that empirical evidence is no longer sacrosanct. When science says it has discovered the smallest element, some years down the line, something even smaller is discovered. Science is important to me: it's another language for putting across ideas."
He appears coolly rational, but then veers into dangerous territory when he lets slip the words "intelligent design".
"Oh, I'm not talking about intelligent design the way the creationist speak about it. It's just another concept that is loaded like 'paranormal', 'psychic' and 'God'."
His point, really, is that "there is some kind of remarkable brilliance about everything, something awe-inspiring about life" and that if you take that away, life seems to have very little purpose.
"Synchronicity is one of those things that makes me think there must be some sort of design. I began to think, some time ago, that there don't seem to be a lot of things that happen by chance. If you're in tune with yourself, then you're drawn to things that are important to you. Just like Michael the narrator, whose inner life is in complete chaos, finds himself in a psychotic, nightmare city in the middle of a war."
"On a scientific level, humankind will continue to make miraculous things happen - I look at my laptop and think there are 95 books stored in there. That is astounding!' - but we're lagging behind on an ethical level."
Raeburn believes that, judging by our understanding of the nature of things through science, we should have a consciousness about the interconnectedness of life, an intuitive knowledge that 'I can't hurt you, not because my religion says so, but because I will be hurting myself.' If you believe in evolution, you must therefore logically assume that there must be some sort of reason for why we haven't reached that level of consciousness. We don't know where this is all going, but we're looking and we do have the capacity to understand it eventually."
Interview time is running out and Raeburn is growing more passionate, speaking faster.
"Another way to put it," he continues, "is that if we have this drive and obsession to make nice things - aeroplanes, works of art, a beautiful pot - and we have the ability to experience awe and to love people and to discover that we can be better people, then the logical and intuitive conclusion is we don't want to be shits, exploiting and killing each other."
But we need to wind things up, so, I ask whether Raeburn has answer to the big questions.
"God, no. To have that certitude is death. Yet people are so keen to for certitudes in order, simply to feel confident. That's why people find identity in race, religion and country. But no. I don't have the answer. I'll just keep groping away."