‘Confession of the Lioness’, by Mia Couto

In April of this year, the poet and novelist Mia Couto wrote an open letter to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. “We remember you in Maputo,” it began, “from that time you spent as a political refugee in Mozambique. Often our paths crossed on Julius Nyerere Avenue and we would greet each other with the casual friendliness of neighbours.” Recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Couto used his platform to condemn the attacks on foreign nationals that had resurfaced in Johannesburg and other cities. He implored the government to do more, and asked fellow Africans to remember a shared history of cultural mixing, migrant labour and liberation struggle — to imagine the fraternity of an “Africa South” that goes beyond national borders.

One of the most remarkable things about the letter was the fact that President Zuma (usually known for laughing off his critics) responded, and responded at length. He addressed Couto as “my dear brother”, remembered him as a courageous journalist, and acknowledged how the vulnerable Mozambiquan state had sheltered combatants fighting against apartheid. So it was surely Couto’s “struggle credentials” that partly invoked the response. Yet I also wonder if it might have been the particular mode of his address: its careful salutations, its formal language, its poetic and even ceremonious quality.

A fierce and fearless critique, but one voiced in customary and coded ways. This is one way of describing Couto’s Confession of the Lioness, first published in Portuguese in 2012 and now appearing in translation by his long-term collaborator David Brookshaw. It reads as a passionate denunciation of patriarchy and violence against women in an east African village, a village that is being menaced by predators both feline and human. But again, it does this without reaching for familiar kinds of critique (the word “patriarchy” certainly never appears). Perhaps rather cunningly, it evades the vocabularies of feminism, environmentalism or human rights — the language of NGOs that some leaders are quick to dismiss as “western” imports when it suits them to do so.

Couto is a biologist by training, and an author’s note seems to promise a fact-based chronicle of his experiences as a field officer in a remote part of northern Mozambique. When lions start to attack communities in the area, professional hunters are contracted from Maputo to mount an operation against the predators. This true story is presented as the kernel of the work, but what follows is anything but a realist novel.

In fact it is hardly a novel at all, but rather a weave of proverbs, parables, dreams, letters, notebook fragments and village gossip — in a village cursed by poverty, abusive men and a violent past. “Do you want to know how we die?” someone asks the rescue party on arrival, “No one ever comes here to find out how we live.” The after-effects of Mozambique’s brutal civil war linger in cryptic ways, troubling the boundaries between man and beast. The narrative, such as it is, is carried forward by Mariamar Mpepe — a woman imprisoned in domesticity by a drunkard father — and Archangel Bullseye, the hunter with a clunky name and troubled past called in to track the predators.

From early on, we sense that the lions — spectral presences hovering on the edge of the story — are just a manifestation of deeper disquiet in the region. They are killing only the women of the village, and the reasons for this shuttle between allegorical and literal. At times, they seem symbolic of sexual violence, preying on those who have been victims of rape and so ostracised by the community. Then again, the fact that the women of Kulumani are treated as beasts of burden, made to fetch water and firewood out in the fields, exposes them to constant danger.

“You pretend you’re worried about the lions that take our lives from us,” says Naftalinda, the wife of the village administrator, interrupting an all-male gathering: “But I, as a woman, ask you: What life is there left to take from us?”

As the book unfolds, the lionesses accrue a godlike, apocalyptic force: releasing their victims from constrained, fearful lives and condemning men to a world without women. “A desert of solitary males” in the words of Mariamar, who takes strength from Naftalinda and other dissenting lionesses in the village, becoming their prophet: “A match devoured by fire, that’s how I see the future.” It took a while for the book to train me in how it might be read. The language is unremittingly poetic, gnomic, sometimes verging on ponderous. There is no humour, and ironies only of the most painful variety. In places this produces odd, pointed phrasemaking that lodges like thorns in the cerebral cortex. Elsewhere, we get overheated subtropical sentences, and love scenes like something Gabriel García Márquez might have left on the cutting-room floor.

But by the end I found myself intrigued by the work’s bitter experimentalism, and its operatic intensity. Couto is known for his way with proverbs: in an interview he has talked of his love for their poetic concision, but also his worry that they can enshrine conservative moral codes. His solution is to rework them from within, or to invent his own and pass them off as traditional wisdom — “improverbs” as one critic puts it. “Wise is the firefly, for he uses the darkness to light up.”

Perhaps this secret modification at the genetic level is what produces the strange susurration of Couto’s prose: a radical call for change framed in a semitraditional form; a book of profound disenchantment written in language that seeks to re-enchant the world.

Hedley Twidle lectures in English at the University of Cape Town

Confession of the Lioness, by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$25, 208 pages

Illustration by Clare Mallison

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