Confessions of the Lioness by Mia Couto; trans. David Brookshaw, book review

With multiple voices and confused metaphors, this story has lost its way
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The Independent Culture

'Confessions of the Lioness' is inspired by fact. Hunters were called in response to lion attacks that coincided with the visit of environmental field officers during a program of prospecting in Mozambique. "Gradually", Mia Couto writes in his author's note, "the hunters realised that the mysteries they were having to confront were merely symptoms of social conflicts". The problem with the ensuing novel is that this realisation is not gradual. The second problem is that though this could be remedied by dramatisation, it isn't.

Archangel, the hunter, speaks like a prophet, is likened to Christ, yet feels insubstantial. Mariamar, the village girl, is so many different things it is no surprise to learn at the conclusiong she "was never born" at all. Characters are lost amidst a hoard of metaphors, discover blood gushing from them, beasts making love to them, lose the power of speech, lose fingers, legs, become emotions, lions, hens, vultures, snakes, fish, oceans, sky, stars, trees, rivers, souls, gods, the village.

Motifs of drowning, burial, exhumation, rebirth and dying proliferate. Life becomes death, the hunter hunted, the captor captive, the devourer the devoured. It is understandable in such delirium that characters wish to empty themselves and take the form of nothing at all.

Couto's prose is high-flown and – even allowing for the inadequacies of translation – awkward. Words "reverberate through [a] mysterious setting", "desperate urges" "cause" characters to do things, another's "tone adjust[s] to her status", "an anguished sigh escapes [a] breast", a woman "impress[es] upon [him] her bodily curves". Gnomic utterances such as – "silence is an egg in reverse: the shell is someone else's, but it's we who get broken"; "[s]adness isn't crying… sadness is having no one to cry for" – occur on every page.

Moreover, Couto does not engage, he states. Meaning is hammered out. And things often become ludicrous: "I want to be devoured. But I want to be devoured in the sexual sense. I want a lion to make me pregnant". We are told things too late: "I had just challenged the sacred precepts that forbade me from uttering the names of the dead", Mariamar explains. There is no discovery: "Those hunters are no longer humans. They are lions. Those men are the very animals they seek to hunt".

"Then I understand", says one character after another, the words invariably followed by something the reader understood much earlier. The effect of these multiple revelations is profoundly underwhelming.

The subject of female divinity and creation (the Other) disrupted, abused, and snuffed out by 'lions' – paranoia, jealousy and hate – though as old as women themselves, has never been more current. It is unfortunate, then, that rather than speaking to the heart, this novel reads like a bad undergraduate essay. Compare it to Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country or Waiting for the Barbarians, novels dealing with similar subject matter in an effective way. In each case the writing speaks for itself.