The metaphor introduced in the opening paragraph of Mia Couto’s most recent novel speaks of a major concern of the work itself: incompletion, life (and that of the world) as unfinished business, part of constant change. Couto—who is from Mozambique—has often written of that process, though in Confession of the Lioness, perhaps more boldly, even urgently. Men (and women) have a tendency to muck things up. The earth, left alone, does not. Like the earth, “the sky is as yet unfinished. It’s the women who for millennia have been weaving its infinite veil. When their bellies grow round, a piece of sky is added. Conversely, when they lose a child, this piece of firmament withers away.” Only flux is certain.
In an Author’s Note before the text of his novel, Couto includes a deceptive statement about the story he is about to relate. In 2008, the company he worked for sent “fifteen young people to serve as environmental field officers during a program of seismic prospecting in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique. During the same period and in the same regions, lions began to attack people. Within a few weeks, there were more than ten fatal attacks. This number increased to twenty in about four months.” The lions that had eaten people “needed to be eliminated.” Professional hunters were brought in to add the local ones, but the number of fatalities had shot up to twenty-six. No surprise that the people in the area believed that invisible spirits were the real culprits. That story, in Couto’s hands, becomes mythic, archetypal, totemistic and, above all, hauntingly imaginative.
In Couto’s story, one famous hunter is brought to the village of Kulumani. His name is Archangel Bullseye, called Archie, the son of another famous hunter and one of the two narrators of the story. His family’s past is as troubled as the people whose lives he will try to protect. Archie’s brother, Roland, shot their father and is now institutionalized. Archie loves his brother’s wife and is loved in return by Mariamar, the other narrator of the story, whose sister was devoured by one of the lions. Sixteen years ago, when Archie and Mariamar first met, a brief relationship developed between the two of them and Mariamar has waited for him to return to Kulumani ever since. Thus, Archie is troubled by his feelings for his brother’s wife, even though he knows that his brother killed their father. And Mariamar is troubled by the event that has returned Archie to her village: her sister’s death by a lion.
This is the state of affairs at the beginning of the story that will radically shift as both narrators alternate in their accounts of contemporary events to kill the lion or lions responsible for all the recent attacks. Mariamar’s life has been so dominated by her parents’ restrictions that she refers to the village as “a living cemetery,” where those who are in their graves are better off than the living. Later, she will elaborate and—hinting at darker powers—refer to the village as an illness. When Archie arrives to kill the lions, she is prohibited from seeing him. Archie knows that it will not be bullets that will kill the lion(s). A third perspective is provided by a journalist who has come to Kulumani to write an account of what is happening. His insight is the most profound: “You’re scared of being hunted by the animal that dwells inside you.”
Hunter and the hunted—not just the main characters but the villagers also—become fused together as the story progresses and most of the information about these characters and their past actions becomes reversed as we discover that what we once thought was true is not. Archie watches a group of men preparing to fight the lions by stripping naked and bathing with a concoction of the “barks of trees.” They shout, jump, and growl, and Archie realizes, “These hunters are no longer humans. They are lions. Those men are the very animals they seek to hunt. What’s happening in the square merely confirms this: Hunting is witchcraft, the last piece of witchcraft to be permitted by law.” And the killer lions? They’re aspects of our darker lives, what we repress in order to create civilization.
Mia Couto is a master storyteller. I’ve admired his earlier novels and hope that Confessions of the Lioness (in a vivid translation by David Brookshaw) and this edition by a major publisher will provide him with the increased visibility and readership he has long deserved.